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The Most Dangerous Years - Part 2

Rates of domestic violence homicide increase fivefold with the presence of a gun. The easier a gun is to reach, the easier it becomes to succumb to a moment of desperation; a recent shooting in Tulsa, Okla., for example, happened less than three hours after the gunman legally purchased his weapon. And more than half of mass shootings are domestic violence: Sandy Hook began with the gunman killing his mother, Uvalde with the gunman shooting his grandmother.

But even those that do not begin with shootings of close family members — like the ones at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas — have domestic violence in the background of the shooter’s life. It’s not always in the public data, but Dr. Peterson told me familial violence is present. “In every case, literally, whether it’s parental, violence against Mom or physical abuse with a kid,” she said, perpetrators’ personal histories directly influence their shootings. “The worse the crime, the worse the story.”

When Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas attributed the Uvalde shooting to a lack of mental health treatment — even after slashing funding for the state’s department that oversees mental health by more than $200 million — he was not wrong. But his answer was incomplete.

The United States is suffering from a full-blown mental health crisis. In a 2020 report of 11 industrialized countries, the United States had the highest suicide rate and among the highest rates of anxiety and depression, coupled with the fourth-fewest mental health practitioners per capita among the countries in the study. Canada, Switzerland and Australia have roughly twice the number of mental health professionals that the United States has per 100,000 inhabitants.

And it’s not merely lack of options; it’s lack of resources. Health care is the No. 1 cause of bankruptcy in America. Children in Norway do not have to pay for mental health services. In France, those ages 3 to 17 can receive 10 free sessions with a psychologist. In their book, Dr. Peterson and Dr. Densley point out that for the United States to reach the recommended ratio of one psychologist per 500 students, 50,000 more psychologists would need to be hired across the country. The current national average is an abysmal one for every 1,500 students.

But mental health explains only so much. In the manifestoes that many of these young men leave behind, the language is eerily similar. The shooters in Buffalo; Charleston, S.C.; Santa Barbara, Calif.; and others wrote racist or misogynistic diatribes. Such screeds point to the need for much more education and socialization. 

How do many young people navigate this? They go to the web, of course, and too many young men wind up in the darkest, most hateful corners. Covid — which pushed most students online — gave children the time and capacity to reach those corners more readily while the world sequestered us all, a recipe for disaster. It seems no coincidence that gun violence and gun purchasing records were set in 2020, with 2021 continuing the violence trend and barely slowing purchases.

To suggest the solution does not start with guns — raising the minimum age for purchase; lowering the number of guns allowed per household; keeping guns from convicted abusers; instituting mandatory training, licensing and waiting periods; barring the ownership of assault rifles; enacting safe storage laws; eradicating immunity for manufacturers — is to willfully disregard the life and future of every person in this country. When Second Amendment freedoms mean imprisoning someone else (in a classroom, in a hospital, in a home), then freedom is nothing more than a bully with a pulpit.

Maybe we cannot build a life for every disenfranchised young person out there, but we can certainly do better. We need to have not merely one answer but many. We need to do it all, everything, all at once. And we can. We have the knowledge, the talent, the resources.

We need to address domestic and teen dating violence. We need to address mental illness. We need to address toxic masculinity and allow for open, inclusive conversations about gender identity. We need to regulate social media. We need to heed the warnings from girls online. We need to create crisis intervention teams, say Dr. Peterson and Dr. Densley, and suicide prevention and crisis response coalitions. They also say we need to make sure that all students in this country have at least one person, just one adult, they can talk with.

For me, that person was a social worker named Bob Martin. He had a mustache that curled up at the ends and soft lighting in his office, and when he saw me in his doorway, he dropped whatever he was doing and listened.
So more Bob Martins and fewer guns. More hope and less despair. And then everything all at once, which really comes down to a single priority: a country where all people can see the possibility of their own future. Because the fact is, broken things need not stay broken. They can also be opportunities to rebuild.

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