by Emrys Westacott
Here are three sad predictions for the coming new year:
- One day during 2014 there will be yet another shooting rampage somewhere in America.
- The killer will be a male aged between fifteen and forty.
- Although there will be renewed calls for stricter gun control, the political establishment will neither address nor even discuss the fundamental questions raised by these periodic killing sprees.
In the wake of the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newton, Connecticut, when twenty children and six adults were killed by a lone gunman, there was much talk about the need for stricter gun control. President Obama urged Congress to pass laws that would strengthen background checks, ban assault weapons, and limit magazine capacity to ten cartridges; but a bill including these measures was defeated in the Senate. At the state level, over a hundred new gun laws have been enacted in 2013, but two-thirds of these loosen rather than tighten restrictions on the buying and owning of guns.
This is regrettable. Without question, laws that make it harder for potential killers (particularly individuals exhibiting signs of mental instability) to acquire guns (particularly semi-automatic assault weapons) would be a good thing. But we are kidding ourselves if we think the availability of such weapons is the main problem.
We need to ask this question: why is it that every few months somewhere in America a young man goes on a killing spree? The regularity with which this occurs suggests it is a symptom of a cultural malaise. So if we really want to address it meaningfully, we have to identify the underlying causes. That means we must first ask these questions:
- Why is our society producing these alienated, depressed, angry and mentally unstable young men?
- Why does their anger and alienation express itself in the form that it does—typically, a sudden volley of random violence?
Unless and until our response to these tragedies includes trying to tackle questions like these, it will remain superficial and ineffective. Sure, we can increase security at elementary schools; but the killer can always walk into a college classroom, a hospital, a restaurant, or a shopping mall. We can—and should—ban assault weapons; but a dozen people can still be killed with two revolvers. We can more or less eliminate some hazards: tight airport security reduces almost to zero the chances that someone will smuggle weapons or explosives onto a plane. But we cannot eliminate the possibility that a mentally ill person will get hold of a gun and shoot some strangers. No society can. All we can do is try to reduce the likelihood of such incidents. It's all about probabilities.
Increased security is all very well, but it is only likely to prevent or limit violent acts in particular locations. So long as the pressure that produces these explosions remains, violence will find other outlets. Squeeze the balloon in one place and it will bulge in another.
In recent years mass shootings have occurred in many countries, including those thought of as relatively peaceful and prosperous, such as Norway and Finland. But more occur in the United States than anywhere else; in fact, over the past fifty years, fifteen of the twenty-five worst mass shootings (outside of war zones) have occurred in the US. Why?
There is no easy answer. Yes, guns are easy to purchase here; but they are in Switzerland too (where carrying concealed handguns is also permitted). Yes, more households own guns in the US than anywhere else (around 39%), but in Canada and Norway the figure is over 30% and these countries have much lower rates of gun-related violence.
This is not to say that the sheer quantity of guns owned by Americans is irrelevant to the problem of mass shootings. The per capita rate of gun ownership (88%) is many times that of most other developed countries; so is the gun-related per capita homicide rate; and so is the frequency of shooting rampages. These correlations are unlikely to be accidental. Yet the causal relationship between the quantity of guns and the mass killings isn't simple. It isn't just that in the US more guns are lying around for mentally ill people to pick up and start firing. Also significant, surely, is the fetishism surrounding guns. Guns symbolize strength, power, independence, justice, tradition, and, of course, masculinity. This is part of our fascination with them; it is bound up with the aesthetic pleasure that guns give to gun lovers, many of whom build small collections of firearms and can spend happy hours poring over gun catalogs or cleaning their firearms. They derive pleasure from understanding, contemplating, comparing, using and servicing guns, just as bikers do with bikes or boaters with boats.
The fetishism of guns—which also finds expression in the fetishizing of the second amendment–is tied to their omnipresence in popular culture, especially in movies, TV shows, and video games. Most of us have little or nothing to do with handguns in our everyday lives, but tune into a TV drama in the evening and there's a good chance that within ten minutes someone will be pointing a gun at someone else. The message imbibed from these media, especially by young males, is that guns are fun, that guns solve problems, that heroes carry guns and use them, that a man's worth depends on how good he is with a gun, that guns are the essential tool with which one protects the innocent, punishes the guilty, and fights for truth and justice. Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry movies perfectly illustrate the link between these ideas and gun fetishism.
This helps explain why a deranged man might choose to express his frustrations through shooting people. He is, of course, copying what others have done before him (and mass killings often do have copycat features); but they are all, in a general sense, copying the way most heroes on screens, from Wyatt Earp to James Bond, deal with problems: viz. they shoot people.
But what about the first question posed above: why do so many young men have the sort of problems that prompt them to commit horrendous acts of violence? This is the more fundamental problem. Again, there is no simple answer. The inadequacy of available and affordable mental health care is doubtless a factor. But it is a mistake to think of the problem as located entirely inside the individual. Testosterone levels, brain chemistry, and psychological syndromes certainly affect behavior; but they don't explain why mass shootings are more common in some societies than in others. To understand that, we must also consider the social causes of alienation, frustration, depression, and anger.
Some of these causes are obvious: for instance, unemployment, poverty, lack of opportunity, isolation, loneliness. Other factors are more subtle. These include: levels of inequality that threaten the self-respect of the less successful; a political system that is so corrupted by moneyed interests that those outside it feel helpless; a glaring contrast between the dreams that are continually touted as achievable and the miserable reality of life as the less fortunate experience it; a pervasive individualism that leads us to conceive of freedom and happiness as individual goods and ascribe failure to individual deficiencies.
These are some of the key reasons why millions today feel depressed, dissatisfied, humiliated, and resentful. Most do not go on shooting sprees, of course. They just live unhappily. Some turn to drink or drugs; some commit suicide. But the more there are who suffer in these ways, the more there will be who are likely to express their frustrations violently. It's all about probabilities.
Understanding the apparently pointless acts of violence by young men against innocents and strangers as manifestations of a general cultural malaise, rather than just as cases of individual psychosis, encourages us to make an important connection to the seemingly pointless acts of terrorism regularly occurring around the world. In most cases, these acts of violence are not part of some well thought out strategy for achieving political ends. Often they do the opposite of furthering the terrorists' declared goals. Rather, they are desperate attempts to damage or protest against economic and political systems that have left swathes of people feeling helpless and humiliated. In this respect, some of the causes of shooting sprees at home and terrorism abroad overlap.
So what is the solution? As President Obama said when addressing the residents of Newtown, “we will have to change.” But in what ways? And how much? Ultimately, I believe, the answer is that we need nothing less than a radical change in the character of our culture. To be sure, we need to pass stricter gun control laws and find ways to combat the on-screen cult of violence; but these measures do not tackle the deeper issues. For the roots of the problem are an economic system that creates so much anxiety and so many “losers,” and a political system from which, since it is controlled by moneyed interests, most people feel alienated.
There is no quick fix to the problem of arbitrary acts of violence like the Newtown massacre; there are only long-term measures that one hopes will reduce their probability. In practical terms these measures involve putting the great wealth of the United States to better use. Through taxation and public investment we should seek to reduce inequality, alleviate poverty, improve access to health care (including mental health care), expand educational opportunities, improve employment prospects, and enhance public amenities that build communities.
The prospects for such policies right now do not look promising. One year after Sandy Hook, Congress has not only failed to pass any gun control laws but is also in the process of cutting unemployment benefits and food stamp funding, measures that will increase rather than alleviate poverty and inequality. One year on, we don't seem to have learned very much. It is dreadful to consider what sort of event might force our politicians to reflect on the problem of gun violence with the depth and seriousness the issue deserves.