Gun Violence: Prevention by Paying Attention

Gun Violence: Prevention by Paying Attention

In a time of heightened anxiety about gun ownership and gun violence, the theme of this blog may already have some “Second Amendment People” reaching for their Glocks in self-defense. Or those impassioned for increased regulation of gun sales and ownership may be anticipating a welcome shot in the arm of support for that cause, especially in the wake of “Las Vegas”— the newest city whose name now depicts a national tragedy.

While I am unafraid to take on proponents of unfettered gun ownership and, as a life-long gun owner myself, I still remain an ardent proponent of tougher laws restricting access and distribution of firearms, this is not the tack I am taking here. The moral of this message is that we ought to pay attention as an ethically astute means of community care and also gun violence prevention.

To what or whom should attention be paid?

Lessons from Sandy Hook

I attended a community forum on October 9, 2017, organized by the Heartland Coalition Against Gun Violence, a program of Grandparents Against Gun Violence, and with co-sponsors that included the Center for Practical Bioethics. Plenary speaker Nicole Hockley urged us to pay attention to signs of a potential shooter. She claims that most incidents of gun violence are preventable, not so much by reducing the number of weapons (although she is not opposed to such efforts), but by identifying those whose trajectory of emotional-relational distress seems headed towards an act of violence, most often involving self-harm.

As the Public Service Announcement recently released by Hockley’s organization compellingly demonstrates, interventions can happen only if we are paying attention to those lurking in a lonely background. The 2½ minute YouTube video, “Evan,” is a must see and show for teachers, clergy, parents and other community leaders (

Ms. Hockley is the mother of Dylan, one of 20 young children killed by 20-year old Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. She and some other bereaved parents have put their mourning to work in a nonprofit called Sandy Hook Promise ( Hockley speaks to groups like the one in Kansas City about prevention by paying attention. She trains listeners to “recognize the signs of chronic social isolation or marginalization or rejection and how to practice inclusivity, which is step one onto a different pathway or not going down one towards self-harm.”

The parents of Sandy Hook victims teach that “Gun violence is preventable when you know the signs. Learn them now.”

Warning Signs and Things You Can Do Today

The warning signs they point to include the following:

  • a strong fascination or obsession with firearms, shooting techniques and mass shootings
  • overreacting or acting out aggressively for seemingly minor reasons
  • real or perceived feelings of being bullied
  • unsupervised, illegal or easy access to firearms and bragging about such access
  • gestures of violence and low commitment or aspirations towards work or school, or a sudden change in academic or work performance

It is natural to feel demoralized after yet another mass shooting such as we saw in Las Vegas, with 59 dead and nearly 500 injured. Yet there is hope. Nicole Hockley encourages all of us to “know that gun violence is preventable, and . . . if you’re frustrated by the lack of progress on this from a legislative perspective, just don’t give up, because there are things you can do today that can protect your own children and your own community if you promise to learn how.” (See

Dr. Rosell is the Rosemary Flanigan Chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics. He is also Professor of Pastoral Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Clinical Professor, History and Philosophy of Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center, School of Medicine, and Chair of the Department of Bioethics at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences.