American acceptance of gun violence seems a lot like the frog in the pot of boiling water. If the frequency of mass shootings went from 1960 levels to 2018 levels in one year, the reaction by the public and political leaders would have been swift and decisive.
Yet, somehow, a gradual rise in the same degree has taken place, with precious little pushback. Until, of course, clear-thinking high school students started to scream “enough.”
How could this be?
I submit there are three ingredients to the madness.
First, there’s the unmitigated greed of the gun industry and its trade association, the NRA. Gun industry executives and major shareholders by and large are not gun nuts. To them, it’s not really about “freedom” or some bastardized reading of the second amendment or a sick fetish for guns and ammunition. Rather, it’s about money, their love of it, and their willingness to place their avarice above all norms of human decency. They don’t go to shooting ranges on the weekend for the thrill of firing an assault weapon; they go to country clubs to play golf, then to high-end restaurants. Other than the source of their wealth — mass death and destruction — the major shareholders and C suite occupants of gun manufacturers are no different than their counterparts in other industries. And, make no mistake, the NRA represents the gun industry, not hunters and other gun owners.
Then there are the corrupt politicians. I refer here not just to the bought and paid for group that has taken millions from the NRA. That group, which includes John McCain, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, is the outrightly corrupt group. But political cowardice also is corrupt. It’s more subtle than the exchange of money for votes, but it’s also far more widespread. How many thousand times have politicians cast unprincipled votes on gun legislation for fear of the political consequence of voting on principle? They sold their votes as well, not for campaign cash, but for political security.
And this poisons the discourse. Candidates make statements to assuage the gun lobby. I was guilty of that when I ran. I stood by my own narrow view of the 2nd Amendment, but said that gun ownership was part of the fabric of our society, when my true thought was “this madness needs to stop.” Shame on me. Ron Barber took a bullet to his leg in 2011, but paid homage to the 2d Amendment in his public statement in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre two years later. We here at BfAZ ran a petition urging him to take the lead role in confronting the gun lobby. He ultimately did speak up, but nowhere near as forcefully as we’d hoped. Jen Longdon, a candidate for state rep this cycle, and her fiancé both were shot, her in the back and him in the head. She lost the use of her legs; he lost critical brain functions. I support her campaign, but have to swallow hard when she too bows to the 2nd Amendment and the gun lobby’s bastardized interpretation of it.
These first two ingredients feed on each other. The gun lobby inflames that small, gun crazy segment of the population (10% of Americans own well over 90% of the guns) and they become intense one issue voters. When I ran, I received hundreds of postcards from gun owners, concerned that I would take their guns away. But I received not one communication from a parent concerned that his or her kid might be shot at school. Here’s how toxic the environment was as a candidate: I was at a candidate reception in DC where I introduced myself to a guy from the Brady Campaign. He saw my name tag and said: “You’re from Ariazona. You shouldn’t be seen speaking to me.” He wasn’t cracking wise. He truly was concerned. And this was at a DCCC sponsored, private event. I shook off his fear, but our conversation was about what statements, left of crazy, I could say without destroying my chances.
Finally, there are voters, millions of them, whose critical thinking skills are woefully lacking. As a result, they’re moved to the right by arguments that should be rejected as obvious red herrings. Here’s an example: Consider the current hysteria over the security guard who didn’t enter the Parkland high school when he heard the gunfire. Okay, in a perfect world he would have had the courage to charge into the school, armed with a pistol, to take on a crazed assailant armed with an assault rifle. By the time he heard the gunfire, the bodies already were falling. If he somehow made it to the scene before the seventeenth and final victim succumbed, there were three possible results. Most likely, the guy with the assault rifle would have prevailed in the shootout, hiking the body count to 18. Far less likely, the cop might have taken out the shooter when the body count was at a mere 14 or so. The worst case scenario is that the cop might have added to the body count by inadvertently hitting students caught in the crossfire. So, why in the hell are people focusing on the inaction of the security guard? Under what perverse logic does his inaction alter the analysis of what measures should be implemented to prevent future tragedies?
Another example: The scapegoating of local law enforcement and the FBI for failing to preempt the tragedy by imprisoning or hospitalizing the assailant in advance, or seizing his guns. The current rate of mass shootings involving four or more victims is 9 every 10 days. Yes, this particular assailant gave out clues, but most don’t.. Consider the two Columbine shooters. They conspired for months and escaped detection by law enforcement. Further, even if every assailant betrayed his intentions in advance, law enforcement could not come remotely close to identifying with 100% precision which tips to prioritize. Finally, deciding when to act pre-emptively and when not to would be an impossible task of line drawing, in a society that treats owning a weapon is treated as a fundamental right.
Again, under what perverse logic do voters conclude that the failure of law enforcement to preempt the Parkland shooting alter the analysis of what measures should be implemented to reliably prevent future tragedies, given that the ability to detect and stop an imminent shooting is a purely random occurrence?
The “law enforcement blew it” red herring intersects with the granddaddy of all red herrings, the “it’s not a gun issue, it’s a mental health issue,” red herring. In two of the most horrific incidents, Las Vegas and Aurora, the shooters were highly intelligent and high functioning. The Las Vegas shooter killed 59 and injured dozens more. He also built a multi-million dollar fortune in real estate investment. Under what perverse logic do voters believe this epidemic of mass violence can be contained by improving our mental health system?
In The Mental Health System Can’t Stop Mass Shooters, Amy Barnhorst goes further than I have here, using her own experience with a troubled, angry young man to explain the myriad reasons why a better functioning mental health system won’t stop mass shootings. She concludes:
The reason the mental health system fails to prevent mass shootings is that mental illness is rarely the cause of such violence. Even if all potential mass shooters did get psychiatric care, there is no reliable cure for angry young men who harbor violent fantasies. And the laws intended to stop the mentally ill from buying guns are too narrow and easily sidestepped; people like Nikolas Cruz and my patient are unlikely to qualify.
Instead of hoping that imposing mental health treatment on everyone who shows “red flags” will put an end to mass shootings, we should focus on ways to put some distance between these young men and their guns.
Barnhorst’s piece is well reasoned and well written. It’s worth a read. But the conclusions she reaches as a psychiatrist are the same as those you would reach with modest critical thinking skills. It’s not rocket science; it’s rudimentary analysis and common sense.
The non-application of critical thinking skills is not only a function of their non-existence in the minds of voters. It’s also a function of intentional non-use. More on this in a bit.
Just as the greed driven gun lobby seizes on fears of the gun crazed right to whip them into a frenzy and the moral weaknesses of politicians to get their votes or their silence, the gun lobby’s corrupt, well-paid lackeys on the political right (Donald Trump, for example) seize on the non-use of basic critical thinking skills to distract, discourage and deter a huge segment of the voting population. Though the use of the red herrings discussed above, those malicious political actors are able to keep millions of voters from grasping the obvious reality that the epidemic of mass shootings and waste of lives will be contained only by the enactment of strong, sensible gun laws.
Tragically, it’s not only voter stupidity that gives corrupt politicians the space to distract from the real issues involved. It’s also voter recalcitrance. Paul Krugman often explains that it’s hard to get a person to understand something when his job depends on him not understanding it. It’s also hard, it seems, to get voters who obsess over their tax rates or conservative social values to grasp that the politicians who share their view in those areas are dead wrong when it comes to the protection of innocent school kids from mass murder. Those gun industry executives and shareholders are not the only ones whose greed has paved the way to the slaughter of innocent American children. There are plenty of genteel Republicans bankers and businessmen with blood on their hands too.
And where has this toxic mix brought us as a society? Right to where we are now: hoping, with every fiber of our beings, that a movement led by clear thinking, heroic high schoolers will stop the madness. They’re our hope. So help them any way you can. And if you can’t (or won’t) help them, at least stay out of their way.