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Howard Pinderhughes, Ph.D. Headshot

Implications from Aurora

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The initial reaction to the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colorado, seems eerily familiar. Our hearts ache with sympathy for the Aurora community and for victims and loved ones, and our minds churn with questions about the shooter's state of mind. This reaction is what we have learned to do and say, and what, with too much practice, has developed into a distressing national habit. We are shocked and seek answers for how this could have happened. And we try to ignore how predictable mass murder has become in America, and how we are no longer surprised by this news.

Some people would rather deny that our families are at risk. We try to reassure ourselves through distance and say, "it was those people," or we say "that could never happen here," because it feels better to dismiss mass murder as a random, faraway event. There is a rush to purchase weapons, and law enforcement goes on high alert. Regardless of how we cope as individuals, the recent event in Aurora is part of a larger pattern of violence in our society -- a trend that is devastating. Only by taking action can we reduce the devastation.

The U.S. has witnessed 21 incidents of mass murder since 2000, and we fail to grasp the deep psychic toll these killings have on all of us. Mental illness and mental health services come up as important considerations after each incident, yet we ignore our collective trauma. In a sense, we suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder on a national scale, but do nothing to heal as a society or to prevent these killings from happening again. We have become a traumatized country, paralyzed by norms and values that result in condoning violence.

Violence in our country is pervasive, and it manifests every day in streets, homes and in communities across the U.S. When responding to the massacre in Aurora, President Barack Obama said that in addition to praying for victims and survivors, "We also pray for those who succumb to the less-publicized acts of violence that plague our communities in so many cities across the country every single day. We can't forget about that."

We can begin by developing strategies to reduce the likelihood of future tragic events, whether they are high-profile massacres or less-publicized acts of violence. Just as the FBI, Homeland Security and other critical policing agencies have been called upon to respond to the Aurora massacre, it's also critical that the public health community is called upon to serve as we all move forward.

Public health can not only help address the trauma experienced by communities and individuals but can also shape broader solutions that: 1) Shift norms so violence is less likely; 2) Draw attention to the importance of mental and physical health, and proven ways to promote well-being; and 3) Make it harder for people to procure all types of firearms and ammunition, including weapons that are clearly designed for killing as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.

We may not be able to prevent every violent incident, but we know what to do make violence far less common and far less likely. Violence leeches hope and feeds on despair, and will not abate on its own. Now is a time for action, as well as mourning. Now is the time for healing, for the victims at Aurora and for all of us who are victims of a violent society and culture. Part of that healing process must be to make our communities safer, and to transform our society into one based on trust rather than on fear of each other.