Parent 'Table Talk': Gun Violence and Mass Shootings

This activity is part of the Anti-Defamation League's Table Talk series, which provides conversation starters, questions, and resources for parents to talk with their children about current events.   


Because the issue of gun violence and mass shootings is in the news so frequently, young people are talking about it, which makes it an important issue to discuss with them. However, it is a sensitive, scary and potentially painful topic. Prior to raising this issue with children, consider your own child's personality and needs and the extent to which the conversation will do more harm than good. Also reflect on whether the conversation will ease your child's fear and distress or add to that discomfort. For some children, it is better to be proactive and raise the topic without their prompting but for others, following their lead and their questions makes more sense.

When you discuss this topic with children, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Be prepared yourself and in a good state of mind so you can be there for them emotionally and make sure you have set aside enough time to hear all their thoughts, questions and feelings.
  2. Provide concrete information about their school's safety/security procedures and reassure them that they are safe.
  3. Be careful when describing the perpetrator and do not stereotype and make assumptions about the person, especially around mental illness. Because one in four adults experience some kind of mental problems annually and many people have family members, colleagues and friends who are afflicted, it is important not to convey the message that mental illness causes violent acts. Efforts to profile mass shooters do not support mental illness as a root cause.
  4. Emphasize the helpers including those who took care of the victims, helped and showed concern and compassion and think together about something you can do to help.



On December 2, 2015, two assailants opened fire at a center for people with disabilities in San Bernadino, California. Fourteen people were killed and 21 others were wounded, most of whom are county employees. The two armed suspects, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple, were killed in a battle with the police. This deadly mass shooting came on the heels of another tragic event on November 27 in which Robert Lewis Dear embarked upon a deadly shooting spree at a Planned Parenthood clinic; two people and a police officer were killed and nine others were wounded.

On October 1, 2015, a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon left nine students dead and another nine injured. The gunman, Christopher Harper-Mercer, killed himself after an exchange of gunfire with the police. As is often the case with these "mass shootings," it raises a lot of feelings that range from sadness and heartbreak to anger and frustration. President Obama, who said that given the frequency of these types of shootings people had "become numb to this" also stated: "I'd ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save these lives and let these people grow up." It was an all too familiar sight.

In 2012 after the mass shooting of twenty young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, Obama quickly proposed legislation to overhaul gun laws which included universal background checks, new and expanded assault weapon and high-capacity magazine bans and other measures to prevent mass shootings. Several months later, it failed to pass the Senate.

Understanding "mass shootings," (commonly defined as the murder of four or more people), school shootings and other gun-related deaths can be challenging.  According to a Congressional Research Service in 2013, there had been 78 mass murders carried out with guns during the thirty year period of 1982-2012. Because there is not one standard way to tally the number of mass school shootings like the one in Oregon, in the period between 2000 and 2013, the FBI identified 160 active shooter incidents, where one or more shooters "actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area." It used this definition to describe instances like Sandy Hook or theVirginia Tech  shooting in 2007. Since 2011, the rate of mass shootings has tripled.

Defenders of gun rights say that proposed gun regulations violate the Second Amendment, which says, "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." After the Newtown shooting, the president of the National Rifle Association, (NRA) a national nonprofit organization that advocates and lobbies for gun rights said, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Indeed, many people believe that guns prevent crime from happening.

In addition to mass shootings, there are other disconcerting numbers about gun violence in the United States. More than 32,000 people per year are killed by guns—which translates to approximately 88 gun deaths per day—and compared to peer nations (including Germany, England and Canada), people are much more likely to die from guns in the U.S. than in other countries.

To understand more about public opinion on gun laws and gun rights, the following data from Pew Research Center is useful:

  • 85% of Americans favor expanded background checks.
  • 79% favor laws to prevent people with mental illness from purchasing guns.
  • 70% support the creation of a federal database to track all gun sales.
  • 57% support a ban on assault-style weapons.
  • 50% say it is more important to control gun ownership than to protect the rights of gun owners.
  • 47% say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns than to control gun ownership.

When mass shootings occur, people frequently search for the reason and often "mental illness" is cited as the culprit. But it is much more complicated than that and it is difficult to come up with one reason and "risk factor." There are usually a multitude of reasons for these shootings including but not limited to: domestic terrorism, availability of guns, romanticism with violence, and multiple risk factors operating simultaneously (e.g. depression, narcissism, alienation, lack of trust, poor coping skills, fascination with violence-filled entertainment, revenge fantasies, attempted suicide attempts in the past, etc.).


13 and up


  • How do you feel about what you know and have heard about gun violence and mass shootings? What else do you want to know?
  • Do you know people who have different opinions on gun violence? What do they say and how does this influence (or not) your point of view?
  • What do you think should be done to keep people safe from gun violence?
  • Why do you think so many people feel it is important to protect people's right to own guns?
  • Why do you think there are so many more mass shootings than there used to be?



(See the More Information section for articles and information that address these questions.)

  • What can we do "to get our government to do something about gun violence" as President Obama urged after the recent school shooting in Oregon?
  • How is the NRA successful in making their case that guns should not be regulated more than they already are?
  • Why do you think that Congress wasn't able to pass the legislation to try to prevent mass shootings, especially after what happened at Sandy Hook elementary school?




Ask: What can we do to help?  What actions might make a difference? 


We are grateful to author Jinnie Spiegler and ADL for permission to present this Table Talk activity on TeachableMoment.