Mass Shootings Change How Americans Deal with Tragedy

03 June, 2019

Pardeep Singh Kaleka has examined how people across the United States react to mass shootings.

Seven years ago, a white supremacist invaded a Sikh religious center in Wisconsin and killed six people, including Kaleka's father. His father died holding a knife he had tried to use in an attempt to stop the shooter.

Now, whenever a gunman attacks another U.S. city or town, Kaleka leaves a supportive message on social media. Often times he will then travel to the affected community to help others face the pain he shares.

Kaleka has been to Newtown, Connecticut, where a gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Kaleka also has visited other communities affected by violence.

"We've become kind of a family," he told The Associated Press.

In this Monday, August 6, 2012 file photo, Sikh worshipers gather for a candlelight vigil after prayer services at the Sikh Religious Society of Wisconsin in Brookfield, Wisconsin.
In this Monday, August 6, 2012 file photo, Sikh worshipers gather for a candlelight vigil after prayer services at the Sikh Religious Society of Wisconsin in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

The number of U.S. mass shootings has increased in recent years. The most recent attack happened last Friday, when a gunman killed 12 people in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Changing the lives of thousands

As a result of the shootings, a community of heartbreak has formed, touching and changing the lives of thousands of people. The attacks have also changed how Americas talk about and prepare for such danger. Today, the terms "active shooter" and "shelter in place" need no explanation. More schools are holding exercises to prepare students for the possibility of a shooter. And even some religious centers now have armed guards.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was once largely linked with soldiers who had terrible memories of violent battles. Now, some U.S. police officers and firefighters affected by the violence they have seen are seeking treatment.

Healing centers have opened to offer survivors therapy and a place to gather. Support groups of survivors of mass shootings have formed.

Government officials, doctors, police and other leaders who have experienced these crises are also doing what they can to help. Many offer support and guidance to the next town that has to deal with a mass shooting.

Stephen Scaffidi had been mayor of Oak Creek, Wisconsin for just four months at the time of the Sikh religious center attack in 2012. He remembers a call that night from the mayor of Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people had been shot and killed at a movie theater less than three weeks earlier.

Scaffidi said, "He gave me the best advice I could ever receive in that moment: ‘Be calm. Reassure your community. And only speak to what you know. Don't ... pretend to be an expert on something that you're not."

Last year, a shooting at a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, resulted in the deaths of 17 people. Two days later, Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky met with the mother of a 6-year-old killed by a gunman in 2012. The woman offered the mayor advice about the future.

Three months later, it was Hunschofsky's turn. She sent a message to the incoming mayor of Santa Fe, Texas, where a school shooting had left 10 dead.

"She told me this is not going to be the hardest day and harder days are coming," recalled Santa Fe Mayor Jason Tabor. "‘Prepare for that.' She was 100 percent right."

Mass shootings represent a small percentage of all killings nationwide, but the magnitude -- or size -- of their effect sets them apart.

In 1999, the Columbine, Colorado shooting shocked Americans with its unforgettable images of students fleeing from their high school. Today, the public sees and hears about these events as they take place, through live video feeds on social media.

Jaclyn Schildkraut is an expert on crime. She says Americans no longer see mass shootings as unusual events.

"We really don't have a consistent, prolonged conversation about these events and how to prevent them," she said. Schildkraut is with the State University of New York at Oswego.

Effect of mass shootings on the survivors

Studies have offered suggestions about the emotional effect of mass shootings. The National Center for PTSD estimates that 28 percent of people who have witnessed a mass shooting develop the condition. And about a third develop acute stress disorder.

Laura Wilson is an assistant professor at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. She examined information from 11 studies of PTSD symptoms among more than 8,000 people.

Wilson said, "Mass shootings are a different type of trauma...Most people have a hard time reconciling the idea that a young, innocent person made the good decision to go to school, was sitting there, learning and was murdered. That does not make sense to us."

And yet, some people do not fully understand the lasting emotional wounds of those who escaped physical harm.

Stephen Benning is a psychology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He led a PTSD study of survivors of the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting that left 58 people dead. Most of the survivors had a friend, family member or co-worker ask them why they were still troubled -- as early as 45 days after the event.

"Almost everyone had someone say, ‘Get over it. Why are you letting this bother you?'" Benning said.

In March of 2019, two student survivors of the Parkland school shooting killed themselves. Around the same time, the father of a 6-year-old girl killed in Newtown died of what appeared to be suicide. He had set up an organization in his daughter's name to support research on violence prevention.

Christine Hunschofsky says that after the Parkland suicides, many people sought mental health help for the first time. The community's wellness center, established after the attack, extended its hours.

A similar program, the Resiliency Center of Newtown, is a gathering place for those dealing with anxiety, depression and PTSD. Although the school attack happened over six years ago, the center still gets new visitors, and after every mass shooting, more people stop by.

Stephanie Cinque is leads the center. She said, "You don't just get over it and move on ... Your heart hurts every time a new tragedy happens."

She added, "You know what those people who are ... going to have to go through and what the community is going to go through, and that's hard."

I'm Caty Weaver.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

Sharon Cohen and Lindsey Tanner reported on this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted the story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. How do communities in your country deal with this kind of tragedy? Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

supremacistn. a person who believes that one group of people is better than all other groups and should have control over them

therapyn. the treatment of physical or mental illnesses

reassurev. to make someone)feel less afraid, upset, or doubtful

feed(s) – n. a data format used for providing users with frequently updated content

consistentadj. of the same quality

prolongedadj. continuing for a long time

acuteadj. very serious or dangerous

symptom(s)n. a change in the body or mind which indicates that a disease is present

trauman. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time

reconcilingv. finding a way of making two different ideas or facts exist or be true at the same time

botherv. to cause someone to feel troubled, worried, or concerned

anxietyn. fear or nervousness about what might happen