Preventing Gun Violence

On first anniversary of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., gun violence remains a pressing issue.

A new American Psychological Association (APA) report released today summarizes recent research that has helped underpin evidence-based programs to prevent gun violence. Though there is no single personality profile that police can use to predict who will commit violent acts, the report brings to light ways to prevent a similar incident. 

The report, titled Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy, argues that this type of prediction is not necessary to prevent shootings. Primary prevention programs can lower risk factors, while secondary prevention programs can reach out to people facing emotional difficulties or interpersonal conflicts.

One approach the APA report says shows promise is a behavioral threat assessment, whereby at-risk individuals are identified and intervention occurs before there can be any violence.

“There is only a moderate ability to identify individuals most likely to commit serious acts of violence,” the report states. It says that access to mental healthcare can lower the risk of gun violence, but calls the availability of such programs “woefully insufficient.”

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Violence Prevention Strategies

Among its key findings, the APA report argues that:

  • Behavioral threat assessment teams, made up of trained experts, are the most effective tool to prevent mass shootings.
  • Keeping firearms away from high-risk individuals has been shown to lower the risk of violence. License purchases, background checks, and requiring close oversight of gun stores can reduce the diversion of guns to criminals.
  • Because a tendency for violence can begin early in life, families and community environments must promote healthy development and care for troubled children.
  • Early intervention with at-risk families can improve parenting skills and disrupt the pathway from early-onset aggression to violence, research shows.
  • Access to mental healthcare can help people at risk of committing acts of violence (although most people with mental health issues are not violent).
  • Police, educators, and mental health providers must team up to offer community-based solutions for gun violence prevention.

The report's authors say that research-based prevention efforts to keep guns out of family and community conflicts—as well as policies that identify and provide adequate treatment for the mentally ill—are effective. They also say that more funding for research and better access to gun data can help prevent violent incidents.

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Assessments Help Pinpoint Potential Killers

Robert Kinscherff, a forensic and clinical psychologist, attorney, and professor at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, said that it is vital to distinguish between “risk assessments” and “behavioral threat assessments.” 

Risk assessments are performed for individuals who have been referred to a psychiatrist by, say, a court or employer. Behavioral threat assessments are used to respond to a threat and gather information about the individual to determine how imminent the threat might be.

At times, after a dangerous situation has been diffused, a person who has undergone a behavioral threat assessment will be referred for a broader-scope risk assessment. This can help them create a long-term risk management plan, Kinscherff said. 

“It is the ‘best practices’ approach for targeted violence by individuals,” he added.

He cited a report released today, in which the Federal Bureau of Investigation said that it has interrupted almost 150 shootings or other violent attacks this year, largely by referring high-risk individuals to psychiatrists.  

“One way of thinking about it is that [a behavioral] threat assessment disrupted potential attacks in ‘real time,’ but that those referred for mental health assessment and care would receive the follow-up of a more comprehensive risk assessment and management procedure,” Kinscherff said.

Both types of assessments are effective, as long as the individual is willing to share information about their intentions and motivations. 

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Expert Says Spanking Can Lead to Violence

In related news, Murray A. Straus, founder and co-director of the Family Research Lab and a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, recently co-authored a book that discusses the effects of spanking on children.

In The Primordial Violence, he argues that while spanking does correct misbehavior, it does not work better than other corrective measures such as a “time out” or denying a child privileges. Explaining the problem with a specific misbehavior is also useful to correct acting out in children.

“The research clearly shows that the gains from spanking come at a big cost. These include weakening the tie between children and parents and increasing the probability that the child will hit other children and their parents, and as adults, hit a dating or marital partner," Straus said in a statement. "Spanking also slows down mental development and lowers the probability of a child doing well in school."