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It's Time for a National Conversation on Preventing Violence

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This is a troubling time for our nation. The frequency of mass shootings, often involving children, is on the rise in a way that few could have imagined only decades ago. Sadly, this is happening in the U.S. far more than anywhere else in the world. Just consider: 15 of the 25 deadliest mass shootings over the last 50 years took place in the United States.

Beyond these mass shootings, many of our own neighborhoods are essentially war zones, in which children and adults alike are faced daily with horrific levels of violence and suffer the same kind of post-traumatic stress as our soldiers returning from war -- but with even less support, media attention or serious discussion within our culture.

At times it feels as if our social fabric is coming apart at the seams.

It is time for us finally to engage in a serious, thoughtful national conversation about the root causes of violence, and to take specific, meaningful steps to prevent violence. The president called for reflection and action in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and to be sure, we all have a part to play in making violence prevention a real priority. We must work diligently and vigorously to build and implement the programs, structures and support systems that will help us shift toward a more peaceful culture.

A comprehensive solution must address a wide range of complex issues. Some of the challenges are quite clear; others are less often explored.

Gun control is essential, especially when it comes to these military-style semiautomatic weapons that are often involved in mass killings. According to a study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, the gun murder rate in the U.S. is almost 20 times higher than the next 22 richest and most populous nations combined, and all of these countries have stricter gun control laws than we do. And then there's this harrowing fact: 80 percent of all the gun deaths in the 23 wealthiest countries in the world are American deaths, and 87 percent of the children killed by guns in those nations are American kids.

We also have a media and entertainment industry that too often glorifies the hyperviolent -- from movies to news to video games -- and this dangerous pattern can desensitize us to violence, especially people suffering from mental illness.

Clearly, the diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues is an area where we must do better. Our mental health services have been slashed across the nation, and they weren't anywhere near what they needed to be to begin with. States have cut more than $1.6 billion from their state mental health budgets since fiscal year 2009, all at a time when the need has been increasing. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, "These cuts translate into loss of vital services such as housing, Assertive Community Treatment, access to psychiatric medications and crisis services."

We have a political discourse that is growing increasingly divisive and at times hate-filled. Fueled by sensational cable and radio "news" shows that cast others as "enemies" and stoke fear and anger to gain ground, these dynamics seem to be seeping into our personal interactions, as well. It often feels like we have lost the ability to disagree and debate, sometimes even vigorously, without demonizing each other.

We also must seriously reexamine how and why we have organized ourselves into such a punitive and militaristic culture. How we invest our money and resources is a testament to the kind of nation we will ultimately manifest, and our almost exclusively punitive approach to dealing with conflict sets a tone that should be challenged. Paradoxically, our hardline approach to dealing with conflict actually feeds into a culture of violence and recidivism -- and a costly one at that.

In 2011 alone, the U.S. spent over $700 billion on military and military-related issues; this is close to 40 percent of the entire world's combined spending. We spend more money on the military and military-related issues through our federal discretionary expenses than on all other expenses combined. The same is true in our states, where the criminal justice system relies heavily on prisons. We incarcerate people at 10 times the per-capita rate of any other industrialized nation.

There are many additional psychological, sociological and economic dynamics to be explored, including the impact from massive cuts to our social safety net on individuals' sense of security and personal well-being; the alienation and social isolation that often result from a value system that prizes individualism over community and engaged collective relationships of caring for one another; and an increasingly materialistic culture, in which making money and owning "things" is marketed and often believed to be the key to a happy life.

In addition, many young boys, who are most often the shooters and perpetrators of extreme violence, are growing up with a perceived need for hypermasculinity. This is psychologically damaging and results in their bottling up of their emotions, which can explode into violent outburst. Many young girls, meanwhile, face both similar and unique challenges of repression and oppression, which can lead to violence in their lives. There are certainly many other issues we need to explore, as well.

Luckily, we have proven methods to prevent violence and engage in smart intervention in all sectors of society. We must invest in these areas -- like peacebuilding and conflict resolution programs, which are universally applicable modalities to help create a more peaceful culture and deal much more effectively with the kinds of violence we've seen recently. Psychological and emotional support resources should also be far more available for all ages in every community.

Every child should also be taught social and emotional learning skills in schools. We must teach our kids how to deal with conflict, how to interact with kids who are different, and how to be more accepting and get along in the world. In addition to creating a more peaceful environment -- and potentially mitigating the lashing out by these alienated individuals committing such atrocities -- these skills have been shown to correlate strongly with success and, most importantly, provide a more meaning-filled life experience.

Peace Alliance co-founder Heart Phoenix gets right to the core of the matter:

If every human were valued, seen and listened to, from the time they arrived on Earth ... if we were able to infuse this reality in self, homes, schools, communities ... the fear, anger, shame and even sometimes what becomes mental illness would fade away and so with it ... the guns. Education through communication skill building, understanding needs and feelings that drive our behavior, social and emotional intelligence ... these should be our core curricula in early childhood learning so that a new generation emerges carrying the values of empathy, liberty and justice for all.

Deeply addressing theses issues will certainly require great effort and commitment, but what other choice do we have? The current trajectory is unsustainable and dire.

It is up to us to make our voice heard with all our our national, state and local leaders, urging them to push for change that is broad and holistic in scope, addresses the causal issues involved and builds on proven success in prevention and intervention rather than pursuing the same old, failed punitive policies and mindsets of the past.

Together, we can work to make real and serious change.