Dialogue on Gun Safety: A Community Psychology Values Check Relative to Public Policy

photograph of students protesting gun violence

submitted by Robin Jenkins, SCRA Policy Committee

As I edit this article, another tragic school shooting has occurred. And perhaps even sadder were some of the quotes from students at Santa Fe High School, stating that they weren’t surprised that it happened to them because “that’s just how it is these days in schools”. It is easy to become outraged and look for quick solutions. How can we not feel compelled to do something, and urgently? How can the emotions and other challenges attached to these events be channeled into something that makes sense? Unfortunately, solutions won’t be coming soon because of the complex elements involved as well as the diametrically opposing stakeholder perspectives on many gun violence-related issues. Gun rights advocates argue that guns provide equal opportunity for all relative to personal and property rights and protection. Gun safety advocates take the position that the number, availability and types of guns (and accessories) in the US, coupled with the culture(s) we embrace around how Americans solve conflicts and allow violence to be embedded in what we see, listen to, and report on each day make for potent if not catastrophic risk factors. There are middle ground solutions; yet the rhetoric and blaming get in the way.

Community psychologists embrace values and principles that include an important focus on social justice. Defined as “conditions that promote equitable distribution of resources, equal opportunity for all, non-exploitation, prevention of violence, and active citizenry” (see, social justice conversations become challenging when the issue of gun safety takes center stage. Yet social justice, and the prevention of violence are bedrocks of our discipline’s value system.

Community psychologists embrace values and principles that include an important focus on social justice.

So how can community psychology use its principles, values, tools and resources to (a) inform the policy dialogue in a more scientific and balanced form, (b) work to ensure that violence prevention as well as other core values are actualized in policies, and (c) inform public policies to advance science as well as public outcomes? Will these activities lead to greater social justice and lower violence rates relative to gun-related harms? And, are we nearing a tipping point, periodically called out by several of our colleagues over the years (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 1997; Fondacaro & Weinberg, 2002; Sarason, 1978; Rappaport, 1984) to move toward a more value-based and critical psychology-informed community psychology?

Our focus on broad population-level work to prevent individual stress, maladaptive systems and human suffering positions us well to use our research and methodology skills in innovative and urgent ways to discern empirically supported strategies, programs and other solutions. More than ever we need science-informed research policies that can be quickly activated to deal with the growing epidemic of gun violence. Such policies might consider prevention-focused policy recommendations at multiple ecological levels to ensure full exposure to the system impacted by gun violence (policymakers and government actors, agencies, communities, schools, peers, families and individuals). Congruent with our multi-sectoral partnerships and collaborative (e.g., “equifinality”) lenses, engaging stakeholders at all levels to bring formal and informal resources to researching the complexities involved, and crafting policy/program solutions makes profound sense. As Parkland (and other) students have taught us, there is much wisdom that comes from those most directly affected.

Prevention science has also evolved in ways that fully support the competencies and resources that community psychologists bring to discussions (see Catalano et al., 2012; and Kitzman et al., 2010 for examples). Community psychologists, with their expertise in both research and applied interventions can assist to further scale effective prevention science interventions specific to the prevention or reduction of gun violence across multiple ecological settings. Parenting and parenting supports, mental/behavioral health interventions at multiple levels, bullying and aggression prevention, home visitation, school climate, collective and effective community coalitions, empowerment and self-help advocacy efforts are just a few examples of interventions informed by prevention science combined with the more traditional “worlds” of community psychologists.

Community psychologists embrace equity and fairness in all aspects of our work. In fact, we build these values into our expected competencies (Elias et al., 2015). Policy frameworks encompassing equity, diversity, and collaboration values developed from science-informed gun violence-prevention research can maximize the cultural strengths and resources found across multiple communities and settings. Such sensitivities to context (at each level) allow for all stakeholder viewpoints to be valued. By attending to equity, diversity and collaborative approaches, many other related impacts of gun violence (e.g., citizen-police distrust, eroding collective efficacy, race-related conflicts) may also improve.

Community psychologists, with their expertise in both research and applied interventions can assist to further scale effective prevention science interventions specific to the prevention or reduction of gun violence across multiple ecological settings.

Our discipline arose in part from the recognition that social problems cannot be resolved one individual at a time. Gun violence impacts include a broad set of issues that require multi-faceted policies and interventions. We do know something about complex systems policies and interventions. We also have important prevention science and interdisciplinary research teaching us how to shape our work. Because of these contributions, public health approaches should be primary in our thinking. Community psychologists are well trained in public health approaches to population level problems, capable of marrying participatory and action research methodologies to public health prevention strategies. And as Fondacaro and Weinberg (2002) remind us, “Despite its historical and cultural relativity, community psychology remains eminently capable of producing genuinely valid insights regarding the nature and accomplishment of social justice” (p. 488).  We are beyond urgency in these matters. Community psychologists must engage in this critically important challenge and use all the tools in the toolboxes to bring both prevention and support to hurting families and communities.


Catalano, R. F., Fagan, A. A., Gavin, L. E., Greenberg, M. T., Irwin, C. E., Ross, D. A., & Shek, D. T. (April 28, 2012). Worldwide application of prevention science in adolescent health. The Lancet, 379, 9826, 1653-1664.

Elias, M. J., Neigher, W. D., Johnson-Hakim, S. (2015). Guiding principles and competencies for community psychology practice. In V. Scott and S. Wolfe (Eds.), Community psychology: Foundations for practice (pp.35-62). Los Angeles: Sage.

Fondacaro, M., & Weinberg, D. (2002). Concepts of social justice in community psychology: Toward a social ecological epistemology. American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol 30 (4), 473-492.

Kitzman, H. J., Cole, R. E., Anson, E. A., Olds, D. L., Knudtson, M. D., Holmberg, J. R., Hanks, C. A., … Henderson, J. C. R. (May 01, 2010). Enduring effects of prenatal and infancy home visiting by nurses on children: Follow-up of a randomized trial among children at age 12 years. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 164, 5, 412-418.

Prilleltensky, I., & Nelson, G. (1997). Community psychology: Reclaiming social justice. In D. Fox & I. Prilleltensky (Eds.), Critical psychology: An introduction (pp. 166-184). Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications, Inc.

Rappaport, J. (1984). Seeking justice in the real world: A further explication of value contexts. Journal of Community Psychology, 12, 208–216.

Sarason, S. B. (1978). The nature of social problem solving in social action. American Psychologist, 33, 370–380.

This is an advance copy of a forthcoming article in the The Community Psychologist.  

Interested in the topic of gun violence?  See Chris Corbett’s piece Action or Inaction in the Wake of Parkland Florida Tragedy? Preventing Gun Violence Through Model Legislation


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