2022
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Monitor Daily Podcast

May 27, 2022
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TODAY’S INTRO

What can we do?

In the days after 9/11, we published a story that Monitor readers still talk about to this day. The headline was “Why do they hate us?” and the article asked the question that a confused nation most needed. It interrupted the spiral of despair and instead reset readers on a new footing: Why did this happen, and how do we begin to address it?

This same thought was present in our planning meetings at the Monitor this week. The news of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, was numbing. The national conversations about guns, mental health, and school safety repeat with no discernible change. The miasma seems thick enough to deaden the soul and dash any sense of hope. Uvalde’s question is: What can we do?

Today’s Daily is the Monitor’s answer. It is based on one conviction: This is unacceptable. 

The Monitor’s job is not to prescribe solutions. It is to show they are possible. How the United States finds progress is for Americans to decide. For years, the Monitor has looked around every corner and under every stone for different options. Today, we explore several more coming to the surface. But continuing to live with the slaughter of children in schools is not an option. We can do better than the status quo, and defending our freedoms is not at odds with protecting lives. Uvalde, Parkland, and Sandy Hook are the screaming signs of something that is broken and needs to be fixed. 

Too often, values and freedoms are pitted against one another as a zero-sum either/or. Someone wins, someone loses. The Monitor rejects that thinking. Solutions are often imperfect, but they can light a way forward and reveal the unity that makes us stronger, not weaker. And finding a way to keep schoolchildren safe does not seem too unreasonable a demand.

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A deeper look

Columbine. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Uvalde. What do we do now?

Can America break free of its cycle of anger, despair, and inaction on mass shootings?

Mark
David Zalubowski/AP/File
Will Beck (right), a sophomore at Columbine High School who escaped during the shooting attack nearly 20 years ago, joins his family during a vigil at the memorial April 19, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado.

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Columbine. Parkland. Pulse. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Las Vegas.

Now Buffalo and Uvalde. Two more tragic mass shootings, added to the heartbreaking list of the worst such incidents in American history.

Does nothing change? That is what it can seem like. Politicians react with thoughts and prayers, and there’s a spurt of citizen energy and media attention, but that fades, and big things intended to lower the nation’s shocking level of deaths caused by firearms don’t happen.

It may be true that Washington has taken little concerted action on gun violence in recent years. It’s a difficult, complex issue – and national politics is polarized and too often gridlocked.

But some states and cities have taken significant steps to respond to gun tragedies, says Daniel W. Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Grassroots organizing against gun violence is growing.

And it is important to push back against the fatalist attitude that terrible shootings will continue, says Professor Webster. Accepting them as inevitable becomes a self-fulling prophecy. There are things that work to curb such violence. They can be implemented, realistically.

Brandon Amor, who grew up in Uvalde, Texas, puts it this way: “It starts with our neighbors. Love your neighbor like you would love yourself,” he adds. “Maybe that’s where we need to start.”

Columbine. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Uvalde. What do we do now?

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Columbine. Parkland. Pulse. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Las Vegas.

Now Buffalo and Uvalde. Two more tragic mass shootings, added to the heartbreaking list of the worst such incidents in American history.

Does nothing change? That is what it can seem like. Politicians make familiar utterances about thoughts and prayers, and there’s a spurt of citizen energy and media attention, but that fades, and big things intended to lower the nation’s shocking level of deaths caused by firearms don’t happen.

It may be true that Washington has taken little concerted action on gun violence in recent years. It’s a difficult, complex issue – and national politics is polarized and too often gridlocked.

But some states and cities have taken significant steps to respond to gun tragedies, says Daniel W. Webster, co-director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Grassroots organizing against gun violence is growing.

And it is important to push back against the fatalist attitude that terrible shootings will continue, says Professor Webster. Accepting them as inevitable becomes a self-fulling prophecy. There are things that work to curb such violence. They can be implemented, realistically.

Two tragedies in a month could be a tipping point.

“Frustration and momentum for change does multiply,” says Professor Webster.

“It starts with our neighbors”

It’s been 48 hours since a gunman ran into Robb Elementary School here and murdered 21 people, including 19 fourth graders. In that time, Brandon Amor has driven from San Antonio to Uvalde and back, a three-hour round trip between the town where he spent much of his life and the city he now lives in.

Mr. Amor is in his early 20s. He was born around the time a massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado ushered in a new era of fear and social paralysis around mass shootings, particularly at schools. The country has wrestled with the crisis ever since, with little meaningful, visible progress. Now it has come to Mr. Amor’s hometown, and 24 hours after the shooting he’s audibly fighting the same numbness and despair.

“I hate that feeling. I know a lot of people hate that feeling,” he said on Wednesday. “You feel like you can’t do much.”

Ed Andrieski/AP/File
A sign at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 19, 2004. Students who were planning to attack schools showed the same types of troubled histories as those who carried them out – they were badly bullied and often suffered from depression with stress at home, and their behavior worried others, according to a U.S. Secret Service study released March 30, 2021.

He drove to Uvalde Tuesday night after he heard about the shooting, to go to a Mass and, generally, to support his hometown. Watching the town crawling with law enforcement and journalists, seeing TV trucks lining the streets and helicopters flying overhead, he barely recognized it. He isn’t sure Uvalde will ever be the same again, and he doesn’t know what can be done to spare other communities the pain and chaos brought on his town this week.

“It starts with our neighbors. Love your neighbor like you would love yourself,” he adds. “Maybe that’s where we need to start.”

Can Congress break through?

The problem of guns and gun violence is difficult because it touches on many of the most intractable divides in American society: red versus blue states, urban areas versus rural ones, hunters versus non-shooters, and economic and racial schisms.

In the wake of Buffalo and Uvalde, Congress is struggling to reach agreement on some sort of response that could draw 60 votes in the Senate and pass. That might be a national “red flag” law empowering law enforcement to seize guns from individuals who appear to be a danger to themselves or others.

But even a minimal gun bill may not pass muster. In general, Republicans oppose gun control bills, saying that proposed changes would not prevent the worst incidents from happening, and that gun ownership is a foundational right of Americans, enshrined in the Constitution.

Pressed on possible gun restrictions by reporters this week, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas echoed the traditional GOP view this way: “That doesn’t work. It’s not effective. It doesn’t fight crime.”

However, Texas’ senior senator, John Cornyn, has taken a quieter, more hands-on approach – negotiating with Democratic senators this week to craft potential solutions. He did this at the behest of GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, who told reporters, “I am hopeful that we could come up with a bipartisan solution.”

Public polls generally show strong support for specific gun control measures. A recent New York Times/Morning Consult survey found 86% support for universal background checks, 85% support for banning gun sales to stalkers, and 76% approval of mandatory safe storage for guns in homes, among other proposed national laws.

There are many reasons why such figures do not translate into legislative changes, however. An energized organized minority, such as gun owners led by the National Rifle Association, can often block action by a less-interested, unorganized majority. Many red state politicians know that a majority of their voters, particularly in primaries, are committed gun owners. And few citizens base their votes in elections on single issues. 

“Where do we start first?”

The next day, normal life has resumed for Mr. Amor. He’s back in San Antonio, back at work. But he’s been talking with his supervisor about the shooting. They’ve talked about red flag laws, about writing lawmakers and channeling grief and anger into political action. He returns to what he was thinking about the day before, and he wonders if there’s something deeper at play.

“Love your neighbor like you love yourself – but nobody knows their neighbors anymore,” he says. “Everybody’s just stuck in [their] own world, and nothing else really matters.”

People have tunnel vision, he adds. “It’s all fast-paced, and then it’s either fast-paced in the right direction or it’s fast-paced in the wrong direction.”

Sitting outside at a Starbucks near his work, he cycles through possible solutions. Hardened schools, red flag laws, raising the age to buy a long gun. But then he cycles through all the arguments against those solutions. Under the fierce Texas sun, he debates himself over and over, until he throws his hands in the air and flashes a rueful smile.

“It’s easy to [say], ‘It’s out of our hands,’” he says. “But how do we – ah. I guess, where do we start first?”

What about taking a step back? We always see the same pattern: an initial wave of grief and anger, and then life moves on, because it has to. Do we need to not move on somehow? How do we do that?

“You bottle up the anger, and you shake it up and you use it as a motive,” he says. “Shove it in front of their face every single time we have to vote. Make sure they know that we do not want this to happen again, it cannot happen again.”

“As long as we try to entertain the reasons why we couldn’t, we’re never going to see the reasons why we can, and really take on the responsibility to do those things,” he adds.

“Accept small victories”

Reducing gun violence today might seem daunting, perhaps even impossible. But America has handled complex social problems before. Take auto safety in general. Over the past 100 years, the fatality rate per 100 million miles driven has been reduced by 90% due to better roads, traffic engineering, and car devices from seat belts to air bags.

Cutting gun violence will similarly require a systematic approach. Professor Webster compares it to cutting the teen drunken driving rate. Under pressure from the citizen activist group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, states raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21. Driver education stressed the dangers of inebriation. Driving tipsy became not humorous, but dangerous.

In 2020, Professor Webster published a study analyzing data on specific firearms policies dating back to the 1980s. His takeaway from this was that two things in particular had a strong effect: requiring licenses for firearm purchase, and banning sales of large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Licensing gun owners, akin to licensing drivers, had a powerful effect on all forms of gun violence, including homicides and suicides. Limiting magazines would target mass shootings in particular, which are a limited percentage of gun violence, but have been on the rise.

Following recent school shootings – such as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 and the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 – a number of states acted to expand the background checks required for gun ownership, Professor Webster points out. Nineteen states, including red states Florida and Indiana, now have gun violence restraining “red flag” laws. Child access protection laws, which mandate safe storage of guns in locked safes in homes with children, could also be effective, and possibly passable in the current political environment.

Perhaps most important, following past tragedies a grassroots energy around anti-gun violence activism has arisen in the U.S. “Moms Demand Action” now has chapters in every state, says Professor Webster. 

“Parkland started a youth movement that expanded grassroots energy,” he says.

Another expert says that citizens organizing against gun violence might take lessons from another recent social effort – the push to ban or limit abortions in the U.S.

David Meyer, a sociologist from the University of California, Irvine who has written about the gun regulation movement, says the anti-abortion movement demonstrated a number of points that the anti-gun violence advocates should keep in mind. It accepted that social change could take a long time. It showed persistence matters. It learned that public opinion helps, but is not definitive. It was unafraid of partisan politics. It did not ignore the courts.

And it showed that progress can be incremental.

“You have to be willing to accept small victories. ... Don’t be dispirited by getting so much less than you need,” says Professor Meyer.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Erika Alonzo stands outside her family's house. She rushed back from Austin, Texas, earlier this week after a mass shooting at an elementary school in the town.

“Get people talking”

Erika Alonzo moved from Uvalde to Austin, Texas, seven years ago. She rushed back this week after the shooting. Her parents settled here after they emigrated from Mexico, and her sisters are teachers in the town. Like everyone else, they have spent the past few days in a state of numb disbelief.

On Thursday, there is a pleasant distraction. Ms. Alonzo’s nephews are graduating from high school in Laredo, a city two hours away, and the family is hurrying to get on the road.

Leaning against a fence in the front yard, she contemplates the scale of America’s mass shooting crisis.

“If we have the right resources, it can be solved,” she says.

Eighteen-year-olds shouldn’t be able to buy those kinds of guns, for example, she says. But “it also starts with the school district, and I just don’t think they were prepared for it” in Uvalde, she adds.

“We have very little resources, and they never thought it was going to happen here,” she continues. “I think that there’s a lot of small towns that don’t think that it’s going to happen.”

The car is filling up, and it’s almost time to hit the road. Will this be a wake-up call then, for Uvalde at least?

Ms. Alonzo doesn’t think so. “It will be in the news for a little bit, until the next big story,” she says.

But Uvalde has been chaotic this week, and she believes it’s important that the town remains chaotic. It quickly became clear that the initial timeline law enforcement gave of the shooting didn’t add up. On Friday, the head of Texas’ Department of Public Safety admitted that up to 19 police officers waited more than 78 minutes to break into the classroom, while inside students dialed 911 repeatedly for help.

“It was the wrong decision. Period,” Col. Steven McCraw said at a press conference.

Uvalde, Ms. Alonzo says, needs to remain the big story.

“Keep the children’s names in the news. Really make sure that nothing gets covered up, that everyone knows exactly what happened,” says Ms. Alonzo.

“Continue to talk about it so that things do change,” she adds. “Get people angry, get people mad, get people upset, get people talking and wanting to make a change.”

If Uvalde inspires gun control, ‘red flag’ laws are most likely

“Red flag” laws allow temporary removal of firearms from someone deemed legally dangerous. They are a rare area of agreement on a solution for gun violence. Emerging evidence suggest they do reduce violence when used.

Mark

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As the news of the mass shooting in a Uvalde elementary school reached him, Texas state Sen. Nathan Johnson was emotionally overwhelmed by two colossal what-ifs: Two “red flag” laws the Democratic senator had supported in the Texas legislature last year and in 2019.

Also known as extreme risk protection orders, these were gun control measures similar to those in 19 states and the District of Columbia that allow police to temporarily remove firearms from someone a judge deems highly dangerous. Both of Sen. Johnson’s bills failed. 

As a legislator and dad, he says, “It really hit me. ... We can’t even have a red flag law?”

But experts suggest that if Uvalde has any effect on the gun control political stalemate, it is likely to be momentum for passage of new red flag laws. Emerging data and growing receptiveness across the political spectrum show these laws are a potential lifeline for a nation struggling to rein in mass violence.

“I’m never one to claim that passing a single law, gun safety law or otherwise, is necessarily going to avert the next tragedy,” he says. “But the failure to try struck me as just sickeningly ironic.”

And so, the senator says he’ll start talking to Republican colleagues yet again.

If Uvalde inspires gun control, ‘red flag’ laws are most likely

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Mark Wallheise/AP/File
Florida Gov. Rick Scott signs a gun control act at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, March 9, 2018. The act – passed after a mass shooting at a Parkland high school – had a "red flag" provision for temporarily taking guns away from people legally deemed a danger to themselves or others.

An hour after he visited an elementary school to vote in a runoff election on Tuesday, state Sen. Nathan Johnson started getting texts about another Texas elementary school. Five hours away from his district office in Dallas, there’d been a shooting in Uvalde. 

Thinking about the school he visited – crepe paper art projects on display, kids at play in little voices – Sen. Johnson said he was overcome by the “contrast.” Peace in Dallas. Horror in Uvalde.

In an emotional phone interview with the Monitor, the Democratic senator said that as the news came, his mind went to Robb Elementary School and two colossal what-ifs: Two “red flag” laws he’d supported in the Texas legislature last year and in 2019. 

Also known as extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs), these were gun control measures similar to those that exist in 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) and allow police to temporarily remove firearms from someone a judge deems highly dangerous. Both of Sen. Johnson’s bills failed. 

SOURCE: Pew Charitable Trusts
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“It really hit me,” he says. “It hit me as a legislator. It hit me as a dad. It hit me as somebody who just voted in elementary school. It hit me as a senator who had just visited a local elementary school a month before and got cards from kindergartners. We can’t even have a red flag law?”

In the three days since 19 students and two teachers lost their lives in Uvalde, many Americans have felt a similar sense of futility. One in 5 reported in a Yahoo News/YouGov poll this week that there is nothing the country can do to stop more mass shootings. 

But pleas for reform continue, and red flag laws may be one compromise solution. Uncommon before 2014, such laws have now been passed in 19 states and the District of Columbia – including gun-friendly Indiana and Florida. Half of all Americans now live in states with a red flag law, and the legislation is overwhelmingly popular in polls. 

That doesn’t mean more will pass. Still, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has hinted in the past he might support one, as have some Republican senators in Congress, like Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

If any public safety legislation emerges from this week’s shooting, it’ll likely be an ERPO.

We “don’t have to wait until the trigger is pulled to intervene,” says Joseph Blocher, a professor of gun rights and regulation at Duke Law.

Morgan Lee/AP/File
Student advocates of gun safety regulations held a silent "lie-in" protest in the New Mexico state Capitol in Santa Fe in February 2019. New Mexico legislators were poised to vote on a "red flag" law that would make it easier to take guns away from people who may be suicidal or bent on violence.

Red-flagging behavior, not identity 

The argument for an ERPO is that not all people who are armed and dangerous have a criminal record that would prevent them from purchasing a weapon – nor will they even come in contact with police, says Richard Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.

Red flag laws are like a protective order for guns. Family members, police, or other close contacts can argue in court that someone they know may harm themselves or others, and that law enforcement should remove that person’s weapons. If the judge issues an order, police may take the firearms for a short period – usually less than two weeks. Then, at a hearing, the person who lost their firearms can argue to get them back. The burden of proof, says Professor Bonnie, is usually on the court to keep them, not the citizen to get them back. 

Part of what makes these laws so popular is their specificity, says Professor Blocher. “This is what I call retail-level gun control,” he says. “It’s focusing on the individual rather than the group.” 

Even more, says Professor Bonnie, on an individual level the laws focus on behavior, not identity. They maintain everyone’s right to bear arms, he says, while acknowledging that people can be temporarily unstable. That, itself, is something of a check on gun control. “You want to actually be able to prove your basis for the worries ... to protect the rights of the person from an unwarranted intervention,” says Professor Bonnie.

Because the laws are designed to prevent gun violence, it’s hard to measure their exact effectiveness. 

But Connecticut has seen a 14% reduction in its firearm suicide rate after increasing enforcement of the law, and another study estimated that for every 10 to 20 guns detained there, one life is saved. California has seen dozens of seizures from people who made terroristic threats – none of whom carried out any attack after the civil order was issued against them. Florida, which enacted its ERPO after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland in 2018, is one of only two Republican states with a red flag law. But it’s also one of the most active, averaging multiple uses a day in some years.

“Whether something would have happened or wouldn’t have happened, obviously, is an unanswerable question,” says Professor Bonnie. “But I think what you can demonstrate is that you definitely reduce the risk in these cases.”

Promising results 

To be sure, red flag laws are no panacea for mass violence.

Such laws are more effective in preventing suicides – the majority of gun deaths each year – and not mass shootings. Most often, one study in Connecticut found, they help address personal problems among older married men, sometimes veterans. Mass shooters are often much younger, and haven’t had much time to establish a criminal record.

Even in states that have them, ERPOs aren’t always invoked when needed. New York has such a law, but it didn’t stop the shooting in Buffalo earlier this May. Red flag laws require someone to act on red flags. 

And the deadly impact of gun violence on society and its most vulnerable keeps mounting. 2020 marked the first year ever when more American children died by gunfire than in car accidents. For a confluence of factors, mass shooting events are up 50% since FY 2018-19, the FBI reported this week.

“These are promising [laws], but they are very new,” says Lisa Geller, state affairs advisor at the Center for Gun Violence Solutions, at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. 

As with any new law, misconceptions abound. Professor Blocher, of Duke, says many people fear permanent confiscation of their guns or criminal penalties if they act on the laws. Neither of those strictures are part of red flag laws.

For some, like Mark Pennak, the problem isn’t misconceptions; it’s disagreement. The president of the gun-rights group Maryland Shall Issue, Mr. Pennak says ERPOs threaten Fourth and Second Amendment rights of due process and to bear arms.

“They’re going to go in and take his equipment, something he has a constitutional right to possess, because they think he might commit a crime in the future,” he says. “This has huge due process problems.”

Having an armed government employee confiscate a law-abiding citizen’s firearms is, in some ways, a gun advocate’s nightmare. But even Mr. Pennak concedes there are circumstances that should disqualify someone from gun ownership. He mentions existing laws in Maryland and elsewhere that permit a court to take weapons after an interview with a mental health professional.

“There is a whole existing separate ... procedure for doing that and we never have opposed that,” says Mr. Pennak.

It doesn’t always work 

Existing procedures didn’t work this week in Uvalde. Hence, on Tuesday, Sen. Johnson found himself frozen in moments of legislative failure. 

“I’m never one to claim that passing a single law, gun safety law or otherwise, is necessarily going to avert the next tragedy,” he says. “But the failure to try struck me as just sickeningly ironic.”

He says he’ll be talking to his Republican colleagues before the legislative session begins this year, looking for a compromise. Sometimes, he struggles to remain optimistic.

In conversations with gun-owning friends, he still finds himself convinced that some gun safety laws are better for their right to bear arms. Texas passed Constitutional Carry last year, allowing residents to carry a gun in public without a permit or background check. “Could that reassure Texans that their rights aren’t in danger?” he wonders aloud on the phone.

“The more tragedy and damage that’s inflicted by guns, the less stable is their right to keep one, because eventually people are going to get sick of this,” says Mr. Johnson.

“Or are they? I don’t know.”

SOURCE: Pew Charitable Trusts
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Sandy Hook Promise: School shootings don’t have to be inevitable

The Sandy Hook Promise Foundation counters the despair around school shootings by teaching prevention – training students and staff to improve school culture and recognize warning signs.

Mark
Palos School District 118/Sandy Hook Promise
Students at Palos South Middle School in Illinois mark Sandy Hook Promise's "Say Something Week" with a parade focused on preventing school shootings and violence.

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Since they each lost a son a decade ago at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden have been on a mission: to prevent attacks and “choose love, belief, and hope instead of anger.” That vow undergirds the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation they co-founded in 2013 to prevent tragedy through conversations and action, including school programming to decrease bullying and recognize potential threats. Such attacks, they say, are not inevitable.

“There have been so many instances of prevention,” said Ms. Hockley, CEO of Sandy Hook Promise. “If you fall into that apathy … then you’re not going to take any action.”   

Sandy Hook Promise offers programs based on research showing most school shooters were bullied and left warning signs. 

“Start With Hello” helps kids start conversations with peers and recognize social isolation. “Say Something” instructs older students about warning signs and how to report them. 

Mr. Barden remembers a “catalyst moment” in 2015 when he received news that an imminent shooting had been averted in Ohio after a student and counselor picked up on warning signs they had learned about.

“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we set out to prevent other families from going through the horror of living through a school shooting and we’ve done it,’” he said. “And that just catapulted me deeper into this.”

Sandy Hook Promise: School shootings don’t have to be inevitable

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Nicole Hockley and Mark Barden understand the terrible grief that follows a school shooting. They each lost a young son nearly a decade ago in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. 

Their mission since then has been to prevent attacks and “choose love, belief, and hope instead of anger,” as they write in the vow central to the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation they co-founded in 2013. They focus on turning tragedy into transformation through conversations and action; the foundation offers free school programming to decrease bullying and train students how to report potential threats. 

Tuesday’s attack at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which killed 19 children and two teachers, underscored for them the importance of these initiatives, which have thwarted at least nine school shootings and nearly 300 suicides, according to the organization. Its work is grounded in a firm stance that such attacks are not inevitable – nor should they be accepted as a normal part of life in America. At a moment when efforts to stop mass shootings in schools can seem futile, the successes of the Sandy Hook Promise suggest that consistent efforts can prevent attacks and bring some restoration to lives devastated by violence. 

“There have been so many instances of prevention,” said Ms. Hockley, CEO of Sandy Hook Promise, during a press conference on May 26. “If you fall into that apathy, that sense of hopelessness, then you’re not going to take any action, and yet we need everyone to be leaning into the action.”   

Mitigating school violence

The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership among developed nations, and the highest amount of gun deaths. 2021 set a record for the most school shootings since 1970, with 249 incidents, including active shooters and times when a gun was drawn but no shots were fired, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database

Sandy Hook Promise formed only a month after 20 students and six teachers lost their lives at the Connecticut school in a day tragically similar to the events of Uvalde. A 20-year-old gunman killed his mother at home and then went on a rampage at the school. The foundation offers two signature programs, “Start With Hello“ for K-12 students and “Say Something“ for grades six and up. The programs are based on school violence prevention research showing that most school shooters were bullied and left warning signs before committing atrocities. 

“The Sandy Hook programming comes from a place of compassion and empathy as they try to find ways to mitigate school violence,” says Kjersti VanSlyke-Briggs, a professor of secondary education at SUNY-Oneonta and co-editor of “A Relentless Threat: Scholars Respond to Teens on Weaponized School Violence,” which includes a chapter about Sandy Hook Promise. 

Sandy Hook Promise
Students from East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa, Arizona, circle around a sign of the Sandy Hook Promise's "Say Something" logo. The program trains students how to report worrisome behavior.

“Start With Hello” has reached 8 million students so far and helps kids start conversations with their peers and recognize signs of social isolation. 

“Say Something” instructs older students about warning signs peers may show if they’re contemplating violence, and tells them how to report this to school staff. Some schools also participate in an anonymous reporting system developed by Sandy Hook Promise where students can submit tips through an app, website, or phone line. Some 82,000 tips have been collected nationally through schools that have adopted the reporting system.

Being an “upstander”

La-Shanda West, a teacher at Cutler Bay Senior High School outside Miami, Florida, says she’s seen the impact of Sandy Hook Promise programming at her school. Students run an annual “Start With Hello” week where they pick activities like leaving kindness notes on each other’s desks and rotating tables at “mix-it-up lunches.”

School announcements also remind students to “say something” when they’re concerned, and to be an “upstander,” not a bystander. A popular student club she advises that’s affiliated with Sandy Hook Promise runs an Instagram page where they post about warning signs and communicating with trusted adults.

Both programs have helped create a welcoming school culture at Cutler Bay, and were especially helpful after students returned to school isolated after extended virtual learning due to COVID-19, says Ms. West, who teaches business.

The training may have also helped mitigate a threat. Ms. West received a message this school year from a student who shared a student’s online post about bringing a gun to school, which she quickly reported to local police. 

“These programs are critical in terms of empowering students to be upstanders and informed to act when they see a threat,” she says. 

For Mr. Barden, a co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise whose son Daniel was killed in the attack, a “catalyst moment” occurred in 2015 when he received news that an imminent school shooting had been averted in Ohio after a student and counselor picked up on warning signs they said they would have overlooked without their training.

“I still get goose bumps talking about it,” Mr. Barden said at Thursday’s press conference. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we set out to prevent other families from going through the horror of living through a school shooting and we’ve done it.’ And that just catapulted me deeper into this,” with a drive to bring the programs to more schools. 

Researchers at the University of Michigan are evaluating the effectiveness of Sandy Hook Promise programs and have found encouraging signs. Preliminary research from a study of the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System in Miami-Dade County Public Schools indicates that students who participate are more confident about reporting threatening behavior and more likely to report it, says Hsing-Fang Hsieh, assistant research scientist at the National Center for School Safety at the University of Michigan, who led the research team. 

Ted Shaffrey/AP
An American flag flies at half-staff in Newtown, Connecticut, on May 25, 2022, in honor of the 19 children and two teachers killed by a gunman in Uvalde, Texas, earlier in the week. It was the United States' deadliest school shooting since a gunman killed 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in 2012.

The research, funded by the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, also found students were slightly less likely to experience violence at school, such as witnessing bullying or seeing weapons on campus, Dr. Hsieh says. The study used a random control trial that compared sixth grade students in eight middle schools who participated in the “Say Something” program with students in 11 middle schools who did not. The research is currently under review for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. 

University of Michigan researchers are also finishing a study of Sandy Hook Promise programs in the Los Angeles Independent School District through a three-year grant from the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research. 

“We’re trying to develop rigorous designs; we’re trying to collect valid and reliable information,” says Justin Heinze, director of the National Center for School Safety and assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “The information that we do have across these studies seems to be saying that yes, by developing this positive school climate, by educating students on how to say something and speak up or find a trusted adult, it’s having a positive effect on not just attitudes and self-efficacy to do something, but perhaps the behaviors as well.”  

A work in progress

The researchers identified two potential areas for improvement: inconsistency in how schools implement the programs and understanding better how they are perceived by students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. 

Sandy Hook Promise programs are a “lovely” example of the types of inclusive programs recommended in a 2019 study of nearly two decades of research on school violence prevention, says Dr. VanSlyke-Briggs. However, Sandy Hook programs are just one piece of the puzzle, she adds.

“We need to look beyond the walls of the school,” Dr. VanSlyke-Briggs says. “This is an American phenomenon and people within our country have to solve this problem. We can’t leave it just on the role of teachers and administrators to fix.” 

The Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund, a sister arm of the foundation, advocates for legislation supporting mental health and stronger gun violence prevention laws, like red flag orders.

Christine Miller, a social skills counselor at Broadview Middle School in Danbury, Connecticut, was initially reluctant when she heard Sandy Hook Promise programming was coming to her school several years ago, hesitant to dredge up grim memories. She lives in Newtown, and her son was at Sandy Hook Elementary School on the day of the shooting. 

Then she started hearing from students. “The first year I had a student make a speech saying, I’ve been scared and this is the first time I feel like I can be part of the solution,’” says Ms. Miller, who began seeing how the programs empowered youth to develop kindness and safety. 

“I’m so grateful,” Ms. Miller says, “because personally I feel like it’s something that moved me forward. It’s been good for me, for the school, for everyone.”

Graphic

By the numbers: Guns and mass shootings on the rise in US

Given the entrenched positions in the gun rights debate, it can be hard to find common ground. But data – facts and figures – may offer a starting place.

Mark
Alfredo Sosa/Staff/File
Boxes containing firearm evidence are stacked for processing at the Houston Forensic Science Center on Feb. 24, 2021, in Houston.

More than 20 million.

That’s the estimated number of AR-15 or similar firearms present in households in the United States. This type of rifle, used by the perpetrator of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, is a semi-automatic weapon that can fire multiple rounds, one with each pull of the trigger.

The presence of these rifles has surged, up from about 400,000 in 1994, according to data tracked by the government and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

As the nation weighs how to reduce the risks posed by guns, facts like these (and those shown in our charts with this article) can provide vital context. 

The facts about guns in America are complex. The rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people isn’t at a record level, yet the number of “active shooter” incidents has been rising in recent years. The percentage of homes with a gun inside, at 42% late last year, is down from about half of households in prior Gallup-survey highs (1993 and 1968). Yet the estimated total number of guns in civilian hands has been rising – to well over one for every person in the country.

With the tragedy in Uvalde in national focus, another stark indicator on young people’s safety is this: More U.S. children died from guns than from car accidents in 2020 and 2021, making firearms the nation’s leading cause of child deaths. – Mark Trumbull / Staff writer

SOURCE: Small Arms Survey, Giffords Law Center, Mother Jones Mass Shootings Database, Gallup
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Q&A

Who’s responsible for preventing school shootings? ‘We’re all on duty.’

Expert Peter Langman is convinced that preventing school shootings is possible – and that we all have a part to play. 

Mark
Jake May/The Flint Journal/AP/File
People gather seeking healing and comfort during a candlelight vigil on Dec. 3, 2021, in downtown Oxford, Michigan, where, earlier in the week, a sophomore opened fire at his high school, killing four students.

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When it comes to preventing school shootings, “we’re all on duty,” says Peter Langman – a psychologist, trainer, and author who has spent years studying these terrible yet relatively rare acts of gun violence. 

School shootings are “certainly preventable,” he says, noting that we don’t usually hear about ones that have been thwarted because they’re nonevents. But “many potential attacks are stopped,” he says.

Strategies for averting school shootings tend to fall into two categories. Lockdown procedures and active-shooter trainings are “reactive,” Dr. Langman says. And while important, they’re not his focus. 

“Prevention is done through being proactive,” he says, “which means having a threat assessment team in each school so that when students or parents or anyone in the community reports safety concerns, you have people on-site who can investigate those concerns and determine if it’s a false alarm, a joke, a hoax, or if it’s a legitimate threat of violence.”

The point of these teams is not to punish, he says. “If a student is in crisis, they want to connect that student to whatever resources are necessary to get them out of crisis.”

Who’s responsible for preventing school shootings? ‘We’re all on duty.’

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School shootings are preventable, experts say.

That sentence may sting in the wake of the May 24 massacre in Uvalde, Texas. Yet that’s the message shared by Peter Langman, a psychologist, trainer, and author who has spent years studying the perpetrators of these tragedies and how to prevent them.

“We’re all on duty,” says Dr. Langman, who serves as a researcher for the National Threat Assessment Center of the Secret Service.

Dr. Langman began his study of school shooters unexpectedly in 1999, when, shortly after the Columbine massacre, he was asked to evaluate teenagers for their potential as school shooting threats. The Pennsylvania-based psychologist spoke to the Monitor about pathways to prevention. The exchange has been lightly edited and condensed. 

Do you consider mass school shootings as inevitable or preventable?

They’re certainly preventable, and many potential attacks have been thwarted. We tend not to hear about them, because it’s a nonevent. ... I think it’s worth knowing that many people see warning signs, report them, and [school shootings or other attacks] are prevented. So that’s the good news, that they are preventable.

What is the single most urgent action to prevent more school shootings?

The best thing schools can do is to have a trained threat assessment team within each school. ...

In the wake of Columbine, schools all over the country implemented things like lockdown procedures, training on how to survive an active shooter, and so on. And these things are important and could save lives, but those are reactive measures. ...

Prevention is done through being proactive, which means having a threat assessment team in each school so that when students or parents or anyone in the community reports safety concerns, you have people on-site who can investigate those concerns and determine if it’s a false alarm, a joke, a hoax, or if it’s a legitimate threat of violence. ... 

For a threat assessment system to work, you have to have people reporting safety concerns. ... And one of the best ways to report that is to have an anonymous tip line. 

Can you explain a little more about how these threat assessment teams operate?

A threat assessment team is a multidisciplinary team, and the personnel will vary depending on the school and positions they have. Ideally you have an administrator, a mental health person – that could be a school psychologist, counselor, social worker, maybe a school nurse – an IT person, maybe a facilities person who’s involved with how doors lock and entry points and surveillance cameras and so on. A law enforcement person, if you have a school resource officer.

You want to have a team with an array of training and backgrounds and perspectives, because everyone brings something valuable to the table. They would get involved when someone reports a safety concern. They would look into it. It’s not that they want to punish students. They want to keep students safe. And if a student is in crisis, they want to connect that student to whatever resources are necessary to get them out of crisis.

Courtesy of Peter Langman
Peter Langman, a Pennsylvania-based psychologist, has spent years studying the perpetrators of school shootings and ways to prevent these tragedies. "The best thing schools can do is to have a trained threat assessment team within each school," he says.

According to its website, the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District lists threat assessment teams as a security measure in the district. What are common weaknesses with threat assessment plans that schools can be alert to?

Threat assessment teams in schools are there to investigate safety concerns that are brought to their attention. That typically means safety concerns relating to their own students. ... In most cases, it’s what’s called an insider threat, meaning it’s someone in the school community. Threat assessment can be very effective in responding to safety concerns within their own community.

However, sometimes the danger is what’s called an outsider threat. That means someone who’s not part of the school community. And this is what happened at Sandy Hook; this is what happened at Robb Elementary School. When the perpetrator is an outsider to the school community, there’s no way the school can have that person on their radar – unless someone were to see or hear a threat that specifically mentions that school as the intended venue of the attack.

When there’s an outsider threat, the best way to mitigate that threat is for someone who knows the perpetrator, who sees or hears any warning signs, to report what they know to the local police or to a local field office of the FBI or Secret Service so that someone can investigate and intervene.

If prevention is key, who should be looking for what, exactly?

In many cases, the warning signs are so explicit that in hindsight it’s hard to believe people didn’t report them. But because they’re so explicit, often people don’t take them seriously. For example, there have been kids who have told intended victims that they’re going to come to school and shoot them or put a bullet in their head. But especially when kids are young, in their early teens, and they say things like that, people don’t take it seriously. Even in their later teens, their friends may think they’re just shooting their mouth off, they’re talking big, they’re trying to get attention. There are all kinds of reasons that people dismiss obvious warning signs of violence. 

Do you ever worry that even the best intentions to educate about prevention may place an undue burden on school personnel or other local stakeholders, in place of more systemic or legislative change?

When it comes to prevention, there’s so many angles to be considered. ... Multiple states are now requiring that schools have threat assessment teams, so that’s a legislative step in the right direction. But the burden should not just be on schools or students. In my book, “Warning Signs,” one of the themes ... is that we’re all on duty, that we all have a part to play in maintaining safety in our communities. ...

In one case, it was an 18-year-old woman working in a pharmacy processing photos, and she saw photos of an arsenal of guns and bombs and close-ups of a person’s angry face. And she notified the police. And when the man showed up to pick up his photos, the police were there. He was arrested. They searched his apartment, and he had detailed plans and massive amounts of guns and bombs. And the attack was planned for his school campus the following morning. 

How does access to guns complicate prevention efforts? 

Again, this is a very complicated issue. My primary focus when it comes to firearm access is to point out that when you’re dealing with juvenile school shooters ... in the overwhelming majority of cases, they’re getting their guns from their own homes – from the homes of relatives. ... Typically, these are legally owned firearms that are not kept securely in the home, so I think firearm security in the home is a critical issue. I’d like to see a public education campaign just to improve firearm security.

What, if anything, gives you hope?

I think as a nation we’re moving in the right direction in terms of putting more emphasis on school safety, getting people trained. I travel around the country doing trainings for various education, law enforcement, and mental health organizations, teaching them about warning signs and prevention. There’s continual interest. There are groups dedicated to violence prevention and school safety. So there are reasons for hope. And as I said, many potential attacks are stopped. 

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Shared lessons from mass shootings

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In the jarring aftermath of a mass shooting, communities where such tragic events have already happened often provide a voice of empathy and insight. In Newtown, Connecticut, residents held an interfaith vigil for Uvalde, Texas, on Thursday. Chris Singleton, a resident of Charleston, South Carolina, was in Buffalo, New York, speaking to students after the May 14 shooting. He gained prominence by forgiving a gunman after his grandmother and eight others were killed in 2015.

“For me forgiveness was a huge part of my grieving process,” Mr. Singleton said. His next stop is Uvalde.

The killing of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde has led to renewed debates about gun control, mental health support, police response, and school safety. Yet in Uvalde the first steps are ones of binding up emotional wounds. In this tightknit community, many are wondering how they might have reached the troubled young man before he turned violent toward others. That question has often provided a pivot point.

As the residents of Uvalde find their poise, the gentle embrace of previously torn communities provides a key lesson: the idea of loving one’s enemies as a path to renewed purpose.

Shared lessons from mass shootings

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People in Newtown, Conn. attend a May 26 vigil at the Trinity Episcopal Church to stand in solidarity with the Uvalde, Texas, families.

In the jarring aftermath of a mass shooting, communities where such tragic events have already happened often provide a special voice of empathy and insight.

In Newtown, Connecticut, for example, residents held an interfaith vigil for Uvalde, Texas, on Thursday. “We want them to know that we are standing with them and we are here for them,” said Po Murray, chairperson of the Newtown Action Alliance. The two towns now share the distinction of having endured the two deadliest school shootings in American history.

This week, Chris Singleton, a resident of Charleston, South Carolina, was in Buffalo, New York, speaking at a school after the May 14 shooting of 10 people in that city. He gained national prominence by forgiving a gunman just a few days after his grandmother and eight others were killed at their church in 2015. Buffalo and Charleston now share the distinction of having endured two of the deadliest racially motivated mass murders in America in a century.

“Everybody grieves differently,” Mr. Singleton told the students. “For me forgiveness was a huge part of my grieving process.” His next stop is Uvalde.

The killing of 19 children and two teachers at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School has led to renewed debates about gun control, mental health support, quick police response, and school safety. Yet in Uvalde – as in Buffalo – the first steps are ones of binding up emotional wounds. Residents gathered Wednesday at a rodeo ring for an interfaith service. High school students held a car wash to raise money for grieving families. In this tightknit community, many are wondering how they might have reached the troubled young man before he turned violent toward others.

That question has often provided a pivot point in other communities. A 2019 Secret Service report found that most shooters in school attacks had been bullied. For Scarlett Lewis, whose 6-year-old son was slain at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, understanding the assailant’s troubled past – and what might have been offered him – showed her a way forward.  

“I have tremendous compassion for him,” she said of her son’s killer in an interview with The Guardian. “Anyone who could do something so heinous must be in a tremendous amount of pain. He was neglected by the education system, his father had left, he had needs that were known that were not addressed, he was bullied in school. ... I understand his rage.”

Some grieving parents start foundations in their children’s names to help salve their loss and prevent future tragedies. Ms. Lewis created a social and emotional learning model that has been adopted by more than 10,000 schools in 120 countries. It is based on four qualities of thought – courage, gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion – that are common to restorative justice projects.

Forgiveness, according to a study of post-conflict truth commissions around the world by The Forgiveness Project, is more than a personal response. It is a building block for distressed communities: “Forgiveness may require relinquishing something that was important to you, such as giving up your moral indignation, your desire for retaliation, or your attachment to being right. Yet forgiveness is useful to community building, because people who forgive tend to be more flexible and less certain in their expectations, both in how life will be or how others will treat them. Forgiving people have chosen not to perpetuate a historical grievance; they are somehow able to turn the page, loosen themselves from the grip of the past, and reframe their own story.”

As the residents of Uvalde and Buffalo find their poise, the gentle embrace of previously torn communities provides a key lesson: the idea of loving one’s enemies as a path to renewed purpose. Or as Ms. Lewis said, “There is always something that we can do to help ease another’s pain. In other words, we can prevent school violence.”

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

‘Life is not lost’

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Qualities such as selflessness, honor, and courageous love for others can never truly be destroyed, because we can never be separated from God, the divine Life that eternally upholds in everyone all that is good.

‘Life is not lost’

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38, 39

... life is not lost; its influence remains in the minds of men, and divine Love holds its substance safe in the certainty of immortality.
Mary Baker Eddy, “The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany,” p. 295

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Support for Uvalde

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
The archbishop of San Antonio, Gustavo Garcia-Siller, comforts families outside the Civic Center in Uvalde, Texas, May 24, 2022, the day of the school shooting there. View the gallery to see how people across the country are responding to the tragedy.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Keep a look out for our special send on Monday, which is Memorial Day in the United States. Your regular issue of The Christian Science Monitor Daily resumes Tuesday.

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