In the wake of the shooting in Newtown, myriad theories have been trotted out to the tragedy, and an even wider selection of solutions proposed to prevent similar attacks. Because America is so atypical in terms of gun violence, we focus on what these killers do and not what drives them to do so. And while the gun issue is serious, our focus should be on bringing disaffected young men into the fold and removing the factors that cause them to snap.
It is not an accident that most of these atrocities are committed by men, nor that their frequency is increasing. And while they may be hard to profile, we can still do something about it. Dr. Michael Stone of the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City explains: “People usually don’t commit mass murder more than once. Usually you’re dealing with an angry, dissatisfied person who has poor social skills or few friends, and then there is a trigger that sets them off.”
Let's focus on that characterization: angry and dissatisfied with poor social skills. There is a link between poor social skills and depression and both of these factors seem to be at play with mass killers. Further, men struggle with depression differently from women and have trouble seeking help. However, among the healthy coping mechanisms suggested are support from friends and family and taking part in enoyable activites.
Discussing gender gets complicated quickly, and brings out strong feelings. As a variety of commentators have pointed out, changes in our society are difficult for men, who suffer from what they perceive as giving up some of their entitlements. Yet proposing anything geared toward men provokes a defensive reaction from women, who justifiably fear losing their gains. Any viable solution, therefore, needs to address men's needs without shortchanging women.
Here are three concrete suggestions to improve men's social skills and reduce the frequency of tragic violent incidents:
- Expand educational and training opportunities. While a college education is useful for those who succeed academically, it may not be the best choice for everyone. Training programs that provide skills needed for employment would play an important role in preparing men for jobs.
- Increase recreational opportunities for youth and adults. Evidence suggests that engaging in sporting activities has a positive effect on psychosocial health, particularly for people who are depressed.
- Decrease the emphasis on drug crimes in the justice system. Many people in jail on drug charges do not necessarily pose a threat to others. Limiting incarceration for these kinds of crimes would cut down on pulling families apart, refocus police resources, and prevent non-violent offenders from being exposed to criminal networks in prison.
While these three initiatives are designed to support men, they would also benefit women. Training and apprenticeship programs help prepare people for a changing job market. And men and women alike can improve their health, happiness and create social bonds through recreational activities. Finally, while keeping non-violent offenders out of jail would help these men by allowing them to remain employed, it would also help their families, especially by making them available to their children and more stable partners for their spouses.
These measures would not completely eliminate tragic, violent incidents. It's unrealistic to believe there is any kind of panacea. However, responses that don't address the root of the problem will do less good than the initiatives proposed above, and might do more harm. Although it requires funds and effort, using these resources for a constructive purpose now is better than using them later to respond to tragedy.