NASW offers recommendations to address racism, gun violence and mental illness

Say no to gunsAfter the mass shooting on June 19 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.,  the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) issued a statement saying it would support initiatives to end racism in our nation, enact sensible gun control laws, and improve delivery of mental health.

We took some criticism in social media for focusing on all three issues instead of merely the racism that prompted a young white man to take the lives of nine innocent black people who had gathered for weekly Bible study.

Here is why NASW is calling for our nation to focus on all three issues in order to prevent such hate crimes from reoccurring. We also offer recommendations to address these issues:

The number of racist organizations in the United States is growing

The assailant was on a mission that was directly tied to a racist philosophy that goes back to the 1950s. In the days that followed the massacre, investigators found that he closely identified with the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC).  For years, CCC was one of the most prominent white supremacist organizations in the United States.

CCC started in the 1950s in Mississippi as the Citizens’ Councils of America (also known as White Citizens’ Councils), which was formed to fight against the integration of public schools following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.  The CCC has long been known as a hate group. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has been tracking the activities of CCC for many years. Among other things, SPLC suggest that the racist online content of the CCC webpage helped radicalize the young man.

According to the SPLC, from 2003 until 2015 there have been 4,120 reported hate crimes across the country, including 56 murders. Also, since 2000, the number of hate groups in this country has increased by 30 percent.  Significantly, following the election of President Obama, the number of hate groups rose 813 percent, from 149 groups in 2008 to a high of 1,360 in 2012.

Hundreds of Americans have died in mass shootings

The link between the mass murders in Charleston and racial hatred is similarly linked to the proliferation of guns in the United States. Mass murders are overwhelmingly the direct result of the use of a firearm. Excluding the recent mass shooting in Charleston  there have been at least 69 mass shootings across the country since 1982.

In the past seven years, more than 900 people died in mass shootings. Given the potentially lethal combination of hate-fueled world view and the instant availability of guns, it is not surprising that the Charleston tragedy occurred, and it should not surprise anyone when it happens again.

It is important to point out that being the target of hate crimes that lead to mass murders is not exclusive to the black community. Religious and ethnic minorities such as Muslims and South Asians have been racially profiled and have been the targets of gun violence.

We need only to recall the 2012 incident when a 40-year-old white male fatally shot six people of and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The victims were of South Asian descent. This case was compounded by the fact that the assailant mistook the Sikhs for Muslims.

It is uncertain whether mental illness was a factor in the Charleston mass shooting, but mental illness must be addressed

In the aftermath of incidents of mass murders, Americans generally re-examines what led up to the shootings and what could cause a person to take the lives people who are strangers to them. Racism seems to be the central motivation for the assailant in the Charleston shooting. However, it is uncertain whether there was a presence of underlying mental illness which could possibly have contributed to his action.

NASW’s Recommendations

There are no easy fixes or immediate remedies for preventing mass murders and hate crimes. However, NASW recommends these immediate steps that can be taken to respond to the conditions that cause tragedies such as Charleston:

  • Passage of sensible and enforceable national gun control legislation that include waiting periods for background checks and restricting the sale of automatic and semi-automatic weapons with high capacity bullet magazines;
  • Passage of mental health legislation, such as the Mental Health First Act of 2015, that seeks to expand access to both preventive mental health intervention and expanding access to ongoing mental health treatment for the average citizen;
  • Urging the U.S. Justice Department to become much more vigilant in monitoring hate groups such as the Council for Conservative Citizens and private citizen militia groups; and
  • Encouraging the nation’s citizen to make efforts to peacefully confront act of individual racism and institutional racism.  Congress should also pass the End Racial Profiling Act, enact national hate crime laws, and ending systemic racial disparities.

NASW’s Social Work Policy Institute held a two-day symposium in 2013 on achieving racial equity. The symposium built on NASW’s work on cultural competency and helped put its tool kit, “Institutional Racism & the Social Work Profession”  into action. To learn more about what NASW is doing to achieve racial equity contact Mel Wilson, MBA, LCSWC, NASW’s manager of social justice and human rights, at


  1. Kevin Todd Brothers

    The struggle for equality for all people, especially people of color, people of a different culture, and/or sexuality appears to be a fight for more than just civil rights, it appears to be a fight for human rights. As a Social Worker working in schools I find that this struggle can play itself out but if the culture of the school is one of inclusion it makes the fight for acknowledgement of “personhood” so much more easy. One of the things I teach my students is “The struggle is real”

  2. Since most direct-service mental health professionals are social workers, states should add Psychiatric LISW’s/LCSW’s to the list of authorized signers to sign the Statement of Belief/pink slip for the police or EMT’s to transport a psychotic, suicidal, or homicidal person to the emergency room for an evaluation by a physician for hospital admission. About 10 years ago, NASW Ohio attempted to add LISW’s to the Ohio Counselors’ legislative Amendment which was successfully fought by the physicians and denied by the legislature. This amendment to the state law would have enabled more people with a recognized mental illness crisis to be treated.

  3. Automatic weapons are VERY heavily regulated and are so expensive that the average citizen does not commonly own many of them. Semi automatic weapons capable of taking a “high capacity” magazine, is most of the modern firearms. What number of rounds are acceptable as to not be considered high capacity? 10, 7, 5, 3?

    Limiting the person who abides by the law, will not do anything but endanger said law abiding citizens. Limiting the number of rounds in a magazine is putting law abiding gun owners at a disadvantage when many times, a person is defending themselves or their family from multiple violent attackers. I have lost family members to violence of many forms and am very thankful to legally have had my firearm to stop 3 men invading my home!

    Statements like “restricting the sale of automatic and semi automatic weapons with high capacity bullet magazines” equates to a desire to ban a great number of commonly used firearms.

    We already have a federal background check system and it needs to be improved before efforts are made to pass laws expanding it. In the Charleston shooting, the shooter PASSED a background check because the system did not identify his charges from a near-by town. Another example, it is against the law for a prohibited person to try to buy firearms and yet, they are rarely prosecuted for this crime. That person, intent on harming someone is not going to now abandon their violent intentions because they could not legally purchase a firearm. This person could use an illegal firearm, obtain a heavy object, sharp instrument, use a vehicle, use explosives (or as in the case of my murdered family member), use their BARE HANDS to beat and strangle another human life.

    I would like to see the focus shift away from lawful gun ownership and further restrictions on these people that have done nothing wrong. I would like the focus to shift to the people committing violence, of ALL types! We all know that the mentally ill people are more often the target of violence, not the perpetrators of it! Lumping in mental health initiatives with efforts to combat racism and violence implies mentally ill people are racist and violent.

    I found the suggestions above to be mostly feel-good initiatives that will actually be harmful to people. Mentally ill people do not need to be scrutinized and labeled as potentially violent. Law abiding gun owners are NOT the problem, please focus on who is, the violent.

    When you focus efforts on legal gun ownership, you are targeting a wide array of people, mostly non-violent individuals that would never harm anyone not trying to harm them. Firearms are a great tool for self defense but violence can be committed in various ways. I have lost family to strangulation with bare hands. I have personally had to defend my small children during a violent home invasion.

    The only thing initiatives like this will accomplish will be to make sure that further restrictions and inaccurate labels are placed on people like me. Try to imagine being a poor single mother living in high poverty, high crime areas, you are at the mercy of truly violent people preying on my community and I would really like it if you would not focus on my means of self protection and instead focus on people so violent, they would rape, torture or take another human life, without hesitation.

  4. Tiffany C. Gholson

    Thank you for this article and I look forward to working with NASW and other organizations to strengthen some of the work mentioned here. My work centers around mental health issues in impoverished and segregated communities while acknowledging that all of the problems that happen IN those communities didn’t ORIGINATE in those communities. As we look at tragedies such as the one mentioned above, we need to remember our social work PIE training and understand he was a “person in his environment” so while we must focus on him and his experiences that led to this shooting (micro work), we must also focus on the macro level work involving our racial-ized society, the identification of mental health issues before tragedies strike, and other large factors that come into play. What other organizations can we build partnerships with to support this work?

  5. let’s be clear on the weapons issue and stop putting out misleading information.

    (a) automatic weapons are restricted.

    (b) When you restrict high capacity weapons you make a law that only restricts law abiding citizens the ability to further defend themselves not criminals that can obtain weapons even if they are prohibited from owning one.

    (c) The Second amendment can be changed – when the public demands it which currently in not their choice.

    • I agree with you and I wish more people in the SW field would use critical thinking skills when it comes to this topic.

    • Thank you for your comment. As social workers we are taught to use critical thinking to fight injustice. To attack law abiding citizens by further restricting their right to keep and bare arms demonstrates a lack of critical thinking and goes against the core of social work values.

  6. Karen K. Nolan, LCSW

    Thank you for this article. It helps me to concisely communicate my beliefs to those close to me. It is difficult to help family members, deeply misled by the southern heritage argument justifying atrocities happening today, find the message of social justice. Please continue to promote this strong message to the country. Full page ads in major newspapers has received added press from live news outlets. Could NASW be more vocal in the press?


    Please provide some direction as to how I can access Tool kit “Institutional Racism & the Social Work Profession” . it was unavailable online. We have to do our part as Social Workers to help our nation address racism ( racial profiling, implementation of sensible gun laws, and mental health.

  8. Dear NASWDC

    How about calling for regular quarterly independent mental health screenings for law enforcement officers? It appears that officers need to be regularly evaluated for work fatigue, anger, aggression, and racial attitudes. Why do we set a cultural sensitivity standard for social workers and not push for those holding guns to have mental health supervision and cultural sensitivity trainings that have real consequences like mandatory time off from work and racial sensitivity retraining whenever issues are detected?

    I have sat with officers that clearly suffer with mental health issues, and racism needs to be classified and treated as a mental illness.


  9. Shame on you for addressing mental
    Illness in this article. As social workers we can not always contribute people’s actions to mental illness, or even suggest it when it clearly was a act of violence.

  10. As an LCSW I would push for radical gun control: 1) Ban all firearms except for police, 2) Change the Second Amendment to ban all firearms except for police and 3) Disband the National Rifle Association who are intimidating Congress to not enact gun control measures.

    • The NRA is advocating for the rights of legal gun owners. They promote safe procurement and handling of firearms, not the abuse of firearms by those who own and use them illegally. I resent the call from anyone who wants to restrict my right to defend myself and my property, through bans of weapons, ammunition or any other means of protection.

      BTW, should the government inact such a ban….how are we going to pay for enforcement? What shall we do with all the confiscated weapons and ammunition?

      Quit trying to punish law abiding citizens, please.

  11. I thought this article was very good but it had multiples mistakes in grammar near the end. I would encourage you to have several reviews of articles before they are published. Thank you.

  12. I am full support of this type of action and will do what I can to support legislation in this area

  13. elizabeth bishop

    I am a retired SW and am trying to impart awareness of gun violence in my retirement community. Any suggestions? Thanks Betsy Bishop

  14. Thank you, NASW, for making such an important stand on all of these issues. Please let your members know what we can do in our local communities to move these recommendations forward. It’s time to organize and galvanize social workers from throughout the country to act! What’s next?

  15. I will share this information as widely as possible. We do need to fix our broken society.

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