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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

School Climate & Safety Opinion

America’s Obsessed With Guns and Violence. And Schools Are the Target

By Peter DeWitt — June 01, 2022 7 min read
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Here we are again in America.

Another school shooting.

I remember watching the events of Columbine play out after I left school that day. We didn’t have 24/7 access to the internet back then, so we watched it all unravel on the national news. It was not the first school shooting, as we have all come to learn, but it certainly was the most prevalent in our minds for a long time when we thought of school massacres.

Can I just take a moment here to say that it makes me ill that we now have the words “school” and “massacre” together in our rhetoric?

Over the years, as a teacher and then principal, I watched as our school went from practicing fire drills to engaging in active-shooter drills. Of course, we masked the active-shooter-drill language with that of “safety drills.” As much as we tried to focus on the positive with students, they knew why we were asking them to find a safe place to hide in case a bad person came crashing through their classroom door.

I was always proud to be a teacher and principal, but after Sandy Hook, there was nothing quite like walking around the school engaged in a “safety drill” with one of the state police officers in our community. It changed the way we viewed our surroundings, and everyone who rang our doorbell at school.

There are so many people who still don’t believe social-emotional learning has a place in our nation’s schools, which I wrote about here when I focused on school board candidates. However, massacres like those in Uvalde, Texas, show us exactly why we need to focus on SEL, because I imagine that so many of our teachers and school leaders across our country had to alleviate the fears of children and adults on Wednesday as opposed to focusing on literacy, math, and science. Not to mention the social-emotional toll it takes on students, teachers and leaders after a “safety drill” is practiced.

Now, more than a week after the massacre, anxiety runs deep for those students, teachers, and leaders who are still in school.

Unfortunately, as the days have gone on since the massacre, the same arguments have come up since they did after the countless other school massacres. One thing is for sure: What this shows, whether people care to agree or not, is that America has an obsession with violence.

Isn’t it finally time we do something about it?

Can Americans Come Together?
I remember a few years ago, I overheard a father, mother, and son talking while we all waited to board an airplane. The son talked incessantly about how many people he killed in the game he was playing, and his mother pointed out how unemotional he seemed as he talked about killing 12 people, when there had been an uprising in school shootings. The father chimed in and said, “Stop freaking out so much. There have only been like five or six school shootings.” The father went back to looking down at his phone.

That’s what happens, though, doesn’t it? We talk about how sad all of this is, and how those states must have major issues, but we never think our own children have issues as they play games where they “kill” countless bad guys in the name of being a patriot. As for some Republican politicians and their gun laws, it’s clear they care more about the NRA than they do about the lives of children. Let’s face it, so many of these politicians fight harder to ban books and prevent the use of the word “gay” than they do about actually focusing on something that kills innocent people.

However, in the last few days, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, showed interest in negotiating with Democrats when it comes to gun control. I’d love to celebrate, but this is something that should have happened long ago, and it’s hard to celebrate after so many massacres in the last few weeks. Additionally, Texas Republican John Cornyn was interviewed after the massacre and said they are ready to do something about gun laws because “they have a sense of urgency they haven’t felt before.” Really? What about all of the school massacres over the last 20 years?

Let’s get some facts, though. Researcher, author, speaker Adam Grant says that Americans are united on some aspects of gun control. According to Grant’s recent Instagram post:

  • 81 percent support universal background checks.
  • 87 percent want to ban gun purchases by those with mental illness.
  • 80 percent reject concealed carry without permit.

Grant also said, and I wholeheartedly agree, that, “Our descendants will be appalled that we didn’t do more to prevent violence.” Much to Grant’s point, We really have to engage in open dialogue around the obsession America has with guns and violence.

America’s Obsession With Guns and Killing
Every morning, I turn on my local news, and the anchor rattles off the shootings or deaths that took place in the capital of New York state, where I live. They seem so unemotional as they tell the story, and many times, we become desensitized to hearing it all. Many times, to those with a twisted sense of guns and violence, the names of those responsible for the killings are given instant celebrity.

For example, I recently cruised through stations to find something to watch and I came upon a documentary on John Wayne Gacy.

Why in the world are serial killers treated like celebrities in America? There have even been Hollywood movies about these psychopaths.

At night, as I turn on the television to unwind from the day, I find myself feeling more and more anxious before bed. It’s because, although I don’t watch violent programs, I am exposed to commercials highlighting the violent dramas that we should watch at 8 p.m., 9 p.m., and 10 p.m. The more graphic the deaths, the better the ratings. (No need to say the names of the shows, because you know what they are already.) This programming can have a negative impact on adolescents. In fact, according to the American Association of Family Physicians (AAFP):

While multiple factors can lead to violent actions, a growing body of literature shows a strong association between the perpetration of violence and exposure to violence in media, digital media, and entertainment. This is a serious public health issue that should concern all family physicians, particularly as it affects young patients and their parents or guardians. Children, adolescents, and young adults consume digital media from a variety of sources, many of which are mobile, are accessible 24 hours a day, and offer both passive and active engagement. Many of these media platforms feature entertainment that contains significant doses of violence and portrays sexual and interpersonal aggression.

This study by the American Psychological Association found:

Early childhood exposure to TV violence predicted aggressive behavior for both males and females in adulthood. Additionally, identification with same sex aggressive TV characters, as well as participants’ ratings of perceived realism of TV violence, also predicted adult aggression in both males and females. Furthermore, while a positive relationship was found between early aggression and subsequent TV violence viewing, the effect was not significant. These findings suggest that, while aggressive children may choose to watch more violent TV programming, it is more plausible that early childhood exposure to TV violence stimulates increases in aggression later in adulthood.

AAFP goes on to say:

  • Among Americans ages 15 to 34 years, two of the top three causes of death are homicide and suicide, and many of these deaths involve firearms.
  • In a given year, more U.S. children will die from gun violence than will die from cancer, pneumonia, influenza, asthma, HIV/AIDS, and opioids combined.
  • According to the Children’s Defense Fund, “U.S. children and teens are 15 times more likely to die from gunfire than their peers in 31 other high-income countries combined.” In fact, the overall rate of firearm-related death or injury in the United States is higher than the rate in most other industrialized countries.
  • There were 39,740 firearm-related deaths in the United States in 2018, which averages to approximately 109 people dying each day from homicides, suicides, and unintentional deaths involving firearms. Further, the number of nonfatal injuries due to firearms is more than double the number of deaths.

In fact, the CDC recently reported gun violence is the number 1 cause of death among American children.

America is obsessed with guns and violence, and Americans feed on it when they go to the movies, buy video games, or listen to music that highlights guns and more and more violence. Toxic masculinity plays a part in all of this, too, because let’s remember that most of these killers behind the massacres of innocent children, the Asian community, and Black community have been young white men.

In the End
Hollywood producers and movie stars tweet their anger and disbelief at the same time they make millions of dollars off their movies that promote the same graphic violence that they seem to be so appalled by. But hey, they’re doing it for entertainment, and in all of their movies, they are playing the good guy who gets rid of the bad guy.

Video-game creators hide behind freedom of speech when they try to justify their part in all of this, as they work hard to create more graphic games that include algorithms that keep bringing people back to play the games over and over again. When you feel a loss of control over your own life, play a video game in which you can control every part of the situation. Watching kids play games where they easily fire assault rifles and kill people, even some innocent people by mistake, is just really beyond appalling.

In the end, they’re giving America what it wants ... more guns and more violence. And then everyone is so surprised when someone engages in another massacre.

Nineteen children and two teachers went to school as they did on any normal day and never went home. Days later, politicians made excuses and spun their rhetoric. Sadly, many on their side bought that rhetoric. Perhaps this time politicians will work together to do something about the gun laws. What will we do as a nation to do something about the obsession with guns and violence?

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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