It’s become an all too familiar refrain on newscasts and in social media posts.
“Thoughts and prayers” for the growing number of gun violence victims in communities across the country. Shootings dominate news headlines for a few days, only to be overshadowed by new acts of violence.
This week, the FIU community came together once again to mourn, to remember and to honor those affected by gun violence.
“We honor the victims of the many senseless acts of violence that have claimed too many lives across the nation and around the world,’’ said Elizabeth Bejar, senior vice president for academic and student affairs, in opening the event. “Today, FIU continues to send the same strong message: that we are a community of goodwill, a community that stands for diversity and a community that will always reject hate.’’
Hosted by the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, the event was also a teach-in for the FIU community: an in-depth conversation with experts in criminal justice, law, psychology and law enforcement on how to cope with the tragedies, deal with the aftermath and work toward solutions.
“We must never become numb and inured to this awful reality that claims innocent lives and destroys families,’’ said Green School Senior Fellow David Kramer, who moderated the discussion. “How can we make ourselves safer, reduce the likelihood of more mass shootings and reduce gun violence more broadly, while also protecting individual rights?”
Back-to-back shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio took 31 lives in less than 24 hours, leaving the nation stunned and shaken, said President Mark B. Rosenberg. However, sadness and grief can and should be turned into action, he said.
“I call upon you today to take what you learn here and use it … use it to make our communities better, to make our nation better. Let our sadness drive us to do more and to once again embrace the bright weapons of love and hope and action.”
“We are not powerless,’’ Rosenberg added. “Our will to be better can be translated into action … to ensure that our communities become beacons of peace and prosperity. It starts with what we’re doing here.”
From the need for more mental health services and the traumatizing impact of gun violence on communities to the polarizing debate over gun control, FIU’s experts touched on many aspects of the issue.
Here are a few key takeaways:
Not just mass shootings
While incidents with mass casualties like those in Parkland, Dayton and El Paso get the biggest headlines, gun violence is a much broader issue than many people realize.
“People tend to hear more about mass shootings but it’s the everyday violence in our urban communities that is much more prevalent,’’ said Candice Ammons-Blanfort, a visiting instructor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the first graduate of FIU’s Ph.D. program in international crime and justice.
Every day in America, 100 people are killed with guns and hundreds more are shot and injured.
“This happens every single day all over this country and it affects all of us,’’ added Phyllis Koety, a former judge and clinical professor of law at FIU College of Law. “Every class, every color. None of us can afford to become so comfortable that we think it won’t affect us.”
The myth of mental illness
While funding for critical mental health services is not sufficient, it’s important not to use mental illness “as a scapegoat’’ for gun violence, said Carleen Vincent, senior instructor and associate chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. People with mental illness, she said, are far more likely to become the victims of violence than to commit acts of violence.
Still, in cases where a person shows signs of possible violence – to himself or to others – it is essential to speak up and get the person the help they need.
“Talk and keep talking,’’ she said to a student who spoke of not being able to find adequate care for her brother who suffers from mental illness. “We can’t afford to be like ostriches with our heads in the sand.’’
The deep impact of trauma
Even for those not directly affected by gun violence, repeated images of violence on television or social media can be toxic for our mental health, causing what’s known as “vicarious trauma,’’ said Christine Sainvil, a staff psychologist at FIU’s Counseling and & Psychological Services (CAPS).
“Take a detox, limit what you watch,’’ she recommends. “Surround yourself with community. Know your limits and take a break if you need to. And take advantage of the resources that are available.”
At FIU, students who are feeling stressed or anxious about incidents of gun violence or any other issue can access a number of free programs and services offered by CAPS, including online therapy assistance, online screenings and group, individual or couples counseling. Faculty and staff can find similar help through the Office of Employee Assistance.
The importance of being prepared
FIU Capt. Delrish Moss, a former police chief in Ferguson, MO and police commander in Miami, said the university has taken numerous steps to be prepared for any type of campus emergency, including an active shooter situation.
Faculty and staff receive training specific to their building on what steps to take. Similar training is being offered to students. Video trainings and guidelines are posted online at the Department of Emergency Management website.
“You certainly hope that it will never happen here but I think faculty and students can take some sense of comfort in knowing that we are prepared,'' Moss said.