We are only a few days removed from the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX where nearly two dozen people were murdered in cold blood.
As readers likely know, I survived a mass shooting in a university classroom where I was teaching anthropology. Since that shooting, I moved to San Antonio, TX, and Uvalde is 1.5 hours away. Like the rest of the country, San Antonio was shaken and my family here felt that in a deep way.
My heart is absolutely broken for the trauma the students experienced, the loss of life, and the pain the parents and families feel. There is no words or act than can lessen the pain.
However, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of this kind of violence in the future so that other parents and other loved ones can avoid the same pain; so that parents do not have to fear sending their kids to school, for people to go to church to worship, to go to the grocery store to shop.
Of course, there is a contingent of people who assert that it is wrong to politicize the deaths of these children. This is a ridiculous sentiment though since mass shootings in the US are clearly a political problem that requires politics to resolve. As nearly every news report indicates, the US is the only core nation in the world that experiences mass violence to this degree as regularly as we do. This is a social problem and politicians–the people that purportedly represent the citizenry–refuse to implement any policy whatsoever to reduce this. In fact, apart from the COVID-19 lockdown period, mass shootings continue to increase in frequency. In 2022, there have been more mass shootings than days in the year (so far).
I’d like to address two key issues that I see as contributing to the degree of mass shootings. Thoughts and prayers don’t do a thing. It is a way for people to feel like they are doing something without actually needing to lift a finger, do research, vote for effective politicians… Save your thoughts and prayers because they have yet to prevent one single death. If you think they have, tell that to the parents of the children who died in one of the many school shootings that have happened in my lifetime.
I chose to address this first as it is the factor that gets people with guns up in arms. I hear things like “I am a responsible gun owner,” “it’s my 2nd Amendment Right,” “I am free to live my life as I see.” Of course, there are responsible gun owners. But do responsible gun owners really need 30-round magazine AR-15s to go hunting? If you do, you should not be hunting as you lack the skill to make a clean kill.
I grew up in a house in rural North Carolina where hunting and fishing were regular occurrences. My grandfather ran a hunting and fishing camp along the Cape Fear River and my dad bred beagles for running rabbits and deer. I loved taking the dogs out into the woods behind the house with my dad (before his death in 1997) to train the dogs. I loved fishing and going hunting (although I admittedly was not a fan of killing animals and so never did). The intimacy between humans and other animals while hunting (even if I refused to kill the animals in the end) is a key factor that shaped my research interests today as I study human-animal relations, including hunting.
For us, guns were a means to an end–food–and were not worshipped in the way that I see many people doing. There is a strange and disturbing cult around guns where people spend 10s or 100s of thousands of dollars on firearms, drive around with bumper stickers extolling the virtues of gun ownership, and threaten violence towards anyone that disagrees. The cult mentality is so strong that any talk of regulating guns, making them more difficult to acquire, with more strenuous background checks, licensing, and permitting (including for private sales), etc. is met with great hostility. Responsible gun owners should have no problem meeting high standards for owning a firearm. If anything, it would bring more prestige to gun ownership while reducing access to guns by people at risk for committing interpersonal violence. I am held to a higher standard for driving a car than most gun owners are for having their firearms. That is ridiculous.
In regard to 2nd Amendment Rights, it seems that most people parroting this as justification for owning guns have never actually read the text. The text reads as follows: “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.”
There isn’t really much to unpack here since it is one sentence. The first thing that pops out is the reference to a “well regulated Militia.” We don’t exactly have militias (that aren’t Right-wing terrorist paramilitary groups) in our country, the closest things would be the National Guard and law enforcement. However, most gun owners are neither members of the National Guard (the US military is another story altogether) or law enforcement. As such, the amendment doesn’t apply to them. You might say then that the citizenry needs to be armed to protect the country from threats. I have two responses to this: 1) what the hell is the most well-funded military in the world for then? and 2) there is another clause here: “well regulated.” Not just regulated but “well regulated.” This implies federal or state organization and regulations in place to control the use, storage, and ownership of firearms. To me, this screams that regulation is REQUIRED by the constitution. The second part of the amendment states that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” However, just as with the other amendments, there are exceptions to this already codified in law. For instance, felons are barred from owning firearms and, as such, that would be a violation of this right according to the literal wording of the text. Especially for violent criminals, I think most of us agree that it is a good thing.
I think that it is also necessary to point out the context in which the amendment was written. Ignoring the fact that it was included in the Bill of Rights in the ensuing 15 years post-independence, think about what guns were at the time. In 1791, guns were single-shot muskets and flintlock pistols. You can read the very excellent overview of the firing and reloading process by Harry Schenawolf. The interpretation and enactment of the right in lieu of technological change is necessary to keep the Constitution relevant. Your freedom of speech does not extend to libel or lying under oath. Your right to have guns does not need to extend to weapons designed for mass casualties. Get a Remington 30-06 and enjoy a deer hunt this December.
But what about protecting your property? How are you supposed to prevent people from coming into your home and stealing your stuff and harming your family? First, how often do people actually prevent robbery or other crimes by owning a gun? As a well-cited article from Kaz Weida reports that not only does having guns in the home increase risk of violent crime (domestic violence or interpersonal dispute turning violent) but, since more than half of gun owners fail to properly secure their firearms, accidents, gun thefts, and impulsive use is more likely. Seems to me that most of you who claim to be responsible gun owners aren’t so responsible after all. Also, in terms of mass shootings, the good guy with a gun narrative is a total crock. The FBI conducted a study and found that those supposed good guys never seem to actually prevent mass shootings. Also, not only does the public have to live in fear of mass shootings we also have to worry about being caught in the crossfire between a shooter and the aforementioned “good guy.” Bullets travel in relatively straight lines and strike anything between the shooter and the target. Also, how can law enforcement determine who needs to be neutralized if there are multiple people with guns. It seems like it further exacerbates the already dire situation.
We Just Need Better Mental Health Services
If people aren’t calling for better gun control, then they “demand” better mental health services to reduce the risk. What does this even mean? Say we provide federal or state dollars to intervention programs. Now what? How do we identify who needs support? If we are able to identify at-risk individuals, do we force them into care? How is this different than involuntary in-patient mental health care?
I think that this is a solution, that clearly identifies a real problem, but is so vague and unpractical that it can’t be effectively implemented. A person close to me that was involuntarily admitted for mental health care very recently explained that it is easy to tell the psychologists what they want to hear to be discharged from care. This in turn, trains at-risk people to better mask the tells that might indicate to others that they are considering mass violence.
Improving mental health care is definitely a worthwhile endeavor but it is not the cure-all that some believe it to be. Moreover, it does nothing to address the causes that contribute to people developing personalities that sometimes lead to mass violence in the first place. As we’ve seen with many mass shootings, there seem to be racist, economic, gendered dimensions to the violence. Mass shootings are nearly exclusively committed by men and they are most often White. Participation in White Supremacy, incel culture, domestic abuse, Right-wing extremism, and other problematic ideologies are also strong predictors as we have seen with many of the most recent mass shootings1. They speak about racial replacement and other racist ideology in addition to the often sexist remarks in their online activity.
The issue goes far beyond mental health to include cultural patterns to lead to White Supremacy, sexism, entitlement, resentment, etc. If these people continue to exist, there have to be other measures in place to prevent them from carrying out violence. They build up their courage in online forums like 4-Chan, 8-Chan, Reddit, and other social media platforms. They consume media that fuels their fears and desires. This is a much broader pattern that needs to be rigorously evaluated and addressed.
In short and in the bluntest way possible, we need to get our shit together. Even more so, politicians need to get their shit together and actually do something to address the fact that mass shootings have become a daily fear in the US. Instead of pandering to the NRA and their heavily-armed constituents, they need to actually implement policy that protects people.
Endnote: If you are more sensitive about my recommendation to sufficiently regulate firearms, and remove assault-style weaponry from the market than to the constant fear of mass shootings and the deaths of innocent people, including children, then you are a problem and should re-evaluate your own values. Your guns are not more important than the life and well-being of other people. Stop being selfish; you are not the center of the world.