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Why School Shootings Are as Much Public Health Issues as They Are Gun Control Ones

It’s time to face the reality that the epidemic of school shootings is as much a public health issue as it is a gun control issue. It will take a combination of approaches to end. And we must put politics aside.

For students at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, life changed forever on Friday morning. Armed with a handgun and a sawed-off shotgun, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis methodically walked through the school and killed 9 students and 1 teacher. He planned on shooting himself after the bloodbath, but apparently didn’t have the courage to do it in the end.

And then what always is the case after school shootings of late happened: President Trump and Vice President Pence offered condolences to the Santa Fe community, offered federal support, and didn’t do much else. Talking heads on cable TV news networks began the gun control debate. And then, late Friday afternoon, the networks shifted attention to something apparently more newsworthy – the following day’s wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Is there something wrong with this picture? Of course. While we try to “fix” the issue of school shootings, it seems like too many people think there is only one approach, or that some are better than others, or that we don’t want to infringe on the rights of others in order to do so.

This is wrong and why, if it continues, school shootings will continue. It’s time to face the reality that the epidemic of school shootings is as much a public health issue as it is a gun control issue. It will take a combination of approaches to end. And the sooner those in positions of power to make changes realize this, the sooner these tragedies can finally come to an end and no more innocent lives will be lost.

What public health issues in particular? First and foremost is mental health. In almost every school shooting, mental illness in some form played a role in the tragedy. Mental illness is still widely stigmatized in our society, especially among teens. This may give pause to young people who may realize they need help, but don’t seek treatment out fear of embarrassment from their peers. This mentality must change, and change immediately. In addition, every school should have a trusted mental health professional available for students to consult.

You should also know that statistics show people with mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of gun — and other — violence than to perpetrate it.

The second is bullying. Some of us were likely bullied in our youth. While many of us are resilient and/or didn’t get bullied constantly, there is only so much getting picked on that some adolescents or teens can take before they can’t take it anymore. Anti-bullying education should be required in every school, and reinforced by parents.

The argument for gun control of some sort seems to be obvious to everyone except too many who seem to care more about their weapons than reasonable measures — whatever the cost to society. And there is a public health issue with guns themselves. In many school shootings — including the most recent at Santa Fe — the guns used by the teen perpetrators came from within their own homes, and were legally obtained. More education on how to safeguard weapons within the home is imperative to prevent future shootings.

If all of this sounds sensible, it’s because it is. The main problem? Politicians not wanting to risk contributions from powerful political contributors — such as the National Rifle Association — to do so. If children really are our future, then politicians have to do what is right, no matter the financial costs. Children’s lives are in the balance.

And what can the general public do? Follow what has happened since the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Speak out. Attend rallies. Write letters to elected officials. Eventually, they will hear you and make the long-needed changes to save lives. I pray they will.

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