UMN Experts: After Las Vegas, U.S. faces disturbing reality on gun violence

U researchers on Las Vegas

Dr. John Finnegan, Dr. Abi Gewirtz and Dr. Ann Masten discuss the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting, and ways to move forward.

In the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history in Las Vegas, the nation has more questions than ever before about how to address rampant gun violence. What action, if any, can be taken to prevent such occurrences moving forward? And what role can parents play in addressing such tragic events with their children? According to UMN Experts Dr. John Finnegan, Dr. Ann Masten and Dr. Abi Gewirtz, the first actionable steps call for candid and perhaps uncomfortable discussions.  

"In the face of horrific events such as the Las Vegas massacre, America yet again faces some disturbing facts about itself. Only about 5 percent of the world's population lives here, yet we have some 50 percent of all the civilian-owned guns in the world and suffer more deaths annually by firearms than any other developed nation. What we need in this country is a public health approach that brings together all the stakeholders in this hyper-partisan political climate to focus on reduction of firearm violence, and better safety. Would such an approach have prevented the terrible slaughter in Las Vegas, Orlando, Newton, Blacksburg, or dozens of other US communities that have experienced mass killings by firearms? I don't know, but I believe it is about time that we got serious in trying. Public health has been advocating for this for decades.

"Gun violence is a major threat to human health -- nearly 100 people a day die by firearms in our country, the majority by suicide. Since we don't have the ability to predict accurately who will commit such an act of mass murder as happened in Las Vegas, we must focus on prevention. We could enact a stronger ban on assault weapons, eliminate large-capacity ammunition magazines, increase background checks for all gun purchases, lock up guns kept in households, and do whatever it takes to prevent them falling into the wrong hands. Of course, the sobering reality is that even these steps might not have prevented what occurred in Las Vegas."

Dr. John Finnegan, dean of the U of M's School of Public Health since 2005, is an expert in community health promotion and social and behavioral interventions. This past month, he helped co-host the first-annual Northstar Public Health Conference to address gun violence as a public health issue.

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"It can be hard for parents to talk about traumatic events such as the Las Vegas shooting with their children. Parents' own fears and worries can easily take over, coloring what parents say to children. Parents naturally want to protect their children from awful events, and might think ‘if they don't say anything to us, maybe they somehow missed hearing about it?’ It is likely, though, that if a child is in school, she will have heard about the shootings - maybe on the school bus, in the playground, from friends, or even from a teacher. And it is also likely that she will have questions about the event, or will imagine things that may or may not have really happened. Parents are in the best possible position to help their children process what happened. Parents can start the conversation by asking children what they know. Responding to children, rather than telling them what parents think they should hear, lets children know they are heard. Listening to children gives them permission to share their fears and confusion.

"Children understand events quite differently from adults, and according to their developmental level and age. For example, a 6-year old may not understand where the shooting took place - for that child, the shooting could just have easily have taken place in the child's own town. On the other hand, teens may understand only too well what happened  - and discussions with them may focus on the sheer randomness of this awful event, or how somebody could commit such an evil act. Listening without judging or providing bland reassurance is key to helping children and teens feel heard."

Dr. Abi Gewirtz, a professor in the U of M's College of Education and Human Development, is director of the U's Institute for Translational Research on Children’s Mental Health. Her areas of expertise include prevention and intervention research, trauma, resilience and parenting.

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“Parents, family, and teachers play vital roles in helping children understand and cope with frightening experiences such as the Las Vegas mass shooting. The calm presence of caring adults is reassuring to children. It is important for parents to be prepared and available to talk, to assure children that they are safe, and to listen to their children’s concerns. It is helpful to answer questions in honest but age appropriate ways and correct misperceptions. Parents can let children know it is OK to feel sad. Adults need to keep in mind that children learn from observing how adults are responding. Continuing family and school routines often is reassuring for children. Older children and teens may want to express their feelings or do something helpful, such as sending get well messages from a classroom or donating their allowance to well-established aid organizations. It is important to remember that children with supportive families and communities usually recover from trauma and also that there is help available if responses seem severe or prolonged.

"The impact of a traumatic event will depend on the severity of the event, how well children understand what happened (which will vary with age), how directly it threatens the life and emotional security of a child or family, previous trauma experiences, and the emotional support available. Witnessing the event in person or losing a loved one is more traumatic than exposure at a distance. However, media exposure through social media or television also can be alarming, especially for young children seeing repeated raw coverage. Families and teachers need to be careful to protect children from traumatizing media exposure.”

Dr. Ann Masten is a Regents Professor in the U of M's College of Education and Human Development who studies competence, risk, and resilience with a focus on the processes leading to positive adaptation and outcomes in children and families whose lives are threatened by adversity. The goal of her work is inform science, practice, and policy seeking to understand and promote human adaptation and resilience.

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University of Minnesota experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. See selected experts on UMN’s Experts Guide or inquire about additional experts via email at

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