Thursday, December 12, 2013

Why are There So Many Mass Shootings in the U.S.?

Guns? Mental Illnesses? Violent Video Games? Why Our Own Social Perspectives Are the Issues that Should Really Be Addressed

It’s been a year since the Sandy Hook Massacre took place in Newtown, Conn.

That fateful December morn, a 20-year-old man -- whom we still know precious little about, due in part to the perpetual ineptness of the Connecticut State Police, whom promised us a full report by midsummer, and by federal laws like HIPPA and FERPA, which, despite Lanza's  deceased status, prevent public access to most of his medical and educational records -- shot his way into an elementary school, and brutally gunned down 20 first graders. Add to that total an additional six adults -- including his own mother -- and you have yourself what is still only the second deadliest school shooting in the nation’s history.

For those of you that haven’t been following the news out of Connecticut, there’s been a huge (and completely under-publicized) ordeal regarding the state’s Freedom of Information laws, which pretty much explains why -- a full year later -- we still don’t know all that much about what actually transpired on Dec. 14. You see, despite there being a ton of information regarding Sandy Hook that, technically, is public information, a huge amount of it has been stonewalled by public officials repeatedly over the last 12 months. For example, it took the state six months to get Newton’s city clerk to release the death certificates from the shootings; but at just $20.00 a file, you too, can now own a blurry photocopy of Adam Lanza’s death certificate, or one of nearly two dozen files describing -- in detail -- how a five- or six-year old had a bullet blasted through his or her vital organs. A similar ordeal brewed up regarding 911 calls from inside the school, and in a complete affront to federal FOIA laws, public officials in Connecticut decided to draft their own state-level legislation that now prevents crime scene photographs of children from being circulated. Meanwhile, Newton police officials have had no problems flapping their gums about what they saw inside the school, including one who recalled encountering a blood-soaked first-grader begging for help in a class room littered with bullet-riddled children, while another has talked at length about finding the corpses of children, still clutched in the arms of their ammunition-filled teachers.

As horrific as that incident was, perhaps it’s only redeeming aspect was, (at the time, anyway) it seemed as if Americans had finally become fed up with such mindless acts of violence, and this ghastly display was sure to be the last of its kind. Systematic changes were bound to happen, and as a result, America would become a nation that no longer accepted public carnage as “just another part of our way of life.”

Since then, more than a dozen shooting incidents of the like -- in which four or more individuals, not including the actual triggermen, died -- have transpired in the Land of the Free. In terms of body count, a Sandy Hook-sized mass shooting of the like hasn’t happened since 2012, but nobody believes that gruesome record is to go unsurpassed for long. The only thing we agree on as a nation in the wake of the Sandy Hook Massacre, it seems, is that we all believe that it’s only a matter of time until it happens again.

Really, the only thing Sandy Hook did was help “gun control” supplant “abortion” as the nation’s number one contentious political issue. Furthermore, the big “winners” of the massacre haven’t been those that have longed for gun law reforms or more mental health funding, but the National Rifle Association and any number of anti-Federalist kooks, who have somehow transformed the ghoulish occasion into a means of galvanizing their own political bases. A guy blows away 20 elementary school students, and our national reaction is to buy more ammunition and create less stringent concealed-weapons carry laws. And if that doesn’t make sense to you, clearly, you must not be American.

Obviously, mass shootings of the like aren’t distinctly American rituals -- Canada, the U.K. and Australia have all had their own occurrences of firearm-related mass death over the years, of course. That said, the sheer regularity of such shootings in the U.S. makes it stand out among Westernized, Anglican countries. Simply put, no other peoples on the planet do mass shootings quite like the U.S., so much so that it’s become something of a hallmark of our national heritage.

The question, as such, is this: just WHY are the so many mass shootings in the U.S., to the point where such acts of bloodshed are almost considered "normal" aspects of the American Experience?

Let’s start off with the two primary culprits everybody likes to blame: firearms and mental health issues.

In a lot of ways, it’s real easy -- and flat-out obvious -- that guns are a major factor in mass shootings. I mean, how exactly are you supposed to have a mass shooting without a firearm, anyway? Much more telling, the weapon of choice in said slayings are almost always assault rifles -- rapid-fire, semi-automatic guns that can put ten bullets in something in the time it takes the average person to sneeze. Yeah, there’s the occasional handgun or shotgun-related killing, but by and large, it’s an AR-15 type of weapon that’s implemented in a majority of such slayings. Now, why is that the case?

Well, first and foremost, because they’re the weapons that are best designed to kill a whole bunch of people in one fell swoop. That makes the weapons distinctly different than other types of guns, which are more or less designed to kill just one thing at a time. Common sense would dictate that, maybe, the higher capacity for these weapons to deal out lead death might be something of a factor behind why these shootings take place, but the gun lobbyists have responded to that criticism by effectively arguing that it’s not the existence of these guns that result in mass homicides, but rather, restrictive carry laws that prohibit people with other types of guns from shooting down the people that are shooting a whole lot of people with the other type of gun. That, and the vague statements of people that owned slaves 250 years ago equate natural right, so to most real Americans, the occasional six-year-old child --with fear-induced feces smattered pants, sobbing uncontrollably and begging for his mother -- having his skull split open by a hollow-point bullet is more than a fair enough trade off for one’s legal ability to go skeet shooting.

Of course, the NRA logic is predictable: well, these people don’t really NEED a gun to kill a whole bunch a people. I mean, they could just as easily make a bomb, or drive a truck through a building, or set a fire, or even go on a mass-stabbing spree, right? Of course, this same argument overlooks the fact that -- although an individual, theoretically, has the same capacity (if not more) to use trucks and bombs and fire and knives as he or she does guns -- you rarely hear about mass killers in the U.S. using anything other than a semi-automatic weapon to do their dirty deeds. There is a very precise reason why these weapons are preferred by mass killers in the U.S. -- because in addition to providing reliable, super fast death as objects, they also give said killer a certain sense of intimacy in their murders. Yeah, you could suicide bomb a building (by the way, the super-hardcore restrictions the U.S. put in place after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing have more or less totally prevented any comparable events from transpiring on U.S. soil since), but it’s such an impersonal way to kill others. Same thing with a fire, or driving a truck through a mass of people. Mass shootings occur -- at least to some degree -- because the gun allows the killer to feel more directly responsible for taking someone’s life. You squeezed the trigger, you sent the bullet out there, you made the person fall to the floor in a puddle of shattered bone, urine and plasma. We’re an egotistical culture in general, so by golly, it’s only fitting that we take the most egotistical approach we can when it comes time to murder en masse.

That said, would banning semi-automatic weapons necessarily result in less mass shootings in America? Probably not, since even if Congress decided that it was nigh time to place another moratorium on assault rifle sales, there’s so many of them already out there that it’s legislative effect would practically be nil. And since lax second-hand market regulations and grandfather clauses make it next to impossible to retroactively prohibit the sell or transfer of the pre-illegalized weapons, it would most likely be a moot point if there ever was one. The guns are already out there, they are surprisingly easy to get, and since country music fans said they’d declare a Civil War if the federales even thought about enforcing existing gun control policies (according to U.S. code, weed smokers and those that have renounced their citizenship aren’t allowed to own firearms of any kind, by the way), an America with a fewer (let alone NO) assault-type rifles on the street is just a pipe dream. The pro-gunners have already won the national debate, and no number of kindergartners with shrapnel embedded in their faces can change that.

So, uh, the Sandy Hook shooting sure as heck didn’t change much regarding the national discussion on guns, but what about mental health? The NRA said they wanted giant national databases of mentally ill individuals (nothing ironic about that, of course) while all the liberal types said the incident was all the evidence they needed for massive reinvestments in mental health care funding. So what’s happened in that area since?

According to the NIH, the U.S. spent about $2.3 billion on mental health research during the 2013 FY…which, as it turns out, is about a third less than the government was spending on mental health research in 2009. So, despite cries from the left and the right to invest more money in mental health care in the wake of Sandy Hook…well, not a whole lot has been done, really. In fact, there really hasn’t been much in the way of federal investments in mental health treatment in the U.S. over the last quarter century. In the mid 1980s, mental health spending was tantamount to about one half of one percent of the total U.S. GDP. But by 2009, we managed to double that, so now, we spend an amount equivalent to roughly one percent of the entire GDP on mental health care across the board. Making matters worse, a good $1.8 billion in mental health care funding has been eliminated since the Great Recession began, while overall access to mental health services in the U.S. remains astonishingly lackluster when compared to other health care systems. Components of the Affordable Care Act do provide greater mental health care access, however, but we all know how half the country feels about the ACA, so never mind. So, here we are, a year later, and not only is their less mental health investments than there were four years prior, it’s probably even harder now for the average Joe to get preventative mental health services.

We want more mental health treatment, but we don’t want to pay for it. Therefore, more budget cuts will ensue, and less people that maybe COULD have gotten preventative mental health care will now never see it, for sure. Thankfully, only a quarter of the adult U.S. population have mental disorders, so thank goodness we’re not dealing with a ton of people lacking services or coverage or anything.

It goes without saying that a PROFOUND lack of mental health investments, in tandem with the wide-accessibility of semi-automatic rifles, certainly helps mass shootings take root in modern American society, but are those two factors alone responsible for way so many instances of mass death transpire in the U.S. on a yearly basis?

Well, those two are certainly huge factors, but they don’t really reach to the heart of the matter, either. You see, mass shootings aren’t about psychological conditions, they’re about existential ones. For a person to make a concentrated effort to go out and indiscriminately murder as many individuals as he or she can, they have to be able to rationalize it. Crazy people don’t commit mass shootings, because crazy people lack the ability to justify their actions. Every mass shooter, however, believes that his actions ARE reasonable, and as horrible as they may be, can be justified as a response to greater social injustices. That mentality explains why 9/11 happened, and why Timothy McVeigh bombed Oklahoma, and why Anders Breivik murdered 70 plus people -- a widespread morally-motivated contempt for society itself.

The thing that made Sandy Hook a reality, unfortunately, is the one thing that NOBODY in the media has brought up yet -- the element of hatred. Alike the kids at Columbine and James Holmes and Timmy McVeigh, this Lanza kid was full of hatred, directed towards a social framework that he either believed rejected him or was unable to give him the treatment he believed he deserved. His online postings revealed a dual fascination with both firearms and mass homicides, indicating that as far back as 2009, he was literally spending hours editing Wikipedia pages on shooting sprees. This kid, no doubt, had a deep investment in social hatred, a factor that despite being present in virtually all mass shootings in the U.S., is almost never discussed as a catalyst for such incidents.

A lot of people like to peg media and entertainment as influences here. To be fair, a lot of mass shooters do enjoy them some “Call of Duty,” but so do millions upon millions of others that are exposed to the exact same stimulus; if there was a direct eye-to-brain effect here, than wouldn’t there be 25 million Adam Lanzas roaming around your neighborhood at any given minute? Tons of people play violent video games, but only a small percentage of them go on to do any kind of  violent stuff whatsoever. The same thing can be said about gun owners, and people with mental illnesses, and every other demographic you can think of. Clearly, there has to be something deeper serving as in inspiration for individuals of the like, don’t you think?

Most mass shooters in this day and age are suicidal. Lanza, Virgina Tech Guy, Columbine, that one guy that shot up the Navy Yard -- they all wound up just as dead as their victims. So, in addition to a widespread sense of social hate, these people typically have a deep hatred of themselves, as well. In the act of mass murder, however, they’re able to sort of transcend their own meagerness, and in turn, become more powerful, socially, than they ever would have been had they NOT embarked upon their killing sessions. All modern mass shooters, as such, view themselves as martyrs -- they’re taking themselves out by doing what they do, but in exchange? They become immortal fixtures of the American experience, individuals that are no longer anonymous but utterly unforgettable.

The negative connotations of their acts make no difference here -- by becoming mass killers, they become famous, they create an indelible legacy, and they make themselves important in a world that, otherwise, would never have cared about them. The horrific irony here is that the proliferation of the 24 hour news cycle, in conjunction with the ADD-nature of the Internet and social media, means that mass shooters have to keep upping their body counts to remain relevant. Nowadays, killing just a handful of people won’t suffice -- if you want long-term attention, you’ve got to hit at least double digits. And we’re probably not the far away from living in a country where we can hear about twenty people getting shot to death and have it be completely irrelevant “information” the very next day.

When people embark upon mass shootings, they’re attempting to destroy the very cultures around them. That’s why so many shootings take place at schools, offices, restaurants, theaters and malls -- all places with very specific social relevancy in individual communities. Workplace shootings have been a fairly common occurrence since the early 1980s, and they stand to explain pretty much every kind of mass shooting we see to this very day -- a pissed-off individual, highly upset with a specific local culture, decides to seek vengeance by not only killing a lot of people within a particular area within that local culture, but completely overwhelming the very thing that he (it’s almost never a she, but you already knew that) detests. By engaging in a mass shooting, the shooter rewrites the legacy and very function of the area he’s attacking. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold absolutely despised Littleton, and by embarking upon the Columbine Massacre, they had successfully destroyed its legacy and utility. Even now, instead of thinking of Columbine High School as something with a social function (in this case, a place of education), it will forever be associated with death and destruction wrought by two individuals with a deep disdain for the community itself. The same thing will forever be Newton’s legacy, and Aurora’s, and Virginia Tech’s. The killer overshadows the thing he hated, and in death, diverts its social significance toward him.

Hatred is an intoxicating thing. There’s probably a litany of reasons why people hate their own communities -- how many of us hate our jobs, and our schools, and the rubes in our hometown, after all? -- but with mass shooters, that hatred is taken beyond the normal sense of conditional frustration we all encounter. In short, these mass shooters fall in love with their own hatred, to the point where their bitterness, and their resentment, and their utter spite of the world around them becomes their internal power source. It defines who they are, and it makes them feel powerful and unique as individuals. You combine that self-defining local culture hatred with a sense of existential gloom, and you have perfect conditions for a mass shooter to arise. Tack on a psychotic condition and a familiarity with deadly weapons, and now you’re basically staring at an unlit powder keg, ready to go off at any minute.

Tougher gun laws will prevent some mass shootings, but not all of them. The same can be said of increased mental health funding. Barring violent media from reaching the hands of youngsters could theoretically prevent another Sandy Hook from happening, and a lesser cultural emphasis on the Instant-Information-Complex (your social media and your CNN and all that) could, too, but remember: we had mass killings before cable news was around, the Internet was a thing, and the most graphic video games out there were about eating ghosts and killing anthropomorphic hot dogs.

Two of the most intelligent people I’ve ever talked to were Dr. Michael Welner and Dr. Michael Kimmel. They pretty much told me everything I just told you, and when it came to discuss potential deterrents to future mass shootings, they said they exact same thing: if you want to keep people from committing mass murder, you’ve got to keep them from hating society as a whole first.

Pro-social bonds are everything. Imagine if a hate-driven Adam Lanza had found a mentor in middle school, or if Eric Harris found a group that helped him view his own local culture in a different light. Imagine if Cho had met a person that reshaped his views on community, or if James Holmes had hooked up with an organization invested in improving society instead of slaying it indiscriminately. In part, we have so many mass shootings in the U.S. because we have so few social bonds with each other -- we don’t connect with others, we don’t empathize with our peers and we never reach out to help one another in times of need. Simply put, Americans really have no sense of communal purpose, or togetherness -- we view society as just a mass of people that are either insignificant, dangerous, or totally contemptible. We see community as a burden, a handicap, a thing that stands in our way -- instead of seeing other people, we see moochers, and potential victimizers, and people that aren’t worth saving, anyway. As Americans, we are taught from birth to look out for number one at all costs, even if it means screwing over everybody else. Ours is a culture that rewards both aggression and self-superiority -- we’re told that love is something that can only be reserved in small quantities, while indiscriminate hatred can be heaped on the masses sans consequence.

As a culture, we pride ourselves on being mean, and selfish, and predatory, yet we wonder why so many people in our own society have so little reservations about killing his fellow man.

Why are they so many mass shootings in the U.S., then? It’s simple, really: because they are so many people like us in it, that’s why.

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