I'm Uncomfortably Numb

When I was supervising students in the Couple and Family Therapy program at The University of Maryland in the Fall of 2017, I had a slightly disturbing experience. It was Monday, October 2nd and I was the nighttime supervisor on site at the clinic where junior and senior students were meeting with their evening clients. 

It was a regular evening; meeting with students, discussing and watching their cases, and providing support where it was needed. As I walked to my car, it struck me – no one had even acknowledged the shooting that happened in Vegas the night before. This, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. History, claiming 58 lives. Not one of us said a thing.

What explains this? I was in high school when Columbine happened. There’s no official count of school shootings, but an extensive Washington Post database shows that more than 230 incidents where a gun was fired at K-12 schools have happened since Columbine. Six of those were mass shootings.

Eighteen years, and many innocent lives lost later, we have become accustomed to these tragedies. I was numb to the Mandalay Bay shooting the day after. This certainly wouldn’t have been the case if mass shootings weren’t such a regular occurrence. And, let’s not lose sight of the fact that we’re fast approaching the 6-year anniversary of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL on June 12th, 2016 – the second deadliest shooting.

...we need to acknowledge that while there is no single profile that can reliably predict who will use a firearm in a violent act, it remains a fact that nearly every shooter is a boy or man.

I was disturbed by my numb heart, and accepting of it. It’s a lasting anecdote I remember whenever the topic of mass shootings comes up. But of course, the heart is also capable of deeply resonating with and recognizing the pain of everyone. For many who saw images and video of the day’s events in the small community of Uvalde, TX, it’s natural to connect with the direct survivors and families traumatized by the shooting at Robb Elementary School. Their shock, grief, and intense suffering stirs up our own feelings vicariously. Many feelings come to mind when I put myself in the shoes of loved ones: helpless, scared, angry, horrified, enraged, broken.

The families of those lost wanted their loved ones back. They won’t get them. Instead, many turn toward activism and causes, like Sandy Hook Promise, that try to find meaning in their grief while looking for solutions. It’s really difficult to come up with good solutions to this problem. Because this problem is so complex in its nature, it will require complex solutions that are based on solid research. 

If we are to have an intellectually honest conversation about gun violence prevention, we need to acknowledge that while there is no single profile that can reliably predict who will use a firearm in a violent act, it remains a fact that nearly every shooter is a boy or man. We need to be asking ourselves the question: What is the role of male desperation in mass shootings?

When girls have childhood traumas – unstable homes, feel bullied, like social outcasts, and/or have experienced severe losses – it just looks different. When girls wish that someone would kill them (including themselves), it looks different. It’s imporant to say here that most people who feel suicidal don’t attack others. Most people with mental illness are not violent. Most males never perpetrate gun violence. 

It’s not as though desperate males weren’t enacting violence and vengeance on their brothers and sisters centuries or even millennia ago. But today’s world comes with firearm tech and communication tech the likes of which we have never seen. A desperate 18-year old boy with access to weapons of mass destruction, and devices of mass dissemination, knows how large his audience will be before enacting a suicide by cop.

I’m hoping that big data and artificial intelligence can be used to strengthen our society’s approach to behavioral threat assessment. We leverage this technology for the purposes of running effective advertising. How might we apply these powerful tools for a more noble cause? 

We Know the Signs to Look For

Loss and humiliation give way to anger, rage, and blame, which gives way to revenge. There are signs to look for (Sandy Hook Promise):

  1. Suddenly withdrawing from friends, family and activities (including online or via social media)
  2. Bullying, especially if targeted towards differences in race, religion, gender or sexual orientation 
  3. Excessive irritability, lack of patience, or becoming angry quickly
  4. Experiencing chronic loneliness or social isolation 
  5. Expressing persistent thoughts of harming themselves or someone else
  6. Making direct threats toward a place, another person, or themselves
  7. Bragging about access to guns or weapons
  8. Recruiting accomplices or audiences for an attack 
  9. Directly expressing a threat as a plan 

* NOTE: This isn’t a complete list of all warning signs. Exhibiting one of these signs doesn’t necessarily indicate imminent violence. When concerned about troubling behaviors, tell a trusted adult or call 911 if there is an immediate threat.

What would happen if every individual in a society asked themselves the question, “What responsibility do I have in all of this? How can I take responsibility and use my time, energy, and unique strengths to make a small difference?” These desperate boys and men need their families, communities, and policies to stop failing them and failing us all. How about we revolutionize the way we think about suspension and expulsion for starters?

What will you do?

Robin S. Smith

Robin S. Smith

Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.

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