Emotional Health · Politics

When People Carry Guns, How Much Danger Do They Pose?

Your daughter’s fears are not unfounded. In an argument, what is to prevent someone from pulling out a gun and impulsively shooting his rival? Yet there are a few mitigating factors in her situation. People who have the self-discipline to get to college are probably less likely to act out in a violent manner. Angela Duckworth and others have identified factors, like “grit,” which are more predictive of academic success than IQ alone. A large part of grit involves such ego strengths as conscientiousness, ability to focus, and self-control. All these factors are incompatible with impulsive behavior. Also, university classes usually take place during the day, when people are less likely to be high or drunk, and those with substance abuse problems, which have been shown to contribute to impulsivity, don’t tend to stay in school long enough to take a high-level course, like the one your daughter is teaching.

RELATED: A Mother’s Worry About Assault Weapons

Nevertheless, it is well known that college students have psychological problems just like the rest of us. They tend to skew toward self-harming behavior, like eating disorders or substance abuse, and depression is common. Most depressed people are discouraged, and they tend to be less active than usual. But there is also a toxic brew of depression and paranoia that sometimes leads to actions that are called “suicide by cop” — shooting until you get shot in return. This may have been a factor in several of the recent shootings, including Dallas.

There are several steps that I can recommend for you and your daughter. First of all, she should be alert to signs of mental illness in any of her students. Anyone who seems acutely unhappy or out of control should be referred to campus mental health facilities. If the student doesn’t respond well, she should still bring this student to the attention of the administration or campus mental health. A second thing she can do to protect herself and her students is to learn techniques for de-escalation of arguments. These are ways to steer a conversation that is getting out of hand in a more neutral direction. If that doesn’t work, she can use her authority as a leader to end the discussion or even the class.

As a leader, your daughter has an opportunity to help students learn how to hold a discussion with divergent viewpoints in a calm manner. But we can’t fool ourselves: not everyone can be reasoned with and unreasonable people have access to guns in America. You can help your daughter by trying to stay steady yourselves and distinguishing between the possible and the probable. Though it is possible that a student could start shooting up the classroom, it is not probable, statistically. Your daughter would be in much more danger if she lived with a man who drank too much, had trouble controlling his temper, and had ready access to guns. Most shootings in this country are the result of conflicts between people who know each other well. As many as 30 percent of women who die as a result of gunshot wounds are killed by their husbands. (Coalition to Stop Gun Violence)

RELATED: Addressing the Epidemic of Gun Violence: A Call to Arms

Your anxiety is perfectly understandable.  This week, many have felt anxious and despairing over this issue. If your daughter or you and your husband continue to have excessive anxiety or sleepless nights, I suggest you keep the lines of communication open, airing your fears without fanning the flames. Sometimes a brief intervention by a professional is required even when an anxiety problem starts with an understandable cause, as this one has. For many people an event like this can strike a chord of anxiety that was already present, creating a synergistic effect. For example, let’s say your daughter had prior conflicts about teaching this class or even finishing her degree. The lines between her anxiety about these things can become crossed so that the original source can be harder to discern — and thus work on. A professional can sometimes be invaluable in helping tease out the various strands that we ourselves cannot see.

You too may be confusing several types of anxiety at the moment. Having your daughter away at school, about to launch her life as an independent adult, can bring new feelings of loss and fear even to the most seasoned parent. We never get past worrying about our children, or feeling responsible for their safety, no matter how much we want them to be strong and independent. It’s always a balancing act, and sometimes as parents we must put a brave face on things, even though it can be very hard to do so.

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  • Susan McCauley July 14, 2016 at 11:49 am

    I am so impressed with this well thought out response to a real concern.

    I recall that a friend who is a published author and journalist told me once of his visiting a cousin transplanted from Long Island to Texas … and how he was shocked to see the armory that his cousin (a nice Jewish boy) had built up in his home.

    Wishing the best for the daughter and her loving parents.