In May, just three days after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, a group of experts published a call to action with recommendations that they say can prevent gun violence, backed by decades of research. One member of this group, Ron Avi Astor, has spent a lifetime studying how school environments can lead to or fend off gun violence. The recommendations the coalition put forth include things like banning assault weapons—but one member, Ron Avi Astor, also urges another approach: having conversations about real goals. Where are we heading? What do we really want our schools to look like? How do we help young folks feel safe? On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Astor, a professor of public affairs, social work, and education at the University of California–Los Angeles, about the guidelines he and his group put forth, and why the idea among lawmakers that we should arm teachers could just lead to more harm. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sonari Glinton: When you’re having discussions about gun control and the U.S., the Second Amendment often ends the conversation. How do you tell the story of gun control leaving aside the Second Amendment?
Ron Avi Astor: I actually think that’s been a big stumbling block, because that’s the first thing we usually talk about. I think if the first thing we talked about is how do we save lives, and not just about the amendment, then we could do quite a bit more. My approach is: We need gun education. We need gun responsibility. We have health classes in schools all across the United States. There’s no reason in the world that any gun owner should be against a gun safety course, where we talk about how you store guns, the dangers of accidental death, avoiding situations that lead to domestic violence. I think that the more people become educated at the local and the school level about this, the more they’ll make decisions going in a public health–oriented direction. I know people who want to ban all guns in the United States would find that sacrilegious, but my sense is that’s a really good place to start: learning just about storing guns in the right place, or learning how to use them, or learning how to get a license. Research is showing that if we could get to a point where people are licensed—like we do with cars, driver training, hazardous materials, alcohol, other things we have age limits for—then we start shifting the conversation towards managing kids and other people when they are around extremely dangerous materials.
Is there one solution you see on the table now that you think that can help address what’s going on, based on the patterns you’ve seen?
There’s no one solution that will solve this. What researchers have done in the last 10 or 15 years is gather and discuss what set of solutions would come close to eliminating this violence—solutions we’ve seen in the most effective states and countries.
Can you walk me through some of the other points of this plan that you and the other researchers came up with?
There are three really big points. One, things we need to do as a society across all schools. Those are really long term with an eye toward making our society more welcoming, more caring, less racist.
The second one is, people usually ask, “Is it mental health or is it guns?” So, to actually take that long list of such risk factors that we worry about—no one of those will create and shooter—and provide support for people who are showing one or two or three of this risk factors really, really early on: reducing bullying, discrimination, harassment, assault.
The third one is what we spend most of our time in the media talking about what we do just before a shooting or a killing or a suicide is imminent.
In your plan, gun control is just one solution, right?
For me, it’s about trying to imagine what kind of country we want to be. If I want to buy a house someplace and the real estate agent comes to me and says, “We got some tanks at the entrance and some guys walking around with bazookas and you’re gonna feel super safe there,” I probably would say, “Don’t even take me to this place, because I do not feel safe.” It’s intuitive. I want the place where people are in their gardens talking to one another, where there’s a close social network and people get to know each other over a period of time. It’s those social bonds and networks and caring that make me feel safe and connected and cared for. People get that for real estate, but somehow they don’t get that for schools. The dialogue that we have right now is really about making schools into little prisons.
Help me understand some of the shorter-term things that have been shown to be effective in reducing violence in schools.
In one project that we had in San Diego with 145 schools, we actually tried to make schools more welcoming, supportive, and caring, with better resources, better dialogue. Four years after doing the intervention, the levels of bullying, victimization, drug use, and gang affiliation are all dramatically down from where they were, about 50 percent to 70 lower. We could do that right away if we wanted to.
Reported incidents of bullying are down, but how do you square that with this dramatic increase in schoolhouse murders?
For mass shooters, we need a different discussion. I think it’s related, but not exactly the same phenomena. What we see with shooters is if you look at each of these individual risk factors, they played some kind of role, but not every kid who’s bullied will go out and try to murder others, not every person with a mental health issue will do this. What we need to start looking for with shooters is this constellation of different kinds of attributes: kids who have extreme obsessions with firearms, with almost a compulsion to collect them; an obsession with groups that include prior shooters, and with conspiracy theories that harm other people. Also, almost every shooter has been suicidal, and we don’t talk enough about that. They take out other people for the primary reason of having the media and the whole world talk about them.
I think if we approach it that way, we have a whole different way of thinking about it, where we could actually reduce day-to-day violence as we have been doing in the last 15 to 20 years in massive ways—but also reduce the shootings, which we can miss because we’re only looking at one or two of these variables at a time.
Is there any comfort to be found in putting more police in schools or having fewer doors, as some have debated?
No. That’s my straight answer. Over a period of a month or a year or 10 years, it really has detrimental effects. We don’t have any data showing security guards and police will actually prevent or stop shootings on a regular basis. In fact, we have a lot of data showing that even when such officers were there, it didn’t really stop the carnage. Those who are arguing that teachers should have more guns, I’m still baffled with that because if SWAT teams and trained police officers can’t do it, why are they expecting teachers—who don’t want to have guns—to do that work? The more guns, the more friendly-fire deaths we’re going to have in those situations, and the more situations where kids or other people get ahold of those guns. We have data from other sources showing that those unintended consequences are highly likely to happen. And we do know that the media’s reporting on terrorism and suicide makes a difference in the frequency of how many suicides you have as copycats or as contagion, same with terrorism events.
So, what can folks like me do to change the narrative or do better?
I do think that our national strategy should include, with the media, some discussion on what not to talk about with regard to the perpetrator, same as we do with suicides, same as we do with mass terrorism—because that is, in my opinion, fueling the frequency. We don’t talk about these shooters as suicidal, but many are going in suicidal, and we need to start using that language and focusing on the victims mainly. That’s important, because there are a lot of lives that could be saved.