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Empowering Virginians to Stop Gun Violence

On the left, Angie miles is wearing a dark blue shirt and smiling. On the right of the screen James Densely is looking into the camera wearing a green pull-over and behind him on the wall are diplomas and awards.
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VPM News Focal Point
Focal Point Host Angie Miles asks James Densely about mass shootings and stopping gun violence.

Angie Miles speaks with James Densely about mass shootings and stopping gun violence. Densley is a criminal justice professor at Metro State University in St. Paul, Minnesota and the co-author of, “The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic.” He is also the co-creator of The Violence Project, which is considered the most comprehensive database of mass shooting violence in the United States. He explains the causes of mass violence and offers solutions for politicians and everyday citizens.


ANGIE MILES: Mass shootings have become more frequent and more deadly in our country over the past decade, and Virginia has not been spared the trauma and the loss. In an effort to decrease or end the epidemic of mass shootings in our country, two Minnesota based researchers have studied 50 years of data and interviewed scores of people, including some who committed mass shootings, to find answers and hope for us all. James Densley is one of those researchers. He joins us now to talk about The Violence Project. Welcome to our program and thank you for being here.

JAMES DENSLEY: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

ANGIE MILES: So, I'm going to start right off by saying I have read some of the violence project, I have not completed the book, but already, I'm just mesmerized by it. And am fascinated by some of your findings. I want to just ask you about a few of those. First, you say that labeling someone a monster actually takes us further away from being able to solve this problem, when we just can't identify with the shooter in any shape, form or fashion. Can you elaborate on that a little?

JAMES DENSLEY: Yeah, I think there's a perception in society that mass shooters are these mad men and monsters, and that evil people will do evil things, and therefore we can't do anything about it. But before they ever pull the trigger, a mass shooter is somebody's son, somebody's colleague, somebody's classmate, somebody's neighbor. And if we had seen them for the human being that they were, before they perpetrated the crime, we might have been able to intervene to get them off of that pathway to violence. Many of these mass shooters feel like the world doesn't see them. And it's that then motivation to perpetrate a crime like this, which is a spectacle. And so, we have to be much more attuned to kind of warning signs of this. And to do that, we have to recognize the humanity of each other. And it's hard to do that, once they’ve perpetrated the crime. We want to be proactive and get in front of it.

ANGIE MILES: You use the phrase “depths of despair.” In thinking about that term. We also think about the high suicide rate, it's just been unfathomable, how many people have taken their own lives, the correlation between high suicide rate and mass shootings? How about that?

JAMES DENSLEY: Yeah, this was one of the most striking findings of the research, which is to say that a mass shooting is always intended to be a final act, and many of the individuals that perpetrate the crime are driven by despair, and that the shooting is intended to be a suicide and actually have attempted suicide prior to the act. So, what you have is a situation where people are attempting suicide, they are then thinking about ending their own life. And a mass shooting becomes a sort of conclusion to this process. And so they go into the act, either intending to take their own life, or have law enforcement take it for them. And in the number of cases that when the shooter does survive, they're obviously destined to spend the rest of their lives in prison. And in some states, they'll face the death penalty. So, this is as much a suicide as it is a homicide. Again, forces us to take a step back and think, what have we learned from suicide prevention, which could be applied to mass shooting prevention, getting people to the point where they actually see hope in life and don't want to go through with this type of a crime.

ANGIE MILES: You talk about the shooters, the perpetrators feeling themselves, like they are the victims, not the people that they are attacking, but they feel that they are the victims. Can you describe sort of some of the trauma or the relationship issues that lead up to that feeling of victimhood that can then cause someone to take a step like this?

JAMES DENSLEY: Yeah, and it's important to stress that, the mass shooters here are not the victims, and we have to do as much as we possibly can to focus on the survivors of these shootings, the victim's families, the first responders, the loved ones lost because mass shootings utterly devastate communities. But it is true that in our work with mass shooters, when you interview these individuals, when you look at their manifestos and the things that they've written in in the process of preparing for these types of crime, they do feel like they've been victimized, and they are trying to make sense of that place in the world. And sometimes that's very dangerous because they go to tumbling down the rabbit hole on social media and on the internet, finding ideologies that give them a sense of purpose and motivate them toward violence. So, what you have here is a sense of what is wrong with me being turned outward to a, what is wrong with them. And that's the moment where you start to see this mobilization toward violence, that this is not just a suicidal act, but it then becomes a homicidal act, as well.

ANGIE MILES: You speak also in your research and in the book about some of these perpetrators feeling like they've tried their best and couldn't win. So the world is not a fair place. They played by the rules, but the rules didn't work for them, or maybe that the rules are no longer applicable, so, they're less inclined to want to follow the rules, right? They break that trust that we have in each other to keep one another safe. What is the intervention that we can apply here? What can we do when we feel that someone is in that distraught place?

JAMES DENSLEY: You know, a lot of this is around our institutions, actually. And the way in which we're in a time as a society right now, where we have a lack of faith in our institutions. So, we feel like, you know, we can't trust journalists, we can't trust scientists, we can't trust politicians, we can't trust the police, we can't trust our traditional institutions. When you feel that way, you start to look around and think, Well, maybe I need to do to sort of go out on my own and do my own thing. And so, what we really need to do is strengthen those institutions and our trust and our faith in them. So, people feel not so alienated from society, because that's a lot. What we see with these types of events is that people feel like there's no place for that. And that's then what gets them motivated toward a type of violence or action. So, it's a lot about strengthening institutions. But it's also about ensuring that we're attuned to those warning signs. And we have that social safety net in place to intervene where necessary, so that violence doesn't become the inevitable outcome here.

ANGIE MILES: We're looking at guns, and it is a fact that America has more guns than most any other country. It's also true that there is a correlation between the amount of firepower a country has and the number of mass shootings. Now the debate is it's the guns, it's the mental health, it's the guns... Is it one or the other? Or are we talking about a combination of things? How is your work, revealing what is actually true.

JAMES DENSLEY: And I think this is the key point, which is to say that it's not just either or it can be both. And it can be all of the above. And so, America has six or seven times the share of mass shootings per population, compared to other nations. So, there is something definitely going on that's uniquely American about this phenomenon. And I think access to firearms is a key component of that. But it's important to be able to layer solutions while on top of each other. Because when we go into our corners, and we only want one side or the other, nothing ever happens. So, what we find with firearms is there are things that can be done, like safe storage of the firearm, for instance, which can save lives that don't infringe on anybody's Second Amendment rights, because that's the balance that we're always having in these debates, but will truly make a difference and save lives. So, we can put policies in place that make it more difficult for people who shouldn't have access to a firearm to get one. And we can do that in a way that still preserves people's right to bear arms. But we also need to layer that on top of other solutions, which address mental health and other aspects of these particular crimes. Because it's not a one size fits all. And it's not one thing or the other. It's being able to do it all and embrace the complexity of the issue.

ANGIE MILES: I think that I mean, certainly everyone would like to see this problem solved. We want to be feeling safe in our homes safe when we go out in public. And a lot of the time I think people feel overwhelmed by just the notion of mass shootings, and may feel some despair of their own that it can't be solved. I think that your work is laudable that it goes a long way in addressing a lot of those issues. And helping us to find a sense of hope, a way forward. So, in addition to reading the book, what would you say are some takeaways that are important for the general public, for lawmakers and for community leaders, as we work hard to resolve the problem of mass shootings?

JAMES DENSLEY: Well, this is something we really tried to do with the book, which is to have a sense of hope with this because it can feel very hopeless. When we're in this cycle of mass shootings as we are today. One of the things we tried to do is think about what can we do three different levels, one is at the societal level, and that's usually where we get stuck. That's requires policymakers and politicians to enact laws and policies. But there's things we can also do at the institutional level, and at the individual level. And that's where we don't need an act conference, we can actually act right here right now to do things. So as an example, I mentioned before safe storage of firearms, if you're a gun owner, and you've got teenagers in the home, safe storage will save lives. That's something we can all pledge to do right here right now. And that doesn't need any additional work. Also, as well, those people who are in crisis, let's get them connected to the help that they need. So, if you're worried about somebody, let's build those systems to get them that help. This means training ourselves in crisis intervention, de-escalation skills, looking out for one another, mentoring young men, and I say men because the vast majority of these mass shooters are men and boys. So, there are things we can all do to feel part of the solution, which I think is really important, because otherwise you do fall back on that there's nothing that can be done and actually there's stuff that we can be doing right here right now. And making a difference. So, it doesn't just need the lawmakers to act we can do it too.

ANGIE MILES: We can so that fewer people feel defeated and feel angry enough to do a just an unspeakable act like what we're seeing and that we all hopefully as a society do come to a healthier place and a healthier way of being James, Thank you so much James Densley with The Violence Project thank you for joining us on focal point

JAMES DENSLEY: Thank you, My pleasure.

Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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