What tends to lead to gun violence, especially mass shootings such as the Aug. 3 attack in El Paso that resulted in the deaths of 22 people? Mental illness? A feeling of social detachment, particularly among young people? A sense of ostracization spurred by contentious political rhetoric or alienation from social norms?

Three panelists who gathered at Phil Hardberger Park on Wednesday night said any of these can be factors in gun-related violence.

The panelists helped to kick off a three-part town hall series that City Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) initiated in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, shootings. 

A standing-room-only crowd at the park’s Urban Ecology Center listened to a panel that included Terri Mabrito, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness San Antonio; professor Bill Israel, a media and journalism expert; and Mara Nathan, senior rabbi at Temple Beth-El. San Antonio Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia was the moderator.

Pelaez described the public forums as a chance for a civil exchange on vital issues and not political or ideological debate in light of the recent mass shootings.

“Today is not a gun control rally. Today is not an anti- or pro-gun event,” he said. “Today is all about these horrible events. Today is about talking and listening.”

Garcia asked whether today’s political discourse and the more controversial parts of social media had parts to play in these and other mass shootings that have taken place in the last 20 to 30 years.

Mabrito said people, specifically children and young adults, live in an around-the-clock social media cycle that is not healthy for them. Mabrito said a person who is struggling with their personal life or identity especially should not rely solely on the internet or social media as safe havens where they think they can interact with similarly minded people.

“We need to talk to each other more often. We need to get away from our phones for while,” she said.

But Mabrito noted that, according to research, mental illness plays a tiny part in overall violence – less than 5 percent of violent incidents nationwide. She added that mental illness is involved in an even smaller percentage of gun-related violence.

(From left) Terri Mabrito, Bill Israel, and Rabbi Mara Nathan

Israel said political discourse in the last 40-plus years has allowed more extreme elements of American society to dominate specific issues with fiery rhetoric, prompting some people to act out violently.

“Democracy works to take the pressure off what happens in body politic,” Israel said. “The difference now is the political right has moved to divide people and dominate discussion, and it becomes polarizing.”

Israel claimed media have not helped matters, saying that journalism, once an unquestioned source of truth, has gotten politicized.

“It’s now difficult to get an accurate picture of the truth,” he added.

Nathan lamented how the extreme right and left express contempt for each other, mainly online. She added that people should talk with each other in a more positive, constructive way and find common ground.

“We’re so focused on tearing each other down,” Nathan said. 

Garcia asked how people can balance the positives of daily life and what he called a growing fear that a mass shooting can happen anyplace, anytime. 

The panelists agreed that is a natural reaction to events like the recent mass shootings, but that stockpiling guns or isolating oneself are not the solutions.

Rabbi Mara Nathan

“I worry that if we succumb to always being on the defensive, and locking our doors and putting up barriers higher and higher, that actually doesn’t solve the problem, especially if you’re going to connect that conversation with mental illness,” Nathan said.

“People who are struggling emotionally feel they’re being pushed away.”

The panelists, Pelaez, and some audience members brought up the racist manifesto that surfaced after the El Paso attack.

Notions of racism and hatred reflect deeper divisions in American society, some audience members said. It’s why open, civil, honest dialogue is needed, Nathan and fellow panelists said, so people can learn to know one another.

“Be able to truly listen and figure out what is on someone’s mind or what is causing them anxiety or what they really want to achieve, and there’s a pretty good chance you both agree with the same goal,” she added.

However, in terms of politically driven hate, Mabrito was blunt in her assessment: “Hate is not a mental illness.”

Nathan agreed. “We have to stop is somehow equating hate or even disagreement as mental illness.”

Some attendees shared their opinions. Eva Perez suggested that media and lawmakers stop “giving the illusion” that mental illness is an overriding cause of such violence.

Danna Halff, volunteer local group leader for the Be SMART program, urged people, specifically gun owners, to be open with their family members about responsible firearm storage and safety.

“We are talking about it without being political. We are talking about how we secure our guns and that our children are safe,” she added.

Dates and times for the second and third town halls have yet to be announced.

The second installment will focus on public readiness, de-escalation and prevention strategies, featuring a panel of public safety and law enforcement leaders.

The final installment will be a community forum emphasizing steps that the public and governing bodies can take to reduce the risks of gun violence and its impacts on our communities. It will feature a roundtable discussion led by policymakers, law enforcement professionals, and gun-rights advocates.

Pelaez said while he and fellow City Council members enjoy meeting with constituents on more typical city issues, such as street repairs and taxes, events such as Wednesday’s town hall proved that community members are ready to have calm, positive discussions about loftier, sensitive issues such as gun violence.

“What we learned today is what we get to take with us to City Hall, and I’ll tell my colleagues what you think,” he added.

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.