Can we do anything about gun violence in the U.S.?

Seems like we have to reset this one every few weeks and that's not normal or OK.

Seems like we have to reset this one every few weeks and that’s not normal or OK.

Once again, Americans are reeling at the sight of another mass shooting. In what’s become all-too-commonplace, we react with horror, sorrow, anger, and discussion, but at the end of the day, we all know this will happen again. President Obama said as much during his remarks addressing the shooting in Oregon, and regardless of your politics, every American probably agrees with Obama when he said it’s likely he’ll have to address another mass shooting before his term is over. However, in our efforts to end the horrific violence caused by guns, we address a few key issues: the ease in which potential shooters access guns, how we handle mental illness in the United States, and whether any reasonable limitations on gun ownership are appropriate if it means preventing another mass shooting like we’ve seen across the country, year after year.

The following piece attempts to address a few key issues. First, we must try to find a way to prevent mass shootings from ripping apart communities across the country and if reasonable gun legislation is off the table (despite overwhelming support in most parts of the country), we need another solution. We simply cannot accept mass shootings as normal, or something that cannot be prevented because the Second Amendment prohibits the adoption of any legislation preventing some individuals from accessing firearms. The piece takes a look at perhaps a key psychological reason why it’s so challenging to pass reasonable legislation aimed at ending the scourge of gun violence affecting Americans every single day. Additionally, we must consider our rhetoric towards guns–especially the paranoid notion that someone is coming for them–which may–or may not–be contributing to gun-related violence in the United States.

What’s laid out here isn’t a series of concrete solutions to gun violence, but perhaps it will provide us with an outlet for deeper discussion–on both sides of the aisle–on what can be done to make sure we can end the evils of gun violence and mass shootings in the United States.

Mass Shootings Must Be Treated Like Terrorism

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States undertook extraordinary efforts to prevent another terrorist attack, up to and including a “war on terror.” While the Middle East remains a disaster, mired in a series of violent conflicts, stretching from Syria to Afghanistan, efforts made by the military and government have largely prevented another terrorist attack on our shores. The ethics are often questionable–given the rampant use of surveillance–but the results are there: government agencies have successfully thwarted terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland since 9/11. Citizens made great sacrifices to ensure this happened, some of which are known, and some of which remain unknown, but we still begrudgingly remove our shoes at the airport, pack our liquids in tiny containers, stored neatly in plastic bags, and walk through machines that scan every inch of our bodies. We do it in the name of safety, and the hope we never again have to deal with the prospect of terror on our shores. Using these tactics to prevent mass shootings is largely unnecessary, but we must consider how much we’ve done to prevent terror from touching our shores since 9/11, and how little we’ve done to stop the mass shootings that occur on a very regular basis. Consider this, since 2001 nearly 406,500 people (and counting) died from guns while 3,380 died in terrorist attacks, and the overwhelming majority died during the 9/11 attacks.

Aside from law enforcement efforts to prevent terrorist attacks, Americans were reminded constantly that if we “see something” to “say something,” reporting it immediately to law enforcement, with the hope that even an ordinary American can do something extraordinary: save lives. Without enacting one single piece of legislation in any legislative body in the United States, the federal, state, and local governments can ask average citizens to step up to the plate and do their part to stop mass shootings from happening in their community. This requires extraordinary action on the part of potential shooters’ friends and families, who all too often sing the same song and dance when we ask, “how did you not see this coming?” They respond with, “I had no idea my child/friend/brother/colleague could do this. He was so quiet. A nice guy. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

He didn’t hurt a fly until he brought a small arsenal into a school, church, or movie theater and began shooting.

Just like the 9/11 attacks, there are warning signs everywhere. When it was reported that a small group of men from Saudi Arabia were taking flying lessons but had no interest in learning how to land planes, significant action was required. At the very least, questions needed answering, and law enforcement needed to keep their ears to the ground. They didn’t and the rest is history.

Personal Responsibility for guns

Conservatives love to prattle on about “personal responsibility.” The line is usually used in tandem with some attack on government and why you should do for yourself and not let the government help. Typically, it’s a veiled attack on less fortunate Americans, but the words “personal responsibility” are crucially important if we’re going to stop mass shootings. While the Second Amendment may give you the “right to bear arms,” that right should come with the personal responsibility conservatives love to mention. If you own a weapon that can cause death in an instant, perhaps you–the gun owner–should be personally responsible to ensure that the gun doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, it’s stored and cared for properly, and that if you have children, or mentally disturbed people in the home, your guns are locked. Yes, that makes it difficult to use the guns when the bad guys undoubtedly come to raid your house like the climax of an action movie, but gun ownership actually increases the likelihood of a suicide or homicide occurring. Yes, you’re likely safer without a firearm in the home than in it, but that’s another conservation entirely. This is about you–the gun owner–having the wherewithal to ensure violence does not happen inside or outside the home. It’s all too simple: if you own guns, be responsible for the guns, or one day you could find yourself at the wrong end of a gun or the media could be asking you why your loved one used those guns on classmates, friends, colleagues, and other innocent lives.

While a break from reality, or depression turning into homicidal actions are harder to track, the warning signs are often there. In the aftermath of mass shootings, numerous articles are usually published discussing the shooter’s “mental state” before the shooting, journal entries, discussions with friends, family members, or psychiatrists. It’s at this point where someone who sees something needs to say something. The shooter in Oregon had an estimated 13 firearms at his disposal. Thirteen. Six of which he brought with him, 7 additional guns were found in the home. Stories are swirling about his mother’s view on firearms and why so many were available in the home, but regardless of your political views, if you have any questions about a loved ones mental state, why have the guns there?

Additionally, we can’t simply blame a mass shooter’s actions on a lack of treatment for mental illness. As John Oliver pointed out in a must-watch segment, conservatives often talk the talk on mental illness following a shooting and then do absolutely nothing to ensure Americans have affordable access to mental health facilities and treatment.

So, let’s review: if gun violence is taking far more lives in the United States than terrorism, perhaps we need to treat it as such and take enormous measures to prevent gun violence from happening. While legislation may not happen, thanks to the Constitution, we still can take personal responsibility to do something if we see something, and do whatever we can to prevent such tragedies from happening in our communities. If that means you only have one or two guns instead of 13, so be it. If that means locking up your guns away from a disturbed family member, so be it. If that means your guns are stored in a gun locker at a firing range, so be it. If that means making good on promises to expand access to mental health treatment for all those in need, make it happen. Personal responsibility. Don’t just preach it, practice it.

The End of the Dominant White Male

American society was and remains largely dominated by white males. Alright, so that’s not exactly revelatory, but it’s important. They’ve held the White House for 43 of 44 presidencies, hold most elected offices throughout the country, most CEOs are white males, and almost everywhere you look, we remain a country led and dominated by white males. However, that’s changing. Women and minorities–while still far behind where they should be–are starting to break the centuries-old “tradition” of white men controlling every facet of society. From politics to business, and beyond, the dominance appears to be breaking. This was made abundantly clear during the 2008 Democratic primary when then Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama were the frontrunners from their party’s nomination and the general election. Obama–a man of mixed race–won the White House, breaking white men’s 230 year-old grip on our nation’s highest office. As the 2016 presidential election approaches, Clinton is the prohibitive frontrunner–once again–for the Democratic nomination and the White House, which would break another glass ceiling: ending male dominance over the White House. It must be a scary prospect for white, largely Christian, men, who are faced with the prospect of a woman following a black man in the White House and frankly, when I hear conservative makes ramble about “taking America back,” I truly believe it has more to do with saving the white men from decline. In their eyes, they have been and always should be the masters of our country.

An actual ad used by Bushmaster to sell assault rifles.

An actual ad used by Bushmaster to sell assault rifles.

What does this have to do with guns, gun control, and gun ownership? Perhaps a lot.

I’m no psychologist, but if your centuries-old dominance over society was suddenly threatened, what better way to brandish your dominance than with a weapon, especially a large, semi-automatic assault rifle? Weapons make us feel strong, important, safe, needed, and provide the authoritarianism white men need to remain in control. If you own a small cache of weapons, I’m likely going to fear you more than if you have a small cache of SuperSoaker water guns.

The Pew Research Center conducted a lengthy survey on Americans’ view of guns during the summer that produced results that seem to back up my wild thesis. Looking at the protection of gun rights vs. gun control, 52 percent of men want gun rights “protected” vs. 45 percent who want guns controlled. When broken down by race, the gap is even bigger (57 percent support gun rights, with only 40 percent supporting gun control). The partisan divide is also stark: 71 percent of Republicans want to protect gun rights, while 73 percent of Democrats want some form of gun control. Also, the more educated someone is, the more likely they are to support gun control measures. Of course, all of this makes sense, and without crosstabs analyzing how “white men” specifically feel about gun rights vs. gun control, I am largely speculating, but I suspect “white males,” especially those identifying as “Republicans” probably have the widest splits among any demographic group.

Pew Research Center survey (8-13-15)

Pew Research Center survey (8-13-15)

Maybe white males are “clinging to their guns” as a way to cling to their dominance? It’s an interesting thesis that should be investigated in far more depth than a simple blog post allows. A political psychologist would likely have a field day researching the slight decline of white men, and whether it’s influenced gun ownership.

Where do we go from here?

There’s no question we have a litany of issues surrounding guns in the United States. What should be treated as a crisis and rightfully politicized so elected officials are forced to act, is looked at with a shrug of the shoulders, and a comment like “stuff happens.” With over 10,000 gun deaths–and counting–in 2015, what will be the tipping point? Atlanta Journal Constitution cartoonist Mike Luckovich went after guns with a slew of comics in recent days, including a poignant one about what it would take Congress to do something about mass shooters. It’s easy to ignore the senselessness of gun violence when it hasn’t touched you, but Sheriff John Hanlin of Douglas County, Oregon–home of Umpqua Community College–who shared a post on Facebook calling Sandy Hook a hoax, is probably singing a different tune after the massacre that touched his community.

Whether you agree or disagree with what’s been discussed here doesn’t matter to me, but what matters is that we have a conversation and find sensible solutions to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I was a mere 13 years old when Columbine happened, and in the ensuing 16 years, we’ve seen it happen again and again. “Stuff” doesn’t just “happen” and when “stuff happens,” and it’s taking people’s lives, generally we do something about it.

The debate will continue as Democrats and progressives argue for legislative fixes in an attempt to make sure the wrong people don’t end up with small arsenals, while Republicans and conservatives will largely argue that “stuff happens” and we need to improve our mental health system, while doing little to nothing. Will sweeping gun control keep guns out of the hands of criminals? No. Conservatives are probably right about that, but we’re not talking about lifelong criminals. We’re talking about individuals with easy access to weapons who finally snap and carry out horrific, unspeakable acts. Certainly there’s a way to prevent some, most, or all of those acts from happening. In the nearly 15 years since 9/11, we’ve thwarted almost every terrorist attack attempted on American soil and few Americans have lost their lives in terrorist attack since that day. If we did it with terrorism, why not mass shootings and gun violence? We’re Americans, dammit, and when we want to accomplish something or stop something, generally, we can do it.

Now, let’s stop talking and finally act.

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