BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS AND MASS SHOOTINGS: The One Thing Parkland Survivors and the NRA Agree On

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Yramnna Smith (Psy.D, BCBA), Nicole Kanew (M.Ed., BCBA, Rutherford County Schools), and Justin Kanew (Candidate for Congress in Tennessee’s 7th District)

“He did not shoot students he did like so he could have his story told.”

The above quote is an excerpt from a Probable Cause statement released by authorities after the 17 year-old Santa Fe, Texas shooter surrendered to police and confessed to murdering 10 and injuring 10 others.

It was the 235th school shooting in America since the year 2000. The country with the next-highest total since then has had just 5.

A new report shows more people have been killed in schools this year than have been killed while serving in the military. We have a very real, very tragic mass shooting problem here in America. We also have very different ideas of how address it.

Some call for gun safety legislation. Others point to mental health. Still others highlight school security, Hollywood, video games...the list goes on. And then there’s congress, which continues to focus on thoughts and prayers and little else.

At times it seems we can’t agree on anything, but there’s One Thing even those on opposite extremes of this heated dialogue see eye to eye on, and that One Thing is what we’re here to talk about today.

To be clear - this One Thing is not a panacea. It will not cure our ills overnight, and the intent is not to imply that we should do this One Thing and this One Thing alone. But in a world where matters of agreement are few and far between, it’s important to water the seeds of common ground when they appear, because if an idea can save even one life - if it can help dissuade even one killer in the future - we believe it’s something we MUST try.

First, a quote from National Rifle Association (NRA) spokeswoman Dana Loesch: "[The media] has got to stop creating more of these monsters by oversaturation. I’m not saying don’t responsibly report on things as they happen. I understand it. But constantly showing the image of the murderer, constantly saying their name, is completely unnecessary."

Next, a recent tweet from Parkland Survivor-Turned-Gun Safety-Advocate David Hogg: “I don’t know the shooters name and don’t want to… we make these sick people known worldwide for their horrifying acts, let’s stop that.”

There. Did you catch that? That was two people who could not be further apart on the issue of how to stop mass shootings in America agreeing that One Thing we should do as a society is make a commitment not to give these killers the fame they seek.

The Santa Fe killer is not alone in wanting his story told - the Santa Barbara self-described “Angel of Death” wanted to be a “God”... The racist murderer in Charleston said “someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me”... Virginia Tech… Newtown… Aurora… the list of shooters who were hungry for media attention is long, and we’re here to tell you that the evidence-based science of behavior analysis backs up the idea that a society-wide commitment to not giving that attention to them has a very real chance of preventing the next tragedy.

According to applied behavior analysis, all behaviors occur to achieve one of four functions: 1) Escape/avoidance 2) Access to a tangible/activity 3) Access to sensory input 4) Access to attention/being attended to.

What the aforementioned killers have consistently displayed falls into the 4th category: “Attention-seeking behavior”. When the function of attention is present, any type of feedback - positive or negative - can increase (reinforce) the behavior. If an attention-starved individual has seen the behavior of another garner access to attention, the chance they themselves will engage in the observed behavior increases.

The intensity of the “reinforcement” a school shooting behavior receives allows for others to learn through observation (modeling) how effective engaging in school shooting behaviors can be to access attention. From a behavioral perspective, to limit school shootings, behaviors should be placed “on extinction”, while increasing replacement behaviors.

Media platforms should remove access to reinforcement (extinction) by not running stories which garner fame and attention for those who carry out school shootings, and instead increase replacement behaviors by shifting the focus to providers of mental health support and preventative strategies and “helping behaviors” within the communities affected, while providing direct contact with local mental health professionals and wrap-around services for students and their families.

This is the “behavior modification” behind what the NRA’s Dana Loesch and Parkland’s David Hogg are asking for, and why it could potentially disincentivize future killers.

It’s important to note that Loesch and Hogg are by no means the first to say this aloud - after Aurora, Caren and Tom Teves and Sandy and Lonnie Phillips - parents of Alex Teves and Jessica Phillips, who were victims of the massacre in the Aurora movie theater in 2012 - started a push for “no notoriety”, calling on the media not to splash the names and likenesses of killers across their pages and screens. At the time, Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper, and other prominent media members expressed support for the idea.

But the “no notoriety” push has lost steam. It’s time to gain it back.

Once upon a time, rowdy baseball fans regularly ran onto the field during games to get their faces on TV. Once baseball implemented a league-wide policy to have the networks cut away any time it happened, such occurrences became far more rare. That was “extinction” on display.

Extinction is an evidence-based procedure. It’s time for the American media to “cut away” and stop giving these killers the fame they seek. Stop naming them. Stop showing their faces. No amount of views/clicks/eyeballs is worth reinforcing the attention-seeking behavior that will potentially encourage the next shooter to choose the same deadly path.

When the NRA and Parkland survivors are on the same page, and there’s science to back them up, it’s time for us all to take notice, and to play our part.

We don’t even need congress for this one.

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