Pathways to prevention: Measures to curb gun violence

Published 12:05 pm Saturday, April 28, 2018

by Claire Comey and Sarah Danial
Capital News Service

Lori Haas’ daughter is pregnant with her second child. That might sound like an exciting but somewhat mundane life event for most adults, but for Haas, it means more. Eleven years ago, her daughter, Emily, sat in a French class at Virginia Tech when a gunman entered the room and killed 12 of her classmates and 16 other students.

So when Haas tells people Emily is pregnant, she is excited, but she always thinks of the parents who will never get to be grandparents because of gun violence.

“It’s visceral pain for those families, and they don’t get over it,” she said. “There’s no closure.”

After a mass shooting such as the Tech massacre, community leaders consider policy solutions and ask the “what if” questions about security problems and mental health awareness. But what can actually be changed to help prevent another mass shooting? Haas is pushing for answers.

In the wake of the April 16, 2007, shooting, Haas became friends with some of the victims’ parents. They still grieve.

“They cry every Christmas, they cry every birthday, they cry every anniversary, they cry every Mother’s Day,” Haas said.

That’s why Haas spends every day working for gun control legislation as the Virginia state director for the National Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

“Sometimes I just don’t understand how our lawmakers can put the ease of access to a firearm above somebody’s life, and that’s what they’re doing,” Haas said.

Haas advocates for national “extreme risk laws,” which allow families or law enforcement authorities to ask a court to remove someone’s access to guns if the person “poses an imminent danger” to themselves or others.

Haas is also a proponent of universal background checks on all firearm purchases.

“You can prohibit someone from purchasing or owning a gun, but if they can just go online or go to a gun show or go to the street corner and buy one, the prohibition doesn’t do you any good,” she said.

Regulation works in America, Haas said, so it would be common sense to regulate firearms more.

“The notion that we can’t regulate access to firearms is harming our friends, our families, our neighbors, our communities,” Haas said. “It’s deadly and there are deadly consequences, and I find it morally objectionable that people place more value on convenience than on someone’s life.”

Security: Be ALERRT

In the case of an attack, the most important thing is to be vigilant and aware of your surroundings, said Pete Blair, the executive director of Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training at Texas State University in San Marcos, south of Austin. Being conscious and reactive is key.

“The first thing is to have situational awareness, and if something seems wrong, to start acting as if it is wrong as quickly as possible,” Blair said.

ALERRT is becoming a national standard for first-responder training for active attacks. It began as a collaboration between the San Marcos Police Department and the Houston County Sheriff’s Office in response to the Columbine Massacre of 1999. Now the training is the standard for all agents in the FBI, and many states have adopted it for all first responders.

Mike O’Berry, assistant chief of the Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department, said that having the same training is key in collaborating with other agencies responding to an attack on campus.

“We’re going to get lots of agencies that we don’t work with every day,” O’Berry said. “We’ve all been trained the same so we can seamlessly all get together in groups and all deal with the situation based on the same training.”

ALERRT trains not only first responders but also civilians on how to prepare for any kind of attack. The program teaches a three-pronged strategy — avoid, deny and defend:

  • Avoid means to simply get as far away as possible from an attacker.
  • If that is not possible the next step is to deny them access to your location. “Close and lock the door, barricade it and keep them from getting to you,” Blair said.
  • The final step and last resort is to defend yourself by any means necessary. “You have a legal right to do that, and if the choice is to do nothing or be murdered, we encourage people to try to protect themselves,” Blair said.

The ultimate way to stay safe, according to ALERRT and the VCU Police Department, is to report any suspicious activity to authorities. O’Berry said safety is everyone’s responsibility.

“Those are the things that we need people to call in,” O’Berry said. “And it’s the only way to keep VCU safe — everybody looking and observing the environment because the police can’t do it alone.”

Mental Health Treatment

After a mass shooting, many people say the shooter’s mental health triggered the violence.

That assumption not only reflects an incorrect causal relationship but also contributes to a harmful stigma, said psychologist Peter LeViness of the University of Richmond, who served as an expert witness for the defense after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

“I think people are quick to connect mental illness to the shooters,” LeViness said. “I don’t think it’s as common a link as people want to believe.”

There are only a few disorders that “actually increase the risk of violence,” and even then, the connection is not obvious, he said.

According to a 2016 American Psychiatric Association study, mass shootings by “people with serious mental illness” account for fewer than 1 percent of all gun-related homicides.

“I don’t think it’s causal,” LeViness said. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people with the same disorder wouldn’t do that, and then when people say it was the depression, that just makes the stigma worse.”

More often, shooters have had a grievance or grudge they want to settle, or they had a childhood filled with violence, he said.

��They think, ‘I’ve been treated badly, and someone needs to pay back for that,’” LeViness said.

After a mass shooting, survivors can have lasting mental effects, said LeViness, who is also director of counseling and psychological services at Richmond and a threat assessment trainer in Virginia.

In the short term, survivors might exhibit a loss of concentration, appetite or sleep – possible signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Support from family and friends can help. At school, administrators can bring in grief counselors to help with returning to normalcy.

Even people miles from a mass shooting can be affected by the event.

Lissa Brown, a school psychologist for Henrico County, said the children she works with in Virginia are experiencing secondary trauma in the aftermath of the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“It’s just the veiled threat that something might happen to them,” Brown said. “These children are still traumatized.”

Many students and teachers told Brown that they don’t feel safe.

“We see a lot of hyperactivity, a lot of hyper-vigilance, because children are just concerned about what’s going to happen during their school day,” Brown said. “Sometimes they’re not able to focus because they’re always on guard or thinking about how they’d react.”

Brown emphasized the need for accurate threat and risk assessment in determining if a student could harm themselves or others.

“I feel that all children who are at risk for harming themselves or harming others need mental health care,” Brown said. “And if that was my child, he would need mental health care, and if he had killed my child, I would be so hurt, but that child was asking for help.”

LeViness supports what he sees as sensible gun control. Research shows that restricting access to guns can prevent suicide, he noted. But more than that, LeViness said people must be more interested in one another.

“The more we can connect with people and be socially engaged,” LeViness said. “Who is not connecting? Who is on the fringe?”