Gun Violence and Mass Shootings

Table Talk: Family Conversations About Current Events
  • For Parents, Families, and Caregivers
  • 13 and up
A Sandy Hook Elementary School makeshift memorial on Berkshire Road in Newtown, CT 12 days after shooting of 26 people who were killed, twenty were children.

Bbjeter / CC BY-SA 3.0

Note to Parents/Family Members

Because the issue of gun violence and mass shootings is in the news so frequently, young people are aware of and talking about it, which makes it something critical to discuss. However, it is a sensitive, scary and potentially painful topic. Prior to raising this issue with children, consider your own child’s personality and needs and the extent to which the conversation will do more harm than good. Reflect on whether the conversation will ease your child’s fear and distress or add to that discomfort. For some youth, it is better to be proactive and raise the topic without their prompting and for others, following their lead and their questions makes more sense.

When you discuss this topic with children, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Be prepared yourself and in a good state of mind so you can be there for them emotionally and make sure you have set aside enough time to hear all their thoughts, questions and feelings.
  2. Provide concrete information about their school’s safety/security procedures and reassure them that they are safe.
  3. Be careful when describing the perpetrator and do not stereotype and make assumptions about the person, especially around mental illness. Because one in four adults experience some kind of mental problems annually and many people have family members, colleagues and friends who are afflicted, it is important not to convey the message that mental illness causes violent acts. Efforts to profile mass shooters do not support mental illness as a root cause.
  4. Emphasize the helpers including those who took care of the victims, helped and showed concern and compassion and think together about something you can do to help.

Topic Summary

On October 27, 2018, a gunman, identified as Robert Bowers, armed with an assault rifle and several handguns, entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA and yelled, “All Jews Must Die” as he opened fire. Described as the deadliest attack against the Jewish community in the U.S., eleven congregants were killed and four police officers and two others were wounded.

On February 14, 2018, seventeen people--including students and adults--were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The gunman was identified as Nikolas Cruz, a nineteen year old who is a former student of the school. According to authorities, he was armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle and “countless magazines” and people were killed both inside and outside the school. The Parkland shooting is among the ten deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history.

In recent years, there have been a variety of mass shootings. On October 1, 2017, a gunman at a Las Vegas hotel fired a barrage of gunfire into a crowd of concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, resulting in the killing of 59 people and injuring hundreds of others. On June 12, 2016, a gunman named Omar Mateen, an American-born man who pledged his allegiance to ISIS, went into a gay nightclub in Orlando, FL and shot and killed 49 people and injured 53 others. On December 2, 2015, two assailants opened fire at a center for people with disabilities in San Bernadino, California; 14 people were killed and 21 others were wounded. This deadly mass shooting came on the heels of another tragic event on November 27, 2015 in which Robert Lewis Dear embarked upon a deadly shooting spree at a Planned Parenthood clinic; two people and a police officer were killed and nine others were wounded. On October 1, 2015, a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon left nine students dead and another nine injured. The gunman, Christopher Harper-Mercer, killed himself after an exchange of gunfire with the police.

Mass shootings often raise a lot of feelings that range from sadness and heartbreak to anger and frustration. They also usually lead to a public conversation about gun laws and what our government can and should do. In 2012 after the mass shooting of twenty young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, President Obama proposed legislation to overhaul gun laws which included universal background checks, new and expanded assault weapon and high-capacity magazine bans and other measures to prevent mass shootings. Several months later, it failed to pass the Senate.

Understanding “mass shootings,” (commonly defined as the murder of four or more people), school shootings and other gun-related deaths can be challenging. According to a Congressional Research Service in 2013, there had been 78 mass murders carried out with guns during the thirty year period of 1982-2012. Because there is not one standard way to tally the number of mass school shootings like the one in Oregon, in the period between 2000 and 2013, the FBI identified 160 active shooter incidents, where one or more shooters “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” It used this definition to describe instances like Sandy Hook or the Virginia Tech  shooting in 2007. Since 2011, the rate of mass shootings has tripled.

Defenders of gun rights say that proposed gun regulations violate the Second Amendment, which says, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” After the Newtown shooting, the president of the National Rifle Association, (NRA) a national nonprofit organization that advocates and lobbies for gun rights said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Indeed, many people believe that guns prevent crime from happening.

In addition to mass shootings, there are other disconcerting numbers about gun violence in the United States. More than 32,000 people per year are killed by guns—which translates to approximately 88 gun deaths per day—and compared to peer nations (including Germany, England and Canada), people are much more likely to die from guns in the U.S. than in other countries.

To understand more about public opinion on gun laws, the following 2017 data from Pew Research Center is useful. The percentage of the public who strongly or somewhat agree that we should: 

  • Prevent mentally ill people from purchasing guns: 89% 
  • Implement background checks for private sales and gun shows: 84%
  • Bar gun purchases by people on no-fly or watch lists: 83%
  • Create a federal database to track gun sales: 71%
  • Ban assault-style weapons: 68%
  • Ban high-capacity magazines: 65%

When mass shootings occur, people frequently search for the reason and often “mental illness” is cited as the culprit. But it is much more complicated than that and it is difficult to come up with one reason and “risk factor.” There are usually a multitude of reasons for these shootings including but not limited to: domestic terrorism, availability of guns, romanticism with violence, and multiple risk factors operating simultaneously (e.g. depression, narcissism, alienation, lack of trust, poor coping skills, fascination with violence-filled entertainment, revenge fantasies, attempted suicide attempts in the past, etc.).


13 and up

Questions to Start the Conversation

  • How do you feel about what you know and have heard about gun violence and mass shootings? What else do you want to know?
  • Do you know people who have different opinions on gun violence? What do they say and how does this influence (or not) your point of view?
  • What do you think should be done to keep people safe from gun violence?
  • Why do you think so many people feel it is important to protect people’s right to own guns?
  • Why do you think there are so many more mass shootings than there used to be?

Questions to Dig Deeper

  • What can we do “to get our government to do something about gun violence” as President Obama urged after the 2015 school shooting in Oregon?
  • How is the NRA successful in making their case that guns should not be regulated more than they already are?
  • Why do you think that Congress hasn’t been able to pass the legislation to try to prevent mass shootings, especially after what happened at Sandy Hook elementary school?

Ideas for Taking Action

Ask: What can we do to help?  What actions might make a difference? 

  • Write a letter to your Congressperson (or to the school/town newspaper) that conveys your position about gun violence and urges them to take specific action.
  • Educate others about this topic by sharing information on social media, having individual conversations or organizing an educational forum or debate in school.
  • Join with or hold a fundraiser to support gun violence prevention advocacy organizations such as Newtown Action Alliance, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand

Additional Resources