Psychologists say stemming gun violence will take a broad effort, focusing on behavioral threat assessment for individuals and helping families with troubled kids in the community, among others.
Preventing mass shootings and episodes of gun violence across the USA requires focusing on individuals at high risk for violence and early intervention for troubled kids in the community, suggests a comprehensive report released today by an expert panel of the American Psychological Association.
The group created the panel in response to last year's mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo.
"There's a misunderstanding that if we can't predict who's going to commit a shooting, then there's no way to prevent shootings. That is because people focus so much on the shooter and the image of a shooting. Prevention has to start before there's a gunman in your parking lot," says Dewey Cornell, a forensic clinical psychologist who directs the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia and was part of the panel.
Although the report says "there is no consistent psychological profile or set of warning signs that can be used reliably to identify such individuals in the general population," the panel says some efforts can help, including a method called behavioral threat assessment, in which experts identify and intervene with those most at risk for violence. The report suggests greater access to mental health care — which it deems "woefully insufficient" — as well as better access to gun-related administrative data and early intervention to curb the path to violence for youth.
"One of the challenges here is that we don't have one gun violence problem; we have several different kinds of problems, so that solutions that would be a good fit for addressing injury and death due to accidental discharge is not the same as addressing suicide and not the same as addressing homicide," says panel member Robert Kinscherff, a lawyer and forensic psychologist at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology in Newton, Mass.
Some measures, such as licensing handgun purchases, background checks for gun sales and monitoring gun retailers, can reduce the diversion of guns to criminals, the report notes.
"If we want to prevent gun violence, we have to look at the gun, use of the gun, circumstances under which a gun was used and how that gun was obtained. And we're going to need to involve a variety of sectors," says panel member Susan Sorenson, a psychologist and public health researcher at the University of Pennsylvania-Philadelphia. "If there was one single answer to this, we would have solved this a long time ago."
The challenges are evident to Richard Chaifetz, CEO of ComPsych, a Chicago-based provider of employee assistance programs. He wasn't part of the panel but says his company has seen a striking increase in calls about help for those exhibiting a direct threat of harm to self or others — particularly youth. The number of high-risk cases grew 77% over last year, compared with a 5% increase in both 2012 and 2011.
"You'd be surprised how many weapons there are in the homes where parents are not cognizant of the risk that poses when they have a kid that has violent tendencies that could result in the use of those weapons," Chaifetz says. "It is not uncommon."