Feature

In response to the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., and other instances of mass gun violence, last year APA commissioned a report by an expert panel. Released in December, the report summarized research on gun violence risk factors and prevention programs on how to reduce the incidence of gun violence — whether by homicide, suicide or mass shootings — nationwide.

The full report appears on APA's website.

Members of the expert panel were:

  • Dewey Cornell, PhD, University of Virginia.
  • Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, Philadelphia.
  • Nancy G. Guerra, EdD, University of Delaware (report coordinating editor).
  • Robert Kinscherff, PhD, JD, Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology/National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice.
  • Eric Mankowski, PhD, Portland State University.
  • Marisa R. Randazzo, PhD, SIGMA Threat Management Associates, Alexandria, Va.
  • Ellen Scrivner, PhD, Police Foundation, Washington, D.C.
  • Susan B. Sorenson, PhD, University of Pennsylvania.
  • W. Douglas Tynan, PhD, Jefferson Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University.
  • Daniel W. Webster, ScD, MPH, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The Monitor talked to the report authors about their conclusions and recommendations.

Gun violence is clearly a national crisis. Horrific instances of mass violence get the most attention, but instances of single-shootings gun violence are much more common and just as deadly. What is psychology's best advice to policymakers to solve the gun violence epidemic?

Dewey Cornell, PhDCornell: Two things are critical: First, because we cannot reliably predict who will commit an act of gun violence, both primary and secondary prevention are needed. Second, gun violence is associated with a confluence of factors; therefore, prevention strategies have to address numerous risk factors, including those within individuals, families, schools, communities and the culture. For example, helping parents deal with aggressive children, teaching conflict resolution skills and improving access to mental health services all need to be part of broad prevention strategies.

Also, because we don't have a reliable way to determine who is most at risk to commit gun violence, behavioral threat assessment programs — which identify and help people who have communicated a threat of violence or engaged in behavior indicating preparation to commit violence — are important.

What do we know about how developmental experiences impact a propensity for gun violence?

Kinscherff and Guerra: We know that a complex combination of risk and protective factors makes a person more or less likely to use a firearm against themselves or others. Although most youths desist in aggressive and antisocial behavior during late adolescence, others are disproportionately at risk for becoming involved in or otherwise affected by gun violence. The most consistent and powerful predictor of future violence is a history of violent behavior.

Prevention efforts should be guided by research on developmental risk. We have good evidence of primary prevention programs that are effective. Communities should focus their prevention efforts on programs that can reduce the likelihood that firearms will be introduced into the community, family conflicts or criminal activity. Prevention efforts can also reduce the relatively rare occasions when severe mental illness contributes to homicide or the more common circumstances when depression or other mental illness contributes to suicide.

We know that the most lethal and high-visibility cases of mass gun violence — Newtown, the Colorado movie theatre and Virginia Tech — have been perpetrated by young men. What do you know about the effects of growing up male in our society and the risk for gun violence?

Eric Mankowski, PhDMankowski: Any account of gun violence in the United States must be able to explain both why men are perpetrators of the vast majority of gun violence and why the vast majority of males never perpetrate gun violence. Preliminary evidence suggests that changing young men's perceptions of social norms about behaviors and characteristics associated with masculinity may reduce the prevalence of intimate partner and sexual violence. But such interventions need to be further tested for their potential to reduce gun violence. Psychologists' skills and knowledge are needed to develop and evaluate programs and settings in schools, workplaces, prisons, neighborhoods, clinics and other relevant contexts that aim to change gendered expectations for males that emphasize self-sufficiency, toughness and violence, including gun violence.

What does the research evidence recommend for gun violence prevention at the individual level? How large is the role of mental illness?

Kinscherff and Randazzo: Although it is important to recognize that the majority of people who suffer from a mental illness are not dangerous, for those persons at risk for violence due to mental illness, suicidal thoughts or feelings of desperation, mental health treatment can often prevent gun violence.

Policies and programs that identify and provide treatment for all people suffering from an emotional crisis or a mental illness — whether they pose a risk for violence or not; again, most do not — should be a national priority. The current level of access to mental health services in the United States is woefully insufficient.

Again, behavioral threat assessment is becoming a standard of care for preventing violence in schools, colleges and the workplace and against government and other public officials. Threat assessment teams gather and analyze information to assess if a person poses a threat of violence or self-harm, and if so, take steps to intervene.

At the community level, what are the most promising intervention strategies?

Scrivner, Tynan and Cornell: Prevention of violence occurs along a continuum that begins in early childhood with programs to help parents raise emotionally healthy children and ends with efforts to identify and intervene with troubled individuals who are threatening violence. There has been some success with community-based collaborative programs, such as police training in crisis intervention or community members trained in mental health first aid. These programs need further piloting and study so they can be expanded to additional communities as appropriate. In addition, public health campaigns on safe gun storage are needed. The practice of keeping all firearms appropriately stored and locked must become the only socially acceptable norm.

What role can policies that regulate gun access play in an overall effort to reduce gun violence?

Susan B. Sorenson, PhDSorenson and Webster: We need more data before we can completely answer that question. What we do know to date is that firearm prohibitions for high-risk groups — domestic violence offenders, people convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes and those who have been adjudicated as being a threat to themselves or to others — have been shown to reduce violence. In addition, the licensing of handgun purchasers, background checks for all gun sales and close oversight of retail gun sellers can reduce the diversion of guns to criminals. We are hopeful that a few new federal initiatives will increase the availability of data and funding so we can help inform and evaluate policies designed to reduce gun violence.

An important take-away message of this report is that the question of what works to prevent gun violence is an empirical one and should be addressed through well-designed science.