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The Most Dangerous Years - Part 1

What might have stopped the gunman from killing 21 people in Uvalde, Texas? In the aftermath of the shootings, familiar details emerged. We know he fought with his mother. We know he has been accused of posting footage of himself seriously abusing one or more cats online. We know he shot his grandmother, who worked at Robb Elementary. We know he harassed girls on social media and when one of those girls reported him to a social media app, nothing was done. And most critically, we know he bought a weapon of war around his 18th birthday from a company that offered buy-now-pay-later-style financing. The process for buying the gun was little more onerous than that for purchasing Sudafed.

These facts and allegations just as easily might speak to many mass shooters of our age. Racism, misogyny, violence, isolation, gun access, social media screeds. In some form or other, the patterns are known. But why is it that when we identify them, we can’t then prevent the carnage that follows? Or why won’t we?

There are many places in the world that share America’s social characteristics. Switzerland has a culture of gun ownership, too. Japan has young, isolated people so common; they have a name: hikikomori. Mental health in Germany and New Zealand is more understaffed than in the United States. And domestic violence is in every country, every community, every village and neighborhood. And yet — you know the end of this sentence — only the United States sees mass shootings so frequent that at least 38 more have occurred since the Uvalde shooting, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Many believe they know the source of this national tragedy. Liberals say it’s guns. Conservatives cite mental health issues. I’ve heard we need fewer doors and more fathers, less poverty and stronger friendships. When I looked at the faces of those 19 children killed in Uvalde, I had to wonder if our polarized politics, mine included, cloud our ability to see our failing social infrastructure, the complex intersectionality of the immense issues we face. Put simply: We have broken our society. So to what lengths are we willing to go to rebuild it?

Many years ago, on my first day as a graduate student, my professor asked us to write him a letter about ourselves. My first line was this: “I feel like I know what it’s like to want to kill someone.” My family life was fueled by rage. I was expelled from Naperville North High School in Illinois. At 16, I was kicked out of my house. I lived in my car and stayed on the couches of co-workers and friends and sometimes in the parking lot of Fox Valley Mall. I did not want to live, but I had neither the means nor imagination to die.

I despised my stepmother so much; I might have envisioned killing her. We fought with our words and occasionally our fists, and yet somehow, years later and reconciled, I sobbed at her bedside as she lost her fight with cancer. Even though I am beyond those years, I can call up the memory of that rage. I can understand feeling that the world has nothing to offer you. That your life is so devoid of meaning, you could take the lives of those who mean the most to someone else. And probably you wouldn’t care how much you’re hated, because no one could hate you more than you already hate yourself.

So how did the 18-year-old hopeless me give way to who I am now? I’ve asked myself this for most of my life. I am a professor, a writer, a mother, surrounded by the love of an intentional family. How did I survive?

For teenagers to survive what are for some of us the worst years of our lives, they need hope. I don’t mean sentimental jargon from a greeting card. I mean hope from the vision of a possible future. Hope does not arrive, feathered, at one’s doorstep. Hope requires action, movement.

Because the opposite of hope is despair. Had I gotten hold of a gun in my teenage years, I believe I would have used one on myself. I know this because of who I was and how I felt, but I also know this because the research
backs it. In a study of 172 mass shooters in the United States from 1966 to 2020, only four were women (two of whom acted in partnership with men). Some research suggests that responses to trauma can manifest differently in men and women, though these differences are not universal. Studies have shown a link between past violent or traumatic experiences and externalized aggression among men to varying degrees. Women, meanwhile, engage in deliberate, nonsuicidal self-harming behaviors 50 percent more frequently than men do, according to a 2008 study, which can be a trauma response in some cases. Numerous studies have also shown a link between domestic violence and heightened suicide rates, which are particularly acute among men.
Perhaps we have more tools at our disposal than we know. A full 86 percent of mass shooters under age 20 give warnings, according to Jillian Peterson and James Densley in their book “The Violence Project.” (Note: I provided a blurb for this book.) Dr. Peterson calls these warnings “a cry for help.” The problem comes from how these warnings are interpreted and what people do or can do with the information received.

The threateners — almost always young men — reach out to classmates and to people on social media, and sometimes they are reported to authorities, as in Buffalo; Parkland, Fla.; Sutherland Springs, Texas; and Uvalde. And occasionally these authorities might step in, as they did with the Buffalo shooter, but then they could not hold him for more than a day and a half in a hospital for a mental-health evaluation. In the United States, only a third of primary care physicians’ offices have mental health practitioners, compared with over 90 percent in the Netherlands and Sweden.

Mental health is a convenient lens through which to view mass shootings, but it provides an incomplete picture. The overwhelming majority of those who have mental illness are victims of crimes, not perpetrators. Often more germane to the question of stopping these crimes is domestic violence, which intersects with not only mass shootings but also many of the vast social issues that we face — and their consequences.

Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness in this country, especially for women. It speaks to gender inequality and teen dating violence and stalking. When you align it with guns, it becomes not merely another in a cascade of issues but the issue to address, because guns increase the lethality of essentially all domestic- violence-related situations.

by Rachel Louise Snyder, a professor at American University, is the author of “No Visible Bruises”