May 24, 2023 [LINK / comment]

Mass shootings in the U.S.: What can we do?

One year ago today, 21 innocent people (19 children and two teachers) were murdered in cold blood in the small town of Uvalde, Texas. Today's lead story in the Washington Post focused on whether enough law enforcement authorities were held properly accountable for the delayed response. It's fairly obvious that multiple people utterly failed in their responsibilities, and it is likely that some lives could have been saved by a more effective policing, but that diverts attention from the more fundamental problem, which is the ongoing breakdown of civilized norms in American society.

As every year passes, we become more tolerant of sociopathic behavior and self-indulgent egomania. Young people are being brought up (if that word is even applicable, as two-parent families become the exception rather than the norm) to disregard basic social norms of modesty and self-restraint. Instead, they are conditioned to flaunt their identity in an orgy of bragging and insults toward various outcast subgroups. Social media is amplifying the worst tendencies that are latent in all of us, leading to the formation of extremist cults, widespread feelings of misery and depression, and even suicide. The dirty little secret of America in the early 21st Century is that our social institutions have not developed the means to cope with and repress the evil side-effects of technological progress.

Indeed, modern public policy in the U.S. often seems to make things worse by subsidizing day care for young kids so that the mother can work on a full-time job. (The very fact that so many people complain that day care is "too expensive" is itself an indication that society deprecates the social value of bringing up children.) Such policies undermine the vital role of parents in fostering healthy attitudes in youth, who end up absorbing the norms and values of their peers -- often very destructive ones. But questions about how to reform social policy and how to rebuild a culture that values good parenting will have to wait until another day. The point is that, right now, we as a society are engaged in a massive exercise of denial with regard to the plain fact that vicious, hateful, murderous feelings are on an inexorable rise, and that we are virtually at war with our own selves.

Here is what I wrote in a comment responding favorably to a Facebook post about Uvalde by Alex Knepper two days after the massacre, May 26, 2022:

I got so sick of the predictable, stale partisan rhetoric that gets recirculated every time there's a mass shooting in this country that I included a verse about that in a song I wrote, "Better Left Unsaid." The massacre in Uvalde, Texas sheds light on two related problems: the extreme psychological duress afflicting many if not most younger people these days, especially among boys who didn't have a full-time father during their formative years, and (to a lesser extent) the increasing polarization of our society, which makes consensus on needed policy reform on such areas as regulating gun purchases. People on both sides tend to just ignore what the other side thinks and says, and nothing gets done. But the main problem is not easy access to guns, it's the (literally) demonic thoughts and attitudes that have infected our society in recent decades. Anyone who is serious about stopping gun violence must address the cultural origins of all the hate and anger in our midst. We are a sick society, and for real healing to take place, contemporary norms and assumptions need to be challenged.

One side effect of all these mass shootings is that many of us tend to become desensitized to the problem, as if the next such horrific act is almost as inevitable as a storm front. Whenever an especially bad mass shooting takes place, the Washington Post lists the names of all the victims of such crimes, as a apt reminder that each and every one of those people was a unique inividual human being who was loved by others and was a vital part of our social fabric. In the Uvalde massacre, the young victims all had several decades of life to look forward to. Trying to discern lessons from the raw statistics on mass killings, as people such as me are prone to do, should not detract from the fundamental horror that confronts us -- whether we choose to recognize it or not.

In my political science classes for the past year, I have been presenting the following map (or preliminary versions of it) as a way to get a handle on the magnitude of the problem of mass killings, and how their occurrence varies from one part of the country to another. Some people try to make political hay out of mass killings, but they seem to happen in "red" and "blue" states without discrimination.

Mass shootings by state

In order to draw something substantial from the above graphic portrayal of mass shootings, here is a listing with places that will be immediately familiar to almost everyone.

The worst mass shootings in America
Date Location Number of fatal victims
Apr 20, 1999 Littleton, CO : Columbine High School 13
Apr 16, 2007 Blacksburg, VA : Virginia Tech campus 32
Dec 14, 2012 Newton, CT : Sandy Hook Elem. School 26
Jun 12, 2016 Orlando, FL : Pulse nightclub 49
Oct 1, 2017 Las Vegas, NV : strip (outdoor concert) 58
Nov 5, 2017 Sutherland Springs, TX : First Baptist Church 25
Aug 3, 2019 El Paso, TX : WalMart 23
May 24, 2022 Uvalde, TX : elementary school 21

SOURCE: Washington Post (editorials) Nov. 17, 2018 and May 21, 2022; May 8, 2023

The emphasis I have placed on the under-acknowledged sociological deformities in the United States should serve to caution against the notion that tighter restrictions on the sale or ownership of firearms will necessarily do much good. I don't oppose such restrictions, but this is a case of the proverbial "horse being out of the barn," and there is already such a glut of firearms in our country that anyone with a computer and access to the "Dark Web" can get hold of just about whatever weapons he (or she) wants. (I mention "she" because, even though virtually all mass shooters are men, there was a case of a female mass shooter in Kentucky earlier this year.)

President Biden marked the anniversary of the Uvalde massacre today by repeating his call for a ban of "AR-15 firearms and assault weapons." ( But even if it were politically feasible, would such a ban really change things that much? Until the president addresses the dimension of disposition (hateful yearnings) as well as the means of committing violence, we aren't likely to get very far. As a preface to the conclusion here, it is worthwhile spelling out exactly what the Constitution says about the right to bear arms. I am constantly amazed by how many people are either ignorant about this, or just don't care.

Amendment II

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.

To sum it all up, the key to addressing the problem of mass shootings in America is forging a new consensus that balances the constitutional right to bear arms with the needs of public safety. That means circumventing the entrenched factions that currently hold sway in both the Republican and Democratic Parties, repeatedly blocking reform efforts. Those who would just as soon repeal or ignore the 2nd Amendment in order to enact their preferred measures are not doing anybody a favor. And neither are the 2nd Amendment absolutists who refuse to acknowledge that all rights are subject to various practical and legal limits. Once we get past the essential task of agreeing to abide by consitutional guidelines, we can begin to formulate appropriate (much stiffer) regulations to drastically reduce the accessibility of dangerous weapons to malevolent individuals.

There are provisions in the Constitution by which Congress can regulate state militias, and this provides an opening for measures such as beefing up a national registry of gun owners. Gun ownership should be at least implicitly tied to an obligation to serve the local community in case of disaster; that's what a "militia" is all about. If someone is in the National Guard (the formal "militia") or is retired from the armed forces, he or she should have relatively easy access to automatic weapons. As for other people seeking such weapons, they should have to pass a rigorous series of tests (marksmanship as well as psychological screening) in order to qualify. To deal with the "horse out of the barn" problem, there should be a comprehensive system by which all sales and transfers of weapons from one person to another are recorded in a national database, and any violation of such requirement should be severely penalized, including jail time. There should be bounties for people who "snitch" on unlawful weapons transfers by gangs and extremist groups. (The existence of such extremist groups in America is one of the biggest obstacles to fully implementing such reforms, but that merely illustrates the need for undertaking such measures.) Perhaps those who own multiple firearms could become subject to a tax that would fund greater Federal efforts to oversee gun possession. Will some people object to such efforts? Of course. But as long as the core of the 2nd Amendment is firmly upheld, there is no reason for law-abiding citizens to fear such regulation.

Obviously, no laws will ever prevent all acts of evil from being committed by sociopathic men (and boys), but we can at least get ourselves on a course of gradually reducing them. In conjunction with social action -- including religious action -- at the community level aimed at combatting murderous dispositions, we can begin to restore a semblance of civil society. We really can make things better if only we set aside our prejudiced attitudes about gun ownership.