Sandy Hook 6 years later — let's fight harder against gun violence

Six years ago, on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, our country faced one of deadliest mass shootings by a single person in American history. A 20-year old shot his way through the locked glass front doors of Sandy Hook Elementary School murdering six staff and 20 wide-eyed students in their first-grade classrooms.

Our nation stood jaw-dropped and heart-broken, as frantic parents gathered to see if their children were among those killed. This deadly rampage took less than five minutes, but had pervasive, long-lasting effects for many. As a trauma psychologist and mother of three small children, I join my fellow Americans in advocating for the prevention of such carnage and accompanying pain.

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The fact that mass public shootings are becoming more common and have increased over recent years, feels surreal. We’re like Bill Murray in the movie, “Groundhog Day,” with the narrative of killings playing out across our country on an all too frequent basis — a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh, a bar in Southern California, a country music festival in Las Vegas, a high school in Parkland, Florida.

When horrors like this occur, people want answers. They want to know why this happened, were there warning signs, could anything have been done to prevent such senseless violence and can we stop it from happening again? Multiple myths circulate about mass shootings and shooters, such as these individuals suddenly snap, go mad and kill indiscriminately. These misperceptions swirl in the public’s mind and often get reinforced by the media. But, buying into and passing these myths on, not only increases our frenzy, but points us in the wrong direction. 

Understandably, people also want solutions. As our collective fears rise and our anguish deepens over public mass shootings, we question our security measures. We call for armed security guards, suggest more people carry concealed weapons and implement emergency protocols, so we know what to do in the face of an active shooter situation. Some of us try to analyze the psyche of the shooter and call for better access to mental health care. Others, including many health care professionals, advocate for universal background checks for gun purchases, the ban of assault weapons and armor-piercing bullets, increased firearm safety and federal funding for firearms research. 

Though well-intentioned, this piecemeal approach feels like a cooking experiment. We throw thinly-stringed pasta against the wall to see what sticks. Feeling powerless, we want to try something, anything, but some of these strategies are more reactive than thoughtful, coordinated responses.

As a country, we don’t want to invest in strategies that don’t work and possibly divert or even waste time or financial and human resources. While it’s true that strategies to prevent rampage shootings are not well-developed, there are proven and promising prevention programs for other types of violence. We know, from at least a couple decades of research, that it is possible to stop violence before it begins. Maybe not in every circumstance, but certainly in more.

Violence comes in many different types and situations, such as domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, community violence and mass shootings. Violence is often interconnected and shares root causes and potential solutions. Some of the common factors that increase the likelihood for violence include cultural norms that support aggression towards others, social isolation, lack of support, lack of non-violent problem-solving skills and poor impulse control.

While we continue to develop and study prevention programs for mass public shootings, why don’t we consider utilizing more of these generic violence prevention programs in our communities? For example, there are effective violence prevention programs that teach young males how to effectively manage their anger, have empathy for others, find solutions to setbacks and ways to negotiate interpersonal conflicts. Another promising approach teaches people the warning signs of violence in others and encourages them to come forward through anonymous tip lines to report potential threats.

In honor of those who were murdered in Newtown and all the other mass shootings and in support of the loved ones who have experienced such traumatic loss, let’s work together to prevent all forms of violence in our families and communities. Let’s connect and commit in shared hope and collective action to fight the critical public health concern of violence in the United States, a chronic threat to all of our well-being.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.