On Stopping School Shootings and Building a More Humane Society

Today marks the one year anniversary of the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Yesterday, we had the recurring nightmare of it happening all over again, but this time in a high school in Colorado.

This most recent shooting marks the third notorious one just in Colorado alone: Columbine, Aurora and today, Arapahoe. But then we could go back to the 1760s for the first recorded school shooting in the U.S. It's not an entirely new problem.

It keeps happening. Virginia Tech might be added in and others as well.

But the debate around these kinds of crimes hasn't changed in the 45+ years I've been watching it.

We are more than stuck. All we can think about is guns, background checks, and which guns can be bought by whom. These are important issues, don't get me wrong.

But the discussion focuses on firearms policy entirely and nothing else it seems. We're a society with no imagination when it comes to violence. But mightn't there be another approach?

An approach that doesn't look purely at guns and who owns them and who kills who?

What about humanity and the promotion of humane behavior? What about emphasizing positive thinking for once, about who can help who in our culture, and how we need to learn how to help one another?

Are we prepared and more importantly, are we equipped to help one another in an emergency, or are we prepared to hurt or shoot one another? Of course things are not that black and white. I'm trying to make a rhetorical point.

How about trying to work slowly at building a more humane society, not one where we expect there to be no gun deaths ever, but one where there are fewer killings?

But even more importantly to my mind, and as I will propose in the remainder of this article, is a society where we treat one another in a more helpful and civil manner, a manner that might lead, however slowly, to fewer gun deaths.

But again, more important to my mind than the number of gun deaths, is how we regard our fellow citizens, how we treat them, and how they treat us.

And accept that we're never going to get down to no gun deaths a year, not ever, especially when you consider the little known fact that of the approximate 30,000 gun deaths in the United States, year in and year out, about one-third are suicides.

Taking Lessons

But let me begin my story. A woman I met on the train had just bought a rifle and told me, with pleasure, that "I wouldn't think twice about blowing the head off anyone who breaks in and dares to take just one step inside my house."

She signed up to take lessons at the local rifle range.

An acquaintance of mine is a classical pianist and his wife a successful illustrator of children's books. They live in a quiet, progressive college town -- as idyllic a community as one can find in the United States.

They're taking a course that will permit them to legally own and use tear gas, or
pepper spray. Knowing how to defend one's self can make a lot of sense.

And then there are my other friends and neighbors, and their children, who are taking classes in self-defense, especially kick-boxing and the like. A lot of people take up such activities just for the workout and challenge they offer. I get it, I really do. I used to take Aikido classes and it's stuck with me for decades. To me it's always been a very special martial art.

But I've also taken a different sort of course and I found it very valuable -- a class in first aid.

In just one day we learned the basics of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the treatment of cuts, wounds, shock, poisoning and burns; how to aid a person who is choking or has suffered a heart attack or stroke; how to apply bandages, splints and tourniquets; how to handle heat stroke, frostbite, eye injuries and much more.

Perhaps we should also have been taught how to aid someone who's been tear-gassed.

Here's my point. At present, our society sorely lacks a sense of mutual responsibility and community -- a sense that we are in this together.

First Aid vs Fire Arms, and a Dent

As things currently stand, it may well be more likely that a fellow citizen had been trained in the use of a firearm than in first aid. Our priorities as a society are backwards.

Wouldn't it be comforting to know instead that every citizen had been trained to help any other citizen in distress? That everyone knew first aid?

As the quality and frequency of our interactions with neighbors and strangers deteriorate, universal training in first aid might make a small, but appreciable, dent in our national proclivity toward violence, and increased alienation, suspicion and privatization.

It is my contention that taking responsibility for others and knowledge of first aid go hand-in-hand, and it is my very firm belief that first aid should be made mandatory in the nation's schools, and be taught throughout the years of compulsory education.

We need to develop a new essential core curriculum in primary and secondary schools that includes first aid.

Every year there are roughly 10 million injuries resulting in disabilities lasting one day or more. Accidents causing permanent disabilities number between 300,000 and half a million. Nearly 100,000 people die accidentally. For youths between 15 and 24, accidents claim more lives than all other causes combined.

And teaching first aid in schools doesn't have to cost a lot. Girl and boy scouts have been getting merit badges in lifeguarding and first aid for decades.

Teenagers taught and supervised by adult volunteers can be certified and then pass their knowledge down to younger children, who would later become instructors themselves.

Indeed, first aid can be taught by young people (the minimum age for a Red Cross instructor's aid is 16), and in so doing, our youth will gain an increasing sense of responsibility as they grow older.

The growing sense of responsibility for others is more important, to my mind, than the first aid teaching itself.

Finding Purpose in Life

At present, all too many young people find themselves in limbo, between childhood and adulthood, with nothing important to do in the vast period called adolescence. They feel they don't have much to contribute to the world, but helping people out of pain or rescuing someone who is injured makes one feel just about as good as anything can.

I don't want to get all sentimental and hokey, but it truly is the case that it is not only more blessed to give than to receive, but it also feels incredibly good. Indeed, I've had this experience a couple of times just in the last few months.

Once, just a few weeks ago, a friend collapsed and I knew what to do until the paramedics came, and the other was when I gave a bunch of money to someone who really needed it in a hurry and I had no real prospects of getting it back.

But it was more than worth it. These were among the best feelings I've had in my life. I knew for sure that I was a good person when I did those things. After all, I'm human, and sometimes I have my doubts if I'm the kinda guy I want me to be.

Let me tell you about a young friend of mine who sometimes works with young children who are physically challenged. But he has no trouble dragging himself out of bed each morning and drive an hour to work because those kids really need him, sense that he is there to help them, and they love him for what he does for them, and he loves them right back.

When I was young I knew what it was to have a job where I didn't feel like I was doing much of anything of any value for myself, or anybody else. Boy did I know what it was like to have pry myself out of bed.

First aid instruction also offers children and teenagers the opportunity to apply what they have learned in other areas of study. Knowing how to stop bleeding or manage a sudden eye injury allows for a practical appreciation and respect for both the strengths and fragilities of human anatomy. Such understandings may also reduce the likelihood that one would abuse one's own body or that of another.

I even believe that a potential young offender, who would otherwise beat a defenseless elderly woman while stealing her handbag, might find it a tad more difficult to inflict bodily injury if he had been steeped in first aid over a period of 10 to 12 years of

First Aid and School Shootings

Indeed, universal first aid training could even have an impact on these unimaginable school or theater shootings we've been experiencing. Why? As often as not we learn that the shooter was horribly teased, either of late, or in their earlier childhood, or through much of their lives.

Maybe if the kids who would otherwise be teasing another had spent time every year
learning how to set splints, bind wounds, attend to a stroke victim, or do CPR they would have better understood the humanity of all those around them and not been so cruel to other the children or teenagers around them.

OK, color me idealistic. It's true. I grew up in the 1960s, and in Berkeley no less.

But isn't having some hope and thinking about ways out of this mess better than staring into the abyss of hopelessness and just accepting that these damn shootings are going to keep happening, over and over?

And if teasing by itself isn't an explanation, how about feeling left out and alienated, an outcast from one's peers? After all, is it likely that someone who has lots of friends is going to go in and shoot 20 sweet, innocent six-year old children at point-blank range?

You don't need to be a psychologist to have a hunch that such a person has to
be in pretty horrible and unimaginable psychic pain to do such a thing. That perhaps the only way he thinks he can expurgate his own sense of self-revulsion after so many years is to get it outside of himself, and by inflicting pain elsewhere. God knows Adam Lanza needed help. Very sadly he didn't get it.

The Media

We do now know that Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, was obsessed with mass shootings. He had created a spreadsheet on murders, and on mass shootings, and had played a video game called "School Shooter." And rumor has it that his mother may have volunteered in that same class of first graders at some point and that he was jealous. Others say that it isn't true.

Of course, a videogame like that raises the whole matter of the media's role and needs to be the subject of another article. How, after all, do the media over-report on such stories?

Do the media inspire copycat crimes and the next school shooter by putting ideas in people's heads? Would today's Colorado shooting have taken place without the one in Connecticut before it?

How could it be otherwise? Did the media permit both Adam Lanza and Lee Harvey Oswald, both lone alienated individuals, to gain a true measure of notoriety via their acts of murder and mayhem?

But please don't blame the media either. Not entirely, that's for sure. What are they supposed to do? Not cover the news?

Yes, they don't have to cover it wall-to-wall and make it seem more important than anything else.

They don't have to lead the news with it night after night living by the mantra "if it bleeds it leads."

But fault lies with that person you see in the mirror every day, too. Are each of us doing everything we can in our communities to make sure that everyone is involved, that no one is left out? Is each of us making sure that we don't contribute to Global Warming? I'm surely not.

But with regard to the media, and us, think of this. One of the top songs from 2011 was "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People. The song is very catchy, and no wonder.

Its creator, Mark Foster, was a commercial jingle writer when he penned the song filled with the homicidal thoughts of a troubled young man while he is carrying out a mass shooting.
Here's a song based in the imagined thought process of a mass murderer and it's at three on the Billboard Hot 100 List for 8 weeks!

It's been praised by numerous critics and was up for a Grammy.

It's just the sight of people dancing to the song that seems nearly perverse once you understand what the song is actually about, but then you realize that many of the dancers probably don't know what the song is about either.

Offering Hope

Now, I'm not saying that first aid training is some panacea. I don't believe that first aid training is going to directly stop a group of criminals from shooting up a bank or a school or that it will address every social problem that plagues us. But it does mark a step in the right direction.

Famous Harvard developmental psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg, now deceased, encountered limitations in his ability to get young people to make moral judgments via mere classroom discussion around moral dilemmas. But I wonder if we might improve the moral education of the young by helping children obtain the skills necessary to act morally.

Human beings must acquire a sense of mastery and competence in their early development in order to become healthy, productive adults.

What better way to empower our young people than to impress upon them at an early age that they can be indispensable in the saving of a life, or at least limiting the consequences of an accident, and that they, too, can teach such essential skills for living and helping to others younger than themselves?

And so, in time, and not all at once, we will begin to change our culture from one that is too much about every one for themselves, to one where we have institutionalized a culture of communal caring.

Give children and adults the skills to act responsibly, and more of them will.

And if you're taking a course in karate, guns or tear gas to protect yourself, why not balance your course load with at least one class that teaches you how to help and heal as well.

Robert Kubey, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist who lives with his
family in New Jersey.