Tragically, the violence of mass shootings continues to punctuate our relatively calm lives. I used to scrutinize the details of these events and try to figure out why they happened and gain some insight into the presumably twisted minds of the shooters.
But now I turn away from the news media accounts, as they sicken me and cause feelings of despair. And that concerns me greatly, as I am a psychologist who has specialized over the past two decades in the treatment of anger problems and the prevention of violence in relationships.
So why does this violence occur? Specifically, mass shootings appear to be the result of a progression of variables.
The first is the arousal of anger based upon the perception of being deeply wronged and treated unfairly. The volume and intensity of anger will then be amplified by the importance attached to these unfair events, by a person's sense of entitlement to have things go their way, by the externalization of blame, and by a whole host of situational stress variables. Those include fatigue, isolation, experiencing multiple and external or internal pressures, and perhaps being afflicted with some sort of mental defect causing one to lose the ability to think rationally.
The second involves a profound sense of retaliation entitlement, which propels a person to strike back with vengeance for being wronged.
The third is the ready availability of lethal weapons with the capability of killing large numbers of people quickly.
The fourth variable is reflected in a progression of escalating anger and agitation in the context of an attitude of hatred and an intensifying sense of righteous entitlement to strike back with violence. The person's ability to think rationally, curb aggressive impulses and control behavior is compromised. The violent plans and urgings become violent actions and gain momentum from intensifying resolution and righteousness.
So what can be done about this, and how can we intervene?
First, we must all become astute observers of our own anger and the anger of others, especially as we note the escalation of anger to excessive levels and the use of verbal and physical aggression in the process of expressing it - or, conversely, the oversuppression of anger, which may yield signs of an imminent explosion.
Watch for indicators of pronounced retaliation entitlement and the progression of externalizing blame and holding others responsible for one's unhappiness. Talk to these people about what they are going through. Encourage them to see a mental-health provider for assistance. Call the authorities if there is risk of danger.
Second, we must promote reasonable gun-safety laws, such as the recent proposals by President Obama and former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, which mandate detailed background checks, ban the sale of assault-type weapons and guns with high-capacity magazines, and slow the purchase process.
Third, we must teach our children and family members to pursue alternatives to retaliation and revenge in face of being treated unjustly. That begins with taking full responsibility for one's angry feelings and expressing them in nondestructive ways that focus on taking the other person's perspective and problem-solving.
Finally, we must master and model these skills as we promote civil discourse and civil behavior and challenge and dismantle cultural values that glorify violence and promote retaliation and revenge.
With tragedy comes opportunity - to learn and grow from our experience and to make difficult changes. I encourage everyone to join me in rolling up our sleeves and going to work on doing our part to make our world a safer place to live. The time is now.
Brian J. Walker is a Tucson psychologist who specializes in the treatment of anger-control problems. He speaks to groups at no charge on the skills and strategies of anger control and the prevention of violence. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org