If we prevent bullying, can we prevent mass shootings?

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If we prevent bullying, can we prevent mass shootings?

August 23, 2022 - Ryan Denison, PhD

Bullying in the hallway © Rawpixel.com/stock.adobe.com

Bullying in the hallway © Rawpixel.com/stock.adobe.com

The debate regarding how best to prevent mass shootings, particularly in schools, typically revolves around gun control and mental health issues. While both subjects play a role and are worthy of discussion, an element that often goes overlooked is the triggering effect of trauma.

As Shaila Dewan writes for The New York Times, “About half of all Americans will experience mental health issues at some point in their lives, and the vast majority of people with mental illness do not kill.”

I would add that the same principle is overwhelmingly true for those who own guns. Treating every gun owner or person with mental health struggles as a potential mass murderer will only increase division while still not preventing most of the tragic shootings that plague the nation far too often.

Many experts argue our energy would be best spent by focusing more “on warning signs that occur whether or not actual mental illness is present, including marked changes in behavior, demeanor or appearance, uncharacteristic fights or arguments, and telling others of plans for violence.”

Those indicators are particularly problematic when they occur in conjunction with instances of trauma or distress.

Looking out for signs of crisis

While that may sound like commonsense steps any rational person would take, mass shooters often exhibited such warning signs but went unchecked. Paying extra attention and giving greater care to those who have recently lost a loved one, been fired from a job, or experienced some other life-altering event could do more to prevent the next mass shooting than any new gun laws or mental health initiatives. And while there may be times when the appropriate next step is to alert the authorities, just showing them love, compassion, and respect can often have the greatest effect.

However, not every trauma comes from a singular event. Some of the most damaging impact comes from regular abuse and bullying.

As Dr. Jillian Peterson, a co-founder of the Violence Project, notes, four out of five perpetrators in their study showed signs of crisis, defined as “a period when one’s circumstances overwhelm one’s coping mechanisms,” prior to committing their crimes.

But such crises often build over time, slowly eating away at an individual’s margin for managing other sources of strife and stress, until they reach a tipping point. That tipping point could come in the form of any number of traumatic experiences, but the less space people have before hitting their proverbial last straw, the more likely they will be to do something tragic when that moment comes.

One of the areas in which we see this truth play out most vividly is in regard to bullying.

Why bullying is getting worse

Before we go any further, it’s important to clearly state that not everyone who is bullied will go on to commit some violent crime or shoot anyone. Many people have experienced bullying at some point in their lives and, while it may have left its scars, those wounds are not life-altering on a fundamental level for most.

Still, the problem seems to be getting worse.

Technology has made it harder to escape bullies, as they can now follow you wherever you go through social media, and that’s contributed greatly to higher levels of stress and less emotional margin for teens and children.

And such stress is not confined to young people, with many adults now beginning to experience similar kinds of cyberbullying as the move to working remotely eliminates many of the social barriers that helped to check such actions in the office.

So what are some steps we can take to help protect ourselves and others when they face such abuse?

Biblical advice on dealing with bullies

Christian Parenting is a brand of Denison Ministries designed to equip parents with practical and spiritual help for raising their kids well. They host a robust podcast network that includes the show Dear Mattsons.

In a recent episode, husband and wife Jeff and Terra Mattson discussed how to protect your kids from bullies. While their discussion focuses on addressing the issues of bullying with kids, they shared several tips that can help all of us. The whole conversation is worth a listen, but two points stood out to me the most.

First, they discussed the importance of letting God be the one to define who you are and making that the foundation of your personal identity.

So much of the negative impact that comes from bullying is related to the way in which, over time, we allow those who care for us the least to provide the lens through which we see ourselves. And the more often we hear their criticisms, lies, and judgments, the harder they get to ignore. If we hear from the bullies—or any other person for that matter—more frequently than we hear from God and his word, maintaining a sense of self that’s based in Christ’s love and truth becomes incredibly difficult.

That truth, in turn, leads to the second principle that stood out most: while God calls us to love everyone, that doesn’t mean giving everyone equal influence in our lives.

The Mattsons describe three categories of friends into which people often fit based on the degree to which they are trustworthy and kind. While they go into greater detail in the podcast, the basic principle is that it’s not only all right but necessary to draw boundaries at times to help protect yourself from those who demonstrate that they can’t be trusted to treat you well.

And while such boundaries can look different depending on the circumstances—helping our children avoid bullies at school may look different than avoiding them in your office, for example—the truth is that the people we spend the most time with are often those who will have the greatest influence in our lives.

When you look at your own life and the people with whom you’ve surrounded yourself, do they bring you closer to the Lord or push you farther away?

To be sure, there’s a balance here as we can’t accomplish our calling to share the gospel with the lost if we never interact with those who need Jesus, but keeping a close watch on who we allow to have the greatest daily influence on us will go a long way toward deciding how closely we’re walking with God.

How to change someone’s world

Those who endure repeated abuse and bullying can eventually come to believe that the bullies are right. When it comes to mitigating their negative influence and its impact on our ability to cope with the traumas that will inevitably come our way, it’s vital that we remember to look to God as our source of identity and make sure that those closest to us are encouraging us to walk with him.

And applying those same principles to our interactions with others, particularly those who have experienced bullying and trauma, is one of the best ways for us to embody the Lord’s peace and joy to those who need it most.

In a TEDx talk entitled “I Was Almost a School Shooter,” Aaron Stark described how a friend’s invitation to watch a movie prevented him from adding his name to the infamous list of mass murderers. He described how “when someone treats you like a person when you don’t even feel like a human, it’ll change your entire world.”

With whom can you have that kind of influence today?

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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