“This is a really good space to do some good and build a career. You can do work that feels meaningful, where there are a lot of basic questions that still need to be asked. It’s a space that needs young voices.”
Mike Anestis, PhD, Executive Director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center (GVRC)
We used to know them by heart. Columbine. Parkland. Sandy Hook. Pulse Nightclub. Paradise, Las Vegas. It’s a sign of the pervasiveness of mass shootings in America that one can no longer easily list the tragedies left streaked across the national psyche. The memories of people and places have been increasingly replaced with the data of numbers and percentages.
For the last three years, over 600 people have died annually from mass shootings in the US; approximately 49,000 die across the country every year from some form of gun violence; and the total number of victims experiencing trauma and loss related to these acts remain impossible to count.
Mass shootings leave psychological scars. They also call into question the psychological state of those who commit them. It’s natural to look to psychology, and psychologists, for answers. But the answers might differ from what we expect. Today’s gun violence researchers are charting a data-driven path to reduce the cruel statistics, taking a collaborative, compassionate, and apolitical approach to the woefully American problem of gun violence.
Read on to learn more about how psychology plays a role in preventing and postvention of mass shootings.
Dr. Mike Anestis is the executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center (GVRC) and an associate professor of urban-global public health in the School of Public Health at Rutgers University. He received his bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 2002 and his PhD in psychology from Florida State in 2011.
Dr. Anestis currently serves on advisory boards for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and the JED Foundation. In 2018, Dr. Anestis was the recipient of the Edwin Shneidman Award from the American Association of Suicidology (AAS), designating him as the scientist under age 40 and within ten years of having received their degree whose research has made the greatest impact on suicide prevention.
The largest and most pervasive misconception remains the conflation of mass shootings and mental illness. Statistically, people who suffer from mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of any kind of gun violence. Focusing on mental illness distracts from more actionable and effective responses, like preventing people who wish to commit violence from accessing a firearm. (Tellingly, the public voices who blame mental illness for mass shootings rarely advocate for greater public funding of mental healthcare.)
“One of the biggest misconceptions is the notion that there’s nothing that can be done to prevent someone from gaining access to a firearm,” Dr. Anestis says. “The percentage of adolescents who are gaining access to their parents’ firearms to use in these tragedies is exceptionally high. Had those firearms been stored out of the home, or at least stored securely, that could’ve played a role in prevention.”
Various methods exist to reduce a potentially violent person’s access to firearms without simultaneously reducing all Americans’ access to firearms. One such method is the adoption of secure storage sites, some of which might be housed at local gun retailers.
Suppose a firearm-owner feels that they, or a member of their family or household, might be in a level of elevated stress or heightened emotion. In that case, they can store their firearms at a secured storage site, outside their own residence (ideally, with no questions asked).
“The idea is, if you want to lower the odds of mass shootings, you have to lower the ready access to firearms in a moment of distress,” Dr. Anestis says. “We don’t know where that distress lives. It’s essentially randomly distributed across the population. We have to look for the signals when they pop up.”
Another misconception around mass shootings is the perceived inefficiency of Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs), sometimes still unhelpfully referred to as red flag laws. ERPOs allow a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person they believe may present a danger to others or themselves. ERPOs are relatively new: first introduced in California in 2014, they were adopted more broadly after the Parkland shootings in 2018. As of May 2023, 21 states and the District of Columbia have enacted ERPO laws. The data on ERPOs is still young, but it’s promising.
“One of the things I do like about this very imperfect form of policy—ERPOs—is that they aren’t based on a profile,” Dr. Anestis says. “They’re based on behaviors, on imminent risk shown by behaviors that you are a threat in the coming minutes, hours, or days to yourself or others. It’s based on what someone’s doing, not who someone is.”
Psychology and psychologists can play an important role in both the prevention and postvention of mass shootings. One way is through the formation and participation of threat assessment teams: convened through school forums, these teams can include law enforcement, administrators, psychologists, and other mental health professionals. Their goal is to take an evidence-based approach to identifying individuals who may pose a threat, and provide interventions before violence occurs.
But psychology’s primary role is not in predicting mass shootings or mass shooters. Profiling itself can be dangerous. While mass shooters often do share common behaviors in the lead up to their crimes—scouting the site of the shooting, making posts with references to their upcoming intentions, or even telling people outright what they plan to do—there is no single profile for mass shooters or any perpetrator of gun violence.
“Where people make mistakes is in the assumption that there is a particular profile,” Dr. Anestis says. “There’s a profile in behaviors, but not in personality, not in mental illness, and not in an individual’s personal story.”
Instead of being predictive, psychologists can pursue other preventive actions. They can help craft active shooter drills that mindfully train, rather than fearfully traumatize, students. If working in a clinical capacity, psychologists can take actions to restrict access to firearms for clients who demonstrate an imminent risk of violence. But just as important as prevention is postvention.
“There’s certainly room for psychology post-mass shooting, in terms of connecting the victims with the resources they need,” Dr. Anestis says. “And by victim, I don’t just mean the people who have been shot. I don’t even mean the family members. You’d be surprised by how far removed someone can be from these events and still have a traumatic response.”
In 1997, a provision known as the Dickey Amendment was inserted into an omnibus spending bill for the US federal government. Lobbied for by the National Rifle Association (NRA), it prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using funds allocated towards injury prevention in advocating for gun control.
As a result, gun violence research was hugely stymied: for the next two decades, the CDC avoided all gun violence research out of fear of being penalized. It wasn’t until fiscal year 2020 that the US federal budget included $25 million for the CDC to research gun-related deaths and injuries. Even that figure pales in comparison to the size and scope of the problem: $25 million is less than 2 percent of the federal funding for sepsis research.
“Mass shootings are one of many versions of gun violence that are having traumatizing, long-lasting, intergenerational effects on America,” Dr. Anestis says. “Our inability to take reasonable action to address that is a moral failure that generations from now we’ll look back upon with shame. There’s no doubt about it.”
While the funding for gun violence research is still low, it’s growing. At the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center (GVRC), Dr. Anestis and his colleagues split the shop into two sides: one focuses on funding and conducting gun violence research; the other disseminates the science of gun violence prevention in a way that’s not hidden behind paywalls, journals, or jargon.
“We’re not an advocacy group,” Dr. Anestis says. “We’re not here to campaign for policies. We’re here to study what does and doesn’t prevent different forms of gun violence, and what we can do to help the victims of gun violence.”
Dr. Anestis hopes that the GVRC will help recruit and train the next generation of gun violence researchers, one that’s engaged with collaborative, data-driven approaches. As those researchers proliferate, they’ll also play a key role in dispelling some of the common misconceptions around mass shootings, the most telling of which is that despite all the horror and grief mass shootings cause, they still represent little more than 1 percent of all deaths from gun violence in the US.
“This is a really good space to do some good and build a career,” Dr. Anestis says. “You can do work that feels meaningful, where there are a lot of basic questions that still need to be asked. It’s a space that needs young voices. It’s a space that needs people willing to engage with folks who look through different lenses than they do. Psychologists are a really good fit for that. It’s not easy, but most people don’t come into psychology looking for easy work.”
Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.