In public schools across the country, teachers and students practice lockdown drills if a gunman storms their building and opens fire. In some school districts, principals and teachers learn how to bandage gunshot wounds and apply tourniquets.
“That’s insane to me. That’s accepting that, ‘This is the way it is.’ Why are we doing that?” said Dr. Gregory Popcak, a well-known Catholic psychotherapist and author who has written several books on family and marriage.
Popcak, founder and executive director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, told Our Sunday Visitor that his 12-year-old daughter recently asked him and his wife what life was like for students her age before 13 people were killed and 20 others wounded in the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.
“For her, the flag flying at half-staff is a weekly event,” Popcak said. “She’s just aware that this could happen to her at anytime, and that’s not a good feeling to live with. But that’s what kids now live with. They’re very aware this could happen.”
The fallout of violence
With a new mass shooting seemingly in the headlines every month and non-stop reports of gun violence across the country, millions of Americans, especially young people, are struggling with anxiety and trying not to lose hope in the face of a problem that appears to be intractable.
“What’s intriguing about this is that we seem to live in an era that has the most anxiety and the most fear when we’re also living in the safest time ever,” said Phil Andrew, the director of Violence Prevention Initiatives for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Andrew, a former special agent who ran crisis negotiation teams during a 21-year career in the FBI, noted the official statistics that show a steady national decline in violent crimes, such as murder and robberies, over the last 20 years.
“Despite being in the information age, we feel disconnected,” Andrew said. “There’s a loneliness and a really deep desire to belong, and I think it’s in that separation, in that division, that fear seeps in.”
Whether driven by increased social isolation and societal fragmentation, perhaps aggravated by social media and dysfunctional online communities, the available data indicates just how much stress the fear of gun violence is having on American society.
A study released earlier this year in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found a 20 percent increase among children, ages 6 to 17, who were diagnosed with anxiety between 2007 and 2012.
“We certainly have seen, nationwide, a rise in child anxiety. There are probably many contributing factors, but it probably doesn’t help that kids are having to think about, on a daily basis, things like active-shooter drills and terrorist attacks,” said Dr. Joseph White, a clinical child and family psychologist who serves as a national catechetical consultant for OSV.
“It’s sad that we should even have to worry about things like that,” White said. “It just adds to the number of everyday things that kids worry about.”
A culture of death
Since Aug. 1, 1966, when a student-sniper climbed a tower at the University of Texas at Austin and killed 16 people, there have been at least 158 shootings in the United States in which four or more people were killed by a lone gunman, according to data compiled by the Washington Post.
The carnage in the high-profile mass shootings during the last several years has horrified the nation. In December 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 others injured in San Bernardino, California. In October 2017, a gunman opened fire at concert-goers in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and leaving 851 wounded.
More recently, on Nov. 19, a gunman killed his ex-fiancee and two other people at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago before taking his own life. The same day, a woman was shot and killed in a Catholic supply store in St. Louis County, Missouri.
“We are becoming increasingly entangled in a culture of death. We have lost whatever sense we had of the unity of humankind, our common creation in God’s image and likeness, and God’s universal and unconditional love,” said Deacon Norman Roos, who is assigned to St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Connecticut.
In December 2012, the St. Rose of Lima parish community became a bulwark of faith and support for the families of the victims who were killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In that shooting, 20 children, all between ages 6 and 7, and six adults were gunned down.
Almost six years since that tragedy, Deacon Roos told OSV that he sees gun violence as a symptom of a deeper illness that also manifests itself in a perpetual state of war, in dramatically increasing rates of suicide and drug addiction, in grinding poverty and a growing acceptance of euthanasia and capital punishment.
“We are trapped by an attitude that we can fix whatever problems we have with science, with legislation, with hard work, or perhaps even with good intentions,” Deacon Roos said. “Any reliance on God is unnecessary.”
The Catholic response
There are many troubling signs in the culture, especially the horrific acts of gun violence, but several observers said that a Catholic outlook calls on the faithful not to give up hope, but to persevere and to continue working for peace, justice, solidarity and healing in society.
“This is not something that can be solved from afar. There isn’t a technological solution because this really has to do with accompaniment, and love, and seeing Christ in the person who is hurting and suffering,” said Andrew, who visits and meets with residents in Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods on a daily basis.
“The Catholic response is really recognizing that this is good old-fashioned community building,” Andrew said. “The sense that I care enough to reach out to you, to find out what’s up with you, to learn your story, and maybe walk the walk with you. The Holy Father’s call for us to be the field hospital has been operable because it calls on us to be very proximate with people who are hurting and understanding what it is they need.”
Thinking and acting locally can be an effective way to ward off despair and avoid feeling overwhelmed when systemic violence seems to rule the day.
“It’s about what can I do in my daily life to promote a spirit of peace,” White said. “So when horrific things are in the news, let that be a reminder to us to practice kindness and peacefulness on a regular basis, especially as we go into the holidays.”
Brian Fraga is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.