Combating an epidemic of fear and anger

Archbishop Aquila

“Do not be afraid.” It is not without reason that Jesus repeated this encouragement while he was alive and to those who saw him for the first time after he rose from the dead. Fear is a consequence of our fall from grace. It’s a reflex born of the awareness that we are not enough, that things are not as they should be. And ultimately, fear and anger are what seem to be driving the plague of gun violence.

Gun violence is all too frequent in our society, whether it is the slaughter that occurs in mass shootings, the gang violence on our city streets, or the random shootings that take place in our cities, almost on a daily basis. When a mass shooting occurs, I am always taken back to the Columbine High School shooting and my experience the day after of visiting a few of the families with law enforcement to inform them that their child was killed. The pain, agony, anger, sorrow and lament were palpable, and only a loving, quiet presence was able to give them support.

Certainly, the fallout from sin around the world presents us with many reasons to be afraid: violence, hunger, sickness, abuse, natural disasters — the list goes on. The recent shootings in California, El Paso, Dayton and West Texas are also a part of this litany. When one pulls back the layers and examines what is going on in the minds and hearts of these people who commit these horrific attacks, one sees a mixture of anger, stress, fear and mental instability.

The 2018 FBI study on the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States found that in most of the 63 cases they studied, the attacker displayed four to five concerning behaviors in the two years leading up to their crime. Despite their behavior, 54 percent of the people who witnessed it decided to do nothing in response. The same study also found that those who committed these atrocities experienced an average of 3.6 separate stressors in the year before they attacked. These are things like experiencing anxiety or depression, financial strains, difficulties at work, and conflict with friends, coworkers or family members.

Our nation is asking what it can do about the epidemic of gun violence that continues to claim innocent lives. There are several things to consider when it comes to our laws. On the one hand, it is common sense that people who are not in law enforcement or the armed forces do not need military grade weapons and they should not be available to the general public. Furthermore, background checks and waiting periods seem reasonable. On the other hand, both our Constitution and the Catholic moral tradition do allow for weapons being used to defend one’s own life. The Church, however, has always maintained that the force used in self-defense should be proportionate to the threat. In other words, if you can defend yourself without killing an attacker, you are obligated to try to do so.

But the most powerful measure we can take to combat the scourge of gun violence is to tackle the deficit of charity that allows things to descend into violence. One news report from the Gilroy Garlic festival shooting is quite telling. Jack Van Breen, whose band was the last act of the day, told KPIX 5 he heard someone shout, “Why are you doing this?” He said the shooter responded, “Because I’m really angry.” When there seems to be no meaning or purpose in life, it is easy for people to become angry and self-centered. Our society has moved far away from faith in God, charity towards our neighbors and the recognition of the dignity of the human person. Anger will not be replaced with peace unless these basic values return.

Are we each doing what we can to help those who are in distress? Is our Christian charity extended to all, or just to those it’s convenient to help? According to the FBI’s report, the people who are most likely to notice the concerning behavior of shooters prior to their attack are those who knew them best — “family, friends and classmates.” I know without a doubt that there are many people within our archdiocese and our country who are heroically generous with their love and support for those in need. But the epidemic of gun violence should cause all of us to reflect on the need for charity, which can sometimes involve undertaking hardship for the sake of a person’s long-term wholeness and the well-being of those people they could harm.

When Christ rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples, who were huddled in a locked room, he said, “Peace be with you.” So many people today need Christ’s peace. That peace comes from the grace of the sacraments and encountering Jesus in prayer. The first action we should take to help relieve the turmoil in the hearts and minds of those tempted to violence, is to open ourselves up to the peace of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, so that we can be channels of grace for them. We must enter this battle for the hearts, minds and souls of those experiencing distress with the graces and gifts necessary to bring them the love of Jesus Christ.
May God heal our communities, guide our lawmakers and grant us abundant charity to share with those who need the healing and the peace that only Christ can give.

Featured Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

COMING UP: How to talk to your kids about gun violence

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With the development of technology and social media, even the youngest kids hear about the acts of mass violence that happen in schools and public places, or worse, experience them firsthand – and they ask about them. This puts parents in a difficult situation, as they don’t want to cause anxiety in their children but also want them to be prepared.

To provide guidance for parents who have to face this difficulty, the Denver Catholic spoke with Dr. Jim Langley, licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of St. Raphael Counseling in Denver; and Frank DeAngelis, former principal of Columbine High School, consultant for safety and emergency management for the Jeffco School District, and author of They Call me Mr. De: The Story of Columbine’s Heart, Resilience, and Recovery.

DeAngelis assured that, although this conversation is case-sensitive, it is also necessary – as necessary as teaching a child not to talk to strangers or how to cross the street, because, “unfortunately, this violence continues in our country.”

While Dr. Langley admitted that it is a complex topic and, for that reason, there is no single right answer, he says parents need to know their child well in order to understand what they are ready to hear, since every child is unique. Therefore, the following points should be considered with prudence.

Dr. Langley identified two “broad groups” – little kids and adolescents – and provided guidance for each.

Give sense of safety

It’s important for a child’s sense of well-being to trust that they’re in a safe environment, so it’s important that parents do their best to give their children a sense that they’re safe, Dr. Langley said. “If they are at school living in a state of fear all day long, that’s going to get in the way of learning and their own mental health.”

He does not recommend they become aware of the most recent shootings, but if they happen to find out and ask – which is highly likely – it’s important to reassure them that their school is safe, that if a “bad guy” were to walk into their school, their teachers would keep them safe.

Use the right words

DeAngelis recommended that parents use simple terms that are less frightening and more well-known when talking with little kids about the topic. For example, he suggested using “bad person” instead of “gunman.” He also advised parents to explain in simple words what they must to do in that situation: “lock the door and hide” or “do what your teacher tells you.”

Let them guide how much you share

“Let your kid’s level of understanding, curiosity or interest, guide how much information you shared. This works for many aspects of parenting,” Dr. Langley said. “You can, in some respect, let them guide you because they let you know, in a sense, how much information they are ready to hear.”

“For example, if you say, ‘It’s all about keeping you safe,’ and they ask, ‘Keeping me safe from what?’ you can [base] your own responses to you kids based on their level of understanding and questioning,” he explained.

Dr. Langley restressed the importance of leading these conversations – whether it be regarding active shooter drills at school or a recent shooting – to the topic of safety.

With adolescents, be more proactive

Older kids are more aware of these incidents and quickly hear about them through social media or their peers, Dr. Langley said. “So, with them, you want to be more proactive: talking with them on a factual basis, [about] things that they can do to keep themselves safe, and that it is important to follow the protocol of the school.

“But even with them, it is still important to help them have a sense that their environment is safe.”

Help them support friends and identify red flags

It is important to teach older kids to support their peers and their mental health needs, Dr. Langley explained. “These shootings were due to kids being pretty unstable, and I think it’s an opportunity for parents to have conversations with their children about the importance of recognizing, understanding and supporting the mental health needs that their peers have.”

This also includes teaching them the importance of letting an adult know if a kid is threatening to hurt himself or others, “not so much to be a whistleblower, but to keep their peers safe,” he said.

Have vulnerable conversations

Both DeAngelis and Dr. Langley highlighted the importance of the opportunity these situations present for parents to have meaningful conversations with their children and be more involved in their kids’ lives.

“Parents need to be involved in their kids’ lives. And what I saw as a principal at a high school is that a lot of times parents say, ‘Our kids are getting older and they need a little more freedom.’ But our kids need adults in their lives — obviously, during elementary and middle school, but also during high school,” DeAngelis said. “They need to be involved in their kid’s lives and sometimes have those difficult conversations and instill those values that are so important.”

A difficult challenge arises in their teenage years, since teens are less willing to open up. To help parents in this area, Dr. Langley said: “It’s a process of investment. The number one complaint that adolescents have about their parents is, ‘You never listen to me.’ That’s where it starts… a parent needs to work hard to listen to their kids all the time.

“What teenagers need, most of all when they’re struggling, is not so much advise as much as just someone to listen to them at a deeper level… It shows that the parent is open, accepting and nonjudgmental.”

Be involved in their social media

“What worries me todays is that these kids are inundated with what happens [on social media]. If they post something and they don’t get the likes, or if someone says something mean, these kids feel their lives are ruined,” DeAngelis said. “So, we need to make sure they have a support system, and we need to be there as adults.

“Do parents know what their kids are doing on their phone? Most of the times they’re pretty innocent [things], but there are places that these kids can [find] that can create all kinds of issues.”