On May 24, 2022, nineteen children and two teachers were killed at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas by a lone gunman carrying a rifle he had purchased just days before. The shooting comes just ten days after a a shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. took the lives of 10 people and is the deadliest school shooting in the U.S. since a gunman killed twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012.
Paul Boxer, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University-Newark, where he also directs the Social Development Research Program, has published over 100 peer reviewed papers and chapters and currently holds funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to study how youth become involved in gun violence.
More restrictive gun laws are associated with lower rates of homicides by guns.
Boxer was part of a March 2018 specially appointed commission from The International Society for Research on Aggression (ISRA) that prepared a report on youth violence in the wake of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17. This commission was “charged with the task of producing a public statement on the known risk factors for youth violence, based on the current state of scientific knowledge.” The resultant report provided strong evidence of factors that are associated with perpetration of violence by youth, and made research-backed recommendations that policy makers could use to address this public health problem.
Boxer, who is an expert on the development and management of aggressive behavior, and is currently serving on the expert panel for a national school safety and violence risk assessment project, talked to us about what’s changed, and what hasn’t, in the last several years, and what he says will help prevent another mass shooting from occuring.
Can you outline your recommendations here for those who haven't read the report?
We need to dramatically limit access to guns. Easy access to guns is obviously a major risk factor. I know that opponents of gun control are not happy with this idea but honestly it is what the research is telling us. More restrictive gun laws are associated with lower rates of homicides by guns - my team published a new paper on this issue just last year.
Schools and other youth-serving agencies such as the juvenile divisions of law enforcement entities should be employing best-practice, evidence-based protocols for violence risk assessment. There really is a "right way" to assess for violence and the protocols are out there, disseminated freely and available.
Schools and communities should have readily available referral outlets for accessing best-practice, evidence-based treatments for aggressive behavior and conduct problems. There are very clear and well-supported effective interventions - such as Anger Control Training, Multisystemic Therapy, and Dialectical Behavior Therapy - that really could be useful when a known individual presents risk for violence.
As a parent I would also add that schools should probably be made very difficult to enter without authorization. This surely can be done without making schools look like high-security zones that would create anxiety in our students.
What, if anything, has changed since the 2018 report came out?
Some states, like New Jersey, have moved in the direction of strengthening gun laws. Other states, like Texas, have moved in the direction of weakening gun laws. Aside from that very little has changed in terms of policy. We do however have more research on the impact of gun laws on gun violence, and it is clear that more restrictive laws do reduce gun violence.
What are some things that we, as the general public, can do to make it less likely for more of these shootings to occur?
We can encourage or demand that our legislators and policymakers take the science of gun violence prevention seriously. We can talk to our school officials about taking steps to make schools safer. We can talk to local officials -- town council members, law enforcement directors, school superintendents -- about ensuring that our communities are using best-practice approaches to managing violence risk among youth and young adults.
What is the one thing you wish policymakers would do?
Just one thing? Make it extremely difficult to acquire a gun. But there are many other solutions as I've noted that can and should be implemented.
For those of us with children in elementary schools, how should we talk to our kids about this?
We need to reassure children that they are safe. There is no need to talk with them about the odds of a school shooting happening. Tell them they are safe and be there for them emotionally if and when they have questions and concerns. You do not have to ignore their concerns, but you can be reassuring just as you would in the context of talking about a natural disaster. Remind them that their schools have procedures in place to keep them safe and that the buildings are set up to keep them safe. Keep them in their normal routine and try your absolute hardest to limit their exposure to news media coverage of the event - it will not help them understand or feel better and based on the research is likely to amp up their anxiety.