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Ending gun violence isn't an "either/or" question: It must be a "both/and"

Salon logo Salon 7/7/2022 Christopher Kilmartin & Ronald F. Levant

PIstol; NRA © Provided by Salon PIstol; NRA

A Springfield Armory Hellcat 9mm micro-sized pistol that has fired 20,000 rounds is displayed with ammunition shell casings during the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meeting at the George R. Brown Convention Center, in Houston, Texas on May 28, 2022. - America's powerful National Rifle Association kicked off a major convention in Houston Friday, days after the horrific massacre of children at a Texas elementary school, but a string of high-profile no-shows underscored deep unease at the timing of the gun lobby event. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

"It's not guns; it's mental illness." 

"It's not guns; it's violent media." 

"It's not guns; it's bullying." 

"It's not guns; it's toxic masculinity."

"It's guns, not mental illness" (or violent media, bullying, toxic masculinity or something else).

It frustrates us to witness debates like the ones above that seek to explain gun violence, because, as behavioral scientists, we know that rarely can any behavior be explained by a single cause. Nearly all behaviors are multiply determined.

In other words, the answer to "Is it guns or mental illness or bullying or toxic masculinity or violent media?" is "Yes, it is."

RELATED: An endless arms race: How to fight the NRA's absurd solution to mass shootings

Why are these "either/or" debates clouding "both/and" problems? Often it is because people attached to certain positions seek to deflect criticism by citing other causes for the violence. Most notably, those with emotional or financial attachments to the unfettered availability of firearms need to find some other plausibly related cause in order to try to convince audiences that, as we so often hear, "Guns are not the problem."

For instance, in the aftermath of the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre blamed gun violence on the ubiquitous presence of violent media, calling for armed guards in every school because, he claimed, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

The problem with this line of reasoning is that, as Christopher Vogler writes in "The Writer's Journey," "Every villain is the hero of his or her own story." Nobody commits an act of gun violence without some sort of justification. In other words, killers like Kyle Rittenhouse, Adam Lanza and Seung-Hui Cho — the list goes on and on, added to nearly every day — all saw themselves as a good guy with a gun.

There is a long list of risk factors for gun violence, and if we, as a society, have the will to address at least some of them, we can significantly reduce the carnage. 

Men and boys who subscribe to distorted beliefs about masculinity, such as that the only acceptable emotion to display is anger, or that it is manly to be violent, are at risk for perpetrating gun violence, especially if they believe that their masculinity has been threatened and if they have experienced significant psychological trauma, such as child maltreatment or bullying. We can educate parents on how to raise boys with the emotional intelligence to address hurt feelings directly, instead of transforming their vulnerabilities into aggression. We can provide professional mental health services to at-risk people, and we can re-engineer schools to address bullying and other forms of maltreatment, including that which takes place on social media.

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We know that the viewing of violent media by those who have other risk factors for physical aggression can increase the probability of their acting violently by about 10 percent. Ten fewer dead people out of every hundred is indeed significant. We can teach people how to be critical of the violent messages they hear from media. Doing so has been shown to inoculate children as young as eight years old against violence. Most pernicious is media violence that is portrayed as justified. How often have we been in a movie theater where viewers cheer when someone kills the villain? Viewed uncritically, such portrayals fuel the "good guy with a gun" narrative.

A major factor in all violence is the means to do harm. If we can reduce the availability of firearms, especially high-capacity military-style assault weapons, we will go a long way toward decreasing the violence. Eighteen-year-olds, whose brains are not yet fully mature, cannot legally rent a car or buy a six pack of beer, yet they are allowed to purchase such weapons.

A comprehensive approach to solving the problem of gun violence must address all risk factors. We can intervene from many directions: legal, educational, law enforcement, psychotherapeutic, and social-environmental, reducing violence incrementally.

Where to start? Our suggestion: Let's begin by reducing access to the means to do harm, especially for young men.

Read more on America's epidemic of gun violence:

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