It is easy to think that mass shooters are simply monsters but that is just a way to duck our shared responsibility
Joe Pierre M.D.
A movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The Washington Navy Yard. The college town of Isla Vista, California. Most of us recognise these as US sites of recent mass murder, loosely defined as the intentional killing of more than four people in a single incident. Unlike the casualties of war or gang-related murders carried out in inner cities, these acts of domestic terrorism strike a particular brand of fear in the hearts of Americans because they seem to be random acts committed in places where such behaviour is unexpected.
Naturally, we respond by trying to pinpoint the cause: bad parenting, mental illness, guns, video games, the media, heavy metal music, or just plain evil. Once some ‘other’ is identified as an offending agent, we set up a kind of quarantine so that it can be banished from society and no longer threaten. Hoping to allay fears and respond to emotionally charged demands for action, politicians jump on this or that bandwagon with proposals for legislation aimed at sequestering and eliminating would-be culprits. Then we go about our lives, until the next mass shooting occurs and the cycle is repeated.
In the short term, this process makes us feel safer than looking inward and thinking: ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ But what if the reality is that the underlying cause of mass murder lies not in something external to ourselves, but rather something at the root of human instinct and behaviour that’s also interwoven into American popular culture? This possibility suggests that, rather than trying to get rid of some offending external agent, a more meaningful approach might require looking within ourselves and our own communities for a solution.
In support of this idea, James Fox and Monica DeLateur, criminologists at Northeastern University, published a paper last year in Homicide Studies that dispels some myths about mass shootings and calls into question our tendency to blame things outside of ourselves. To begin with, the authors note that ‘mass shootings have not increased in number or death toll, at least not over the past several decades’. They then go on to demythologise a number of common assumptions about mass shootings. Contrary to popular opinion after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, in which two schoolboys murdered 12 fellow students and a teacher, violent entertainment doesn’t seem to be a significant cause of mass murder. In terms of interventions, neither tighter gun control nor arming our schools are likely to reduce mass shootings. Even expanded efforts at profiling would-be mass murderers or enhancing mental health services might be futile. Needless to say, these conclusions aren’t very encouraging and the authors end by suggesting that we ought to continue ineffective responses in any case because ‘doing something is better than nothing’.
Perhaps we need to look at these elements within the context of the culture itself. Guns are instruments for killing, but as the founding fathers of the US recognised in placing gun rights directly into the Constitution, they can also be effective tools for equalising power and overcoming oppression. Indeed, the US was born out of violent revolt, and the idea of the underdog responding with force to defeat an aggressor has been an archetype for the US hero ever since. As a nation, Americans see themselves as promoters of armed rebellion in the name of freedom and democracy around the globe.
Over the past century, generations of US boys have grown up romanticising the Wild West by playing ‘cowboys and Indians’ with replica six-shooters, battling each other as ‘cops and robbers’ armed with plastic revolvers, or staging vast campaigns of toy soldiers in which opposing armies were gunned down in droves. More recently, ‘first-person shooter’ simulations featuring both military and criminal role-plays have become some of the most successful video games of all time. A casual perusal of the top-grossing films of the past two decades is replete with examples of movies intended for children and adults alike that glorify gun violence along with posters featuring heroes posing with firearms, even in comedies.
And while it’s technically true that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’, the phrase ‘guns don’t kill people, but people kill people with guns’ better portrays the relationship between guns and killing. Guns have popular appeal in our society because they can make us feel powerful and safe, in a world that feels increasingly dangerous and uncertain to many. It would seem that the fear of falling victim to the kind of violence featured heavily on the nightly news, ranging from domestic murder to global terrorism, has become something of an industry in the US. At the same time, whether morally justified or rationalised, protecting oneself and one’s family by arming against ‘the bad guys’ and taking ‘an eye for an eye’ remains an enduring US fantasy.
Of course, while violent fantasies might very well reside somewhere within the average US male, they’re often just that – fantasies. Thankfully, the vast majority of us do not discharge a firearm in self-defence, much less commit murder. So, how do we explain why mass murder, although infrequent, does sometimes occur? A typical response would have us believe the answer lies in mental illness or, if not illness per se, then individuals who are somehow flawed and different from the rest of us – ‘psychopaths’, ‘losers’, or ‘evildoers’. Proposed solutions, usually couched in terms of enhancing mental health services, often involve plans to further marginalise those struggling with emotional issues, screening them based on risk factors and warning signs so that they can be locked away in psychiatric hospitals or prisons, which themselves have become the largest mental institutions in the US. Such proposals reflect the instinct to cull such individuals out of the pack so that they can be banished from society.
These risk factors for mass murder are not necessarily the domain of mental illness, but rather the ‘psychiatry of everyday life’
However, efforts to profile mass shooters don’t support mental illness as a root cause. For instance, a 1999 publication by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) suggested a wide variety of risk factors for school shooters, including depression, alienation, narcissism, poor coping skills, low frustration tolerance, lack of trust, fascination with violence-filled entertainment, negative role models, low self-esteem, access to weapons, and the tendency to manipulate others. Such wide-ranging warning signs result in a profile that has reasonable sensitivity (mass shooters often do have multiple risk factors), but very poor specificity (the overwhelming majority of people who have those same risk factors do not become mass shooters). This sets up the problem of ‘false positives’ in which widespread screening would lead to the inappropriate identification of large proportions of the population. While some might find that reasonable, they might also feel very different if they or their child was among those identified at risk.
Mass shooters are almost exclusively white and male, but aside from that there is no one profile of the group. In defiance of stereotypes, most mass shooters are not psychotic, delusional, ‘crazy’, or ‘insane’. A 2002 US Secret Service report found that the majority of school shooters have had a history of ‘feeling extremely depressed or desperate’ (not the same as having a clinical diagnosis of major depression) and nearly 80 per cent had considered or attempted suicide in the past. Almost all had experienced a major loss such as a perceived failure, loss of a loved one or romantic relationship, or a major illness prior to the shooting, and about 70 per cent perceived themselves as wronged, bullied or persecuted by others.
Revenge was a motive in the majority of incidents. Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University in Florida whose work has contributed to the debunking of the link between violent video games and violence, recently summarised the most salient features of a typical mass shooter, noting that risk factors for mass murder are similar for both adults and children. These include antisocial traits, depressed mood, recent loss, and a perception that others are to blame for their problems. And herein lies the rub – while this kind of profile implies that mental illness could be an important risk factor, what we’re really talking about are negative emotions, poor coping mechanisms and life stressors that are experienced by the vast majority of us at one time or another. These risk factors are not necessarily the domain of mental illness, but rather the ‘psychiatry of everyday life’.
Therefore, it appears that the most important risk factors aren’t those that set mass murderers apart from the rest of us; instead, they are simply appropriated from culturally sanctioned patterns of aggression. The difference between one who fantasises about revenge and carries it out could be a matter of degree, rather than some bright divide separating a murderer from the rest of society.
Several authors have speculated on how the dynamics between individuals, risk factors and popular culture might set the stage for mass murder. Augusto De Venanzi, a professor of sociology at Purdue University in Indiana, has argued that modern society, with its emphasis on individualism and the pursuit of material happiness, fosters narcissism and that, within the microcosm of white suburban schools in particular, self-worth is defined by the likes of socioeconomic status, achievements in competitive academics and athletics, and fashion. James Knoll IV, a forensic psychiatrist at Upstate Medical University, part of the State University of New York, has written that in such a narcissistic culture or subculture, affronts to self-esteem can be equated with threats to our very survival and that the typical response to such narcissistic injuries is a desire for revenge.
Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University and the author of The Cultural Animal (2005), has concluded that low self-esteem is not a cause of violence and that boosting self-esteem ought to be a reward for, rather than a precondition of, achievement and good behaviour. As a matter of speculation, perhaps the promotion of unconditional self‑esteem of children in more affluent family structures instills a kind of entitlement that helps to explain why mass murder is primarily a crime carried out by white males. When the happiness and social status that one feels is deserved is not forthcoming, feelings of peer rejection, resentment and blame can become all-consuming.
Obsessed with revenge, those aspiring to mass murder draw from the archetypal US hero who relies on gun violence to right wrongs and overturn oppressive institutions. Those who transition from fantasy to action are those who rationalise no other option than murder-suicide by ‘going out in a blaze of glory’. No doubt this rationalisation represents a distinct kind of tunnel vision, distorting the traditional US hero into an anti-hero who regards society as the enemy. But in creating enemies in one’s mind, perception can be reality and moral justifications are subjective. As the saying goes: ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter.’
In psychiatry, a ‘culture-bound syndrome’ is an idiosyncratic, locale-specific pattern of behaviour that represents a culturally sanctioned expression of distress if not a mental illness per se. In Malaysia, for example, the culture-bound syndrome amok involves episodes of mass violence committed by an individual following a period of brooding. Unfortunately, in addition to borrowing the word amok in our own lay speech, it would appear that the US, along with other Western societies, has developed our own brand of running amok in the form of mass shootings. Once the cultural mythology of such mass murder has been firmly planted into public consciousness, a select few distressed individuals will look to this model to guide their own behaviour, creating the problem of copycat killings.
We should reach out to those who have fallen away from mainstream society, bringing them back to the herd before they come to see only a single, deadly alternative.
If mass shootings are difficult to predict, potentially self-perpetuating, and result not from easily eliminated sources but rather from untimely interactions between normal instincts, culturally sanctioned patterns of behaviour and entrenched features of modern society, is there a rational approach to prevention? Inasmuch as marginalisation seems to lie at the heart of the mass murderer’s grievances, further attempts to screen, identify, remove and effectively punish those with the potential to commit such violence are doomed to fail
Instead, interventions that screen for risk with a goal of reintegrating at-risk individuals into their communities make more sense and bypass the problem of false-positives. This approach doesn’t mean that society is to blame for mass murder, nor does it suggest that we should embrace mass murderers through some kind of ‘Have you hugged a mass shooter today?’ campaign. But it does mean that we should reach out to those who have fallen away from mainstream society, bringing them back to the herd before they come to see only a single, deadly alternative.
Mass shootings are terrifying phenomena that deserve our best efforts at prevention, but it’s high time we resisted the usual knee-jerk defence of trying to find an easy target to blame and eliminate. If you still think that guns are to blame, take care not to remove responsibility from the individuals that wield them. If you think bad parents are the problem, make sure you read Susan Klebold’s heartfelt essay about her son who committed mass murder at Columbine. Support the expansion of mental health services, but know that what we’re really talking about is reaching out to those on the fringe of clearly defined mental illness where there’s no easy solution in a pill.
Let’s also consider re-assessing some of our cultural values and teach our children about different kinds of heroes, how to resolve conflicts, and cope with loss. And, as a recent report from the Making Caring Common Project suggests, let’s prioritise raising children who are kind. The real solution is not about blame, but opportunity. According to the 2002 Secret Service report, mass shootings are not sudden, impulsive acts. They occur with planning that is known to at least one other person in more than 80 per cent of cases. This means that there’s time to reach out – not to a murderer, loser or weirdo; but to someone’s son, student, classmate and neighbour.
The Psychology of Guns – Joe Pierre M.D.
3 reasons that people like and own firearms and 3 proposals to start reform.
“We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston. It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun. And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation. Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out: ‘We need more guns,’ they’ll argue. ‘Fewer gun safety laws.’ Does anybody really believe that?”
— President Obama, Statement on the Shootings at Umpqua Community College, Roseburg, Oregon
Another mass shooting, another call for more gun control. And yet, if the past predicts the future, those calls won’t go far and will probably even spark a rise in guns sales, as they have after many of the recent mass shootings in the US. If more gun legislation is really “common-sense,” then why doesn’t it happen?
To understand this, it’s necessary to understand the psychology of guns and gun owners, rather than falling into the familiar trap of blaming the National Rifle Association (NRA), Republicans, and Congress or writing off individuals who are wary of legislation as crazy “gun nuts” who don’t care that children are dying from gun violence. In keeping with this goal, I will refer to the two sides of the gun debate simply as “pro-gun” and “anti-gun” instead of framing this as a liberal/conservative or Democratic/Republican divide. In America, this divide – like so many hot-button issues these days – is split firmly down the middle. The most recent Gallup Poll indicates that 42% of Americans have a gun in the home (the General Society Survey puts this number closer to 30%) and 52% want guns laws either kept as they are (38%) or made less strict (14%). Over the past 25 years, the number of people who want more strict gun laws has decreased from a high of 78% in 1990 to the 2012 low of 44%. This despite the fact that “active shooter incidents” have increased since 2000, although gun homicide in general has decreased significantly in the past two decades.
If there’s any chance of reform in gun legislation, legislators and “anti-gun” proponents are going to have to understand why the “pro-gun” half the of country owns guns, likes guns, and sometimes invokes the NRA slogan “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands” when the issue of gun control comes up. Here are 3 answers to that question:
1. Gun culture is American culture.
In some pockets of America, especially in the South, people are brought up around guns. They are taught to use them (and use them safely) at an early age and being gifted a first gun, going hunting with one’s father, and competing in NRA and 4H-Club sponsored shooting events are rights of passage.
Lest you dismiss this as some antiquated pastime of rural “red states,” keep in mind that the US was founded on violent revolt with guns, such that the right to gun ownership was included in the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution (of course, people endlessly debate its meaning, but the latest US Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia vs. Heller interpreted “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” as an individual right). The notion of the American hero as a gun-toting freedom fighter has been firmly planted into public consciousness for more than 200 years. As I’ve written in an article published in Aeon magazine about mass shootings called “Running Amok”:
“Over the past century, generations of US boys have grown up romanticizing the Wild West by playing ‘cowboys and Indians’ with replica six-shooters, battling each other as ‘cops and robbers’ armed with plastic revolvers, or staging vast campaigns of toy soldiers in which opposing armies were gunned down in droves. More recently, ‘first-person shooter’ simulations featuring both military and criminal role-plays have become some of the most successful video games of all time. A casual perusal of the top-grossing films of the past two decades is replete with examples of movies intended for children and adults alike that glorify gun violence along with posters featuring heroes posing with firearms, even in comedies.”
Guns are therefore part of American culture, regardless of regional differences and red or blue states. It’s estimated that there are 310,000,000 civilian-owned guns in the US now, with 89 firearms for every 100 residents such that the US is far ahead of any other country in per capita gun ownership. A total ban on gun ownership is highly unlikely to happen in the US and begs the question of how those 300 million guns would ever be rounded up, even if a gun ban were to ever be legislated.
2. Shooting guns is fun.
If you want to understand the appeal of guns, you need to hold one in your hand and shoot it. The bottom line is it’s fun. For those of us who grew up watching cowboy movies, war movies, James Bond movies, and the like, the irresistible urge to act out the hero with toy guns starts at an early age. A progression from squirt guns to video games, paintball, Airsoft and BB guns, and going to the shooting range with the real thing is natural enough.
A number of articles have described the thrill of shooting guns. A “liberal European reporter” wrote in the Economist:
“…from afar, American gun culture appears utterly insane. Americans are far more likely to murder someone or to kill themselves than people in almost all Western European countries, largely because guns make it easier… Yet shooting is fun. And what European – and liberal Americans – often don’t realize is that these deadly weapons are also an accessible, affordable, and interesting hobby for millions of people.”
Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor has said: “Gun control advocates ask, ‘Why does anyone need this particular kind of gun, like an AR-15 (an assault rifle similar to the one used by the US military)? The reason people like an AR-15 is because it’s fun to shoot.”
Jenna Glasser, a self-described “bright blue dot in a red state” wrote:
“Here’s the truth about guns that no one, on either side of the debate, wants to tell you: shooting them is fun. I’m a bleeding-hearted, left-leaning liberal and I get a cheap, easy thrill out of shooting my little .38 caliber pistol. The “I am woman; hear me roar,” thrill I’ve gotten the few times I shot an Uzi, AK, or even a Glock is enough to leave a tremble running up my arms (though in reality, that’s likely just kickback). But the emotional component here is huge. That thrill at the range translates to confidence outside of it. And confidence was a great comfort.”
Just what is it that makes shooting fun? There’s an undeniable sense of power that comes from shooting a gun. A patient of mine once told me that guns were for cowards, but he was a 200-plus-lb. African American man who had won well more than his share of fistfights though the years. Psychologically speaking, guns aren’t so much the tool of a coward, as a way for someone to equalize power and overcome perceived oppression. In America, that dynamic began with our independence from England and hasn’t faded since.
Beyond the unavoidable Freudian link between guns and potency, there’s also an addicting quality to trying to improve your accuracy with a target at the range. It’s the same kind of hook that makes video games and golf so habit-forming – if I just do it a little better, maybe I can score a bulls-eye, or get to the next level, or hit a hole-in-one on the next attempt. Hunting carries a similar appeal, but on an even more primordial level.
Shooting has been an Olympic sport since the first games in 1896, with 17 different events in the modern summer Olympics, and 53 cumulative gold medals won by the US, the most of any nation by far. Outside the Olympics, amateurs and professionals alike enjoy target practice at the range; skeet, trap, and sporting clays; competitions involving speed and precision; as well as action shooting.
If anti-gun proponents are to understand the rhetoric of “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands,” they need to get a sense of what kind of pleasure would be taken away with more restrictive gun control. If pleasure seems like a stupid reason to expose oneself to danger, remember that it’s pro-gun conservatives who are more likely to oppose the legalization of marijuana.
3. Guns make gun owners feel safer
If there’s a commonality between the pro-gun and anti-gun divide, it’s that people feel the world is unsafe (despite the fact that the world, including the US, has become increasingly more safe in terms of homicide). On the one hand, suburban, white parents who are strongly anti-gun are up in arms (pun intended) about gun control because they feel their children are endangered in places where they shouldn’t be (in contrast, inner-city gun violence among black youth doesn’t tend to spark national talk of gun control). And so, banning guns completely seems like a rational solution. On the other hand, pro-gun advocates have similar concerns, but they feel that arming themselves is the only way to keep them safe. In their view, more permissive gun laws allowing open-carry and concealed-carry firearms or arming teachers with guns in schools is therefore the sensible path.
From a psychological perspective, it’s less important whether guns actually make us safer and more important whether guns make us feel safer. But nonetheless, let’s start with some “facts.”
As a result, the significant public health risk of firearm ownership has become a known dictum in the medical literature. What’s much less well known is whether firearm ownership really prevents violent victimization. Methodologically, it’s extremely difficult to detect a deterrent effect of gun ownership, when preventative outcomes are hypothetical (i.e. in cases of purported gun self-defense, it isn’t really possible to know what would have happened if one didn’t have a gun in the same situation). Nonetheless, a 2013 summary by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council Committee concluded that “gun ownership protects against serious injury when guns are used defensively.” For example, a 2004 study by Jongyeon Tark and Gary Kleck found that:
“self-protection in general, both forceful and nonforceful, reduced the likelihood of property loss and injury, compared to nonresistance. A variety of mostly forceful tactics, including resistance with a gun, appeared to have the strongest effects in reducing the risk of injury…”
If this leaves things ambiguous, clarity seems to lie in relative risk. Statistically, the risk of accidental death, homicide, or suicide associated with gun ownership appears to be substantially greater than the potential benefit of gun ownership as a deterrent to violent crime in the home.
But once again, it’s perception that is reality in terms of psychological understanding. According to the 2014 Gallup Poll, 63% of Americans believed that having a gun in the home makes it a safer place – a substantial increase from less than 50% from 1993 to 2006. A older study from 1999 found that those who believed that having a gun makes the home safer were more likely to be young, male, and affiliated with the Republican party; to have no children at home; to have finished 12 years or fewer of education; and to have low levels of trust in police for protection.
With beliefs firmly in place on either side of the debate, confirmation bias means that individuals pick and choose data, citing studies that support their views while discounting those that don’t. Statistics and studies aside then, the self-defense aspect of gun ownership is vital to understanding the pro-gun stance. Sixty percent (60%) of gun owners in the 2014 Gallup Poll stated that they own guns for self-defense with 49% owning guns for hunting or other recreation. If gun owners are worried about their safety and believe that they themselves – and not a call to 911 – are most likely to provide protection, then gun control legislation that would limited ownership is perceived as an outright threat (if that seems ridiculous, consider that many people do not live within ready reach of law enforcement, and even when they do, a 5 or 10 minute wait for police to arrive on scene can be the difference between life and death in an acutely dangerous situation). If however, as an anti-gun proponent, you don’t feel in particular danger at home, or you feel well-protected by police, then its gun ownership that’s perceived as the threat. With both sides of the gun debate fearful for the lives of their families, it’s no wonder our country is at an impasse.
If movement is to be made towards greater gun control, it’s going to require a battle of “hearts and minds” in which attitudes about gun ownership are gradually transformed, just as they have changed over time about civil rights issues, tobacco use, and the legalization of cannabis. In order to effect such change, three things will be needed to get the ball rolling.
First, anti-gun advocates must realize that a complete ban on private gun ownership, nor the kind of sweeping gun restrictions imposed in Canada, Australia, and the UK, is probably not a realistic goal in the US at this time. Less ambitious reforms with a high likelihood of actually reducing gun violence are more likely to gain wider support.
Second, public health efforts should be directed at educating people about the significant risks of gun ownership. Public service messages could take a page out of the anti-smoking campaign’s playbook, highlighting the morbidity and mortality associated with gun ownership, especially among women and children, and taking steps to phase out the glamorization of gun violence from entertainment. Gun safety classes should be taught on a larger scale and could be mandated for ownership. The cavalier way that many people treat firearms is a disservice to all, regardless of one’s stance on gun control.
Third, anti-gun proponents are going to have to address the perceived benefits of gun ownership. That needs to start from a place of knowledge. Pro-gun advocates cringe when proposed legislation involves irrational, fear-based restrictions against things like “assault rifles.” Mention “assault rifles” and “high-capacity clips” to pro-gunners and be prepared for some eye-rolling, or worse. To those that know their way around firearms, terms like “assault rifle” or “military-style firearms” are ill-defined at best and unconvincingly associated with increased risk. If you’re going to talk about gun control legislation, know the difference between a fully automatic weapon and a semi-automatic weapon. Know the difference between a magazine and a clip. Know that high-capacity magazine bans are easily thwarted by carrying multiple low-capacity magazines. Know why hollow-point rounds (so-called “cop-killer bullets”) are in some ways safer than full metal jacket rounds. Speaking from ignorance is a non-starter in terms winning over hearts and minds, just as talk of the female body having ways to “shut that whole thing down” in the setting of rape will never inform the abortion debate.
If rational gun control reform is to ever happen, anti-gun proponents must steer clear of popular myths about gun violence and mass shootings and think about proposals to limit gun ownership to those most at risk for committing gun violence without taking away the pleasure and sense of safety responsible pro-gunners associate with firearm ownership. Although the majority of Americans in the Gallup poll didn’t want gun laws changed, as many as 91% did support background checks for all gun purchases. In fact, background checks are already the rule. Where the system breaks down is when states fail to report concerning individuals, such as those involuntarily admitted for psychiatric hospitalization because of suicidality or homicidality, to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Likewise, private gun sales and transfers that are not processed through a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) are immune to background checks, in some cases creating the “gun show loophole” (while pro-gun advocates claim that 40% of gun sales occur without a background check, other sources suggest the number is more like 4%). Those gaps offer room for meaningful improvement, though pro-gun advocates will always be concerned that a universal background check is equivalent to a gun registry that could eventually be used to enforce a total gun ban. That’s not slippery-slope paranoia – while anti-gun advocates often claim they aren’t asking for a gun ban, wouldn’t most jump at the chance to ban guns altogether if the opportunity arose?
In the end, the common sense that President Obama calls for dictates that only gun control likely to actually decrease illegal gun violence is worth legislating. Pro-gun advocates will point out that the majority of criminal offenses involving guns are committed with guns illegally obtained from the “street” or from friends or family. Based on a Department of Justice survey of incarcerated criminals who used guns in crime, only 14% utilized guns purchased through legal means that would be addressed by a universal background check. It’s for this reason that pro-gun advocates are wary that gun control legislation will take guns away from responsible, law-abiding citizens and place them into the hands of criminals.
And so, while a universal background check might be a reasonable start to gun control reform, proposals should be revised to better screen out those who shouldn’t have access to firearms (no easy task) and should include safeguards ensuring the right to legal gun ownership by responsible adults, but won’t do anything to address the problem of illegal gun ownership.
The more you actually know about guns, the more complicated rational gun reform becomes. But we need a complicated analysis of effective remedies to gun violence, not emotion-based, knee-jerk responses. With all the concern about mass shootings in white American suburbia, where is the talk about how to solve the problem of inner-city youth violence, such as in Chicago where the gun-related deaths outnumber deaths by mass shootings by orders of magnitude? Is gun control legislation likely to help there? In the wake of yet another mass shooting, where are they calls to understand and prevent violence in at-risk youth and culture at large?
As I’ve argued elsewhere in my Aeon article about mass shootings and in a previous blogpost here, I’d like to see less finger-pointing to external factors like guns or video games – which lead to politically expedient band-aid approaches – and more attention directed inwards at ourselves and our culture devoted to the prevention of violence in the first place. That would certainly seem to be the most appropriate domain for psychology, psychiatry, and public mental health.
Dr. Joe Pierre and Psych Unseen can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/psychunseen.
Joseph Pierre is a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, LA, and co-chief of the Schizophrenia Treatment Unit at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. He writes the Psych Unseen blog for Psychology Today.
DEAR AMERICA: Here’s why everyone thinks you have a problem with guns.
By Matthew Speiser
The community of Charleston, South Carolina, is still reeling after another mass shooting in America.
President Barack Obama on Friday delivered a moving eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine people who was gunned down last week at an historically African-American church in Charleston.
This has become an all-too-common routine for Obama: He has had to make a speech regarding a mass shooting at least once every year since taking office in 2009. But no meaningful gun-related legislation has passed through Congress during Obama’s term in office.
Over the past 2.5 years — since Obama first pushed new gun measures in the wake of the elementary-school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut — the gun debate has become perhaps more polarising than ever before. But what is clear is that other countries don’t have the problems that the United States does. Other industrialized countries don’t have tens of thousands of gun deaths per year, regular mass shootings, or a population as armed as it is violent.
“This type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Obama said the day after 21-year old Dylann Roof allegedly shot nine people to death in the Charleston church.
Other countries don’t have America’s gun problem.
Here, we take a look at the data that shows why America is so unlike the rest of the world when it comes to the popularity and the abuse of guns. We’ll look at the role that policy-makers play in the gun control debate, and we’ll look at what can be done (if anything).
It isn’t pretty, but it’s important. Hundreds of thousands of American lives hang in the balance.
At the current rate, 339,000 Americans will die by guns by the early 2020s. That is roughly equivalent to the current population of Tampa, Florida.
More than 6 in 10 Americans think having a gun in their home makes it a safer place, including 81% of Republicans.
When Americans kill one another, they usually use a gun. In 2013, firearms were used as the murder weapon in 68% of all homicides.
As the national rate of gun ownership declines so do both the violent crime and murder rate. Violence peaked when gun ownership peaked, in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Roughly 44% of American households have guns.
The South has the most gun owners by far, followed by the Midwest and West. The Northeast has the fewest guns per capita. The South also has the highest rate of assault deaths by far, followed by the Midwest and West. The Northeast has the lowest rate of assault deaths.
The states with the loosest regulation of firearms — congregated in the south and southwest of the US — also have the highest number of annual deaths by gun.
When Americans try to maim or kill, they prefer guns. It makes sense that states with the most guns have abnormally high assault rates.
Though this may already look bad, the U.S. looks even worse when compared to the rest of the world.
America has far more assault deaths per capita than other industrialized nations.
It doesn’t help that the U.S. has also more guns per capita than any other nation.
U.S. civilians control a vast plurality of the world’s supply of civilian firearms. There are a shocking 270 million guns in civilian hands in the United States.
Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. is an extreme outlier. The more guns a country has, the more gun deaths a country has. The U.S. takes this relationship to the extreme.
The U.S. and Mexico stand alone when it comes to gun ownership and gun homicide.
In the U.K., handguns are illegal and a person needs to get a certificate — and prove they have a good reason — to own a rifle or shotgun. Anyone convicted of a crime cannot touch a gun for 5 years. There are 0.07 gun homicides per every 100,000 people.
In Canada, a person must wait 60 days to buy a gun. A person applying for a mandatory licence must take a training course, notify next-of-kin, have several references and pass a rigorous background check. There are 0.5 gun homicides per every 100,000 people.
In Japan, touching a gun without a licence can result in 10 years in prison. To obtain a rifle or shotgun, a citizen must undergo an exhaustive application process involving several exams, health tests, police authorization, background checks, and the installation of a safe. There are 122 million people in Japan. In 2008, there were 11 gun homicides. In 2006 there were 2.
Australia is an interesting case. Following the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, which left 35 people dead, the Conservative-led government banned all automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and mandated licensing involving background checks and waiting periods. The government also instituted a gun buyback program, where 650,000 weapons were voluntarily handed in for $360 million. The result? A major drop in gun deaths, suicides, and homicides. Australia had 30 gun homicides in 2010, 0.13 gun deaths for each 100,000 people.
In contrast, the U.S. has a gun homicide rate of nearly 4 per 100,000. That is 8 times Canada’s score, 31 times Australia’s and 57 times the UK score.
When it comes down to it, the gun debate is a one-sided argument in Washington. There isn’t even a token opposition to the juggernaut gun lobby.
The NRA claims more than 3 million members. Although that’s roughly 1 per cent of the country, the active membership claims a lot of electoral influence.
The NRA also gets a significant amount of money from the gun industry in the form of donations, contributions and fundraising assistance.
The NRA also used its influence to gut the ability of the CDC from doing any sort of research on the impact of firearms on human injury and death, deliberately making it harder to conduct scientific research.
Furthermore, since the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, research has shown that more Americans are in favour of protecting the rights of gun owners than instituting gun control laws
In fact, since 2012, 9% more Americans say gun ownership protects them from being the victims of crime.
Republicans and African-Americans are the two groups who most believe gun ownership protects them from being victims of crime.
Incidentally, as the debate over gun control gets more heated, the sale of firearms goes up, as evidenced by the increase in sales of Smith & Wesson products. The explanation? If you perceive is a risk you will not be able to buy guns in the near future, then you buy your guns now.
The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre has claimed that gun-free school zones make children sitting targets, thus teachers should be armed.
But children are already pretty safe in schools as is. A very small number of the 30,000 annual gun deaths take place in schools.
In fact, children are safest within gun-free school zones.
So are we really sure its guns that are causing America’s violence epidemic? Could it be violent video games?
First of all, it’s pretty clear that there’s no correlation between video game sales and the youth crime rate, despite what many will say.
There isn’t a link between gun murders and video games.
Could it be violence in the media?
Actually, probably not. There’s just no evidence to support that. A 2008 paper by American University professors Joanne Savage and Christina Yancey found, ‘A review of both aggregate studies and experimental evidence does not provide support for the supposition that exposure to media violence causes criminally violent behaviour.’
‘The study of most consequence for violent crime policy,’ they wrote, ‘actually found that exposure to media violence was significantly negatively related to violent crime rates at the aggregate level.’
‘Most studies on which reviewers have been relying for their conclusions are decades old and they do not employ modern statistical methods to estimate effects,’ they wrote. ‘Programs such as Batman and Bonanza were used as the high-violence shows.’
A landmark 1986 paper by Steven Messner — which originally set out to prove violent media was linked to real-world violence — found that exposure to television was actually consistently was linked to reduced real-world violence across the board.
It’s abundantly clear. Countries with high murder rates have them because of a high gun murder rate. It’s the guns.
So what can we do to fix this gun violence epidemic?
Many people advocated for the reinstatement of the assault weapon ban, as assault weapons are frequently used in many of the worst mass shootings.
Generally, when Americans kill they usually use a handgun.
But a survey of mass shooting incidents found that more than twice as many people were shot and significantly more people killed when an assault weapon was used. However, the reinstatement of the assault-weapon ban was dropped from the Senate’s 2013 reform package after it became clear it wouldn’t pass.
Other proposals included a ban on high capacity magazines, like the one used at the mass shooting that left former Rep. Gabby Giffords wounded. This too was dropped from the 2013 reform package.
A 1999 study of recent ATF investigations found rampant abuse of the ‘gun show loophole’ — in which a person who cannot buy a gun does so at a gun show, where background checks aren’t necessary.
The motion to require background checks on gun show purchases failed in the Senate, six votes shy of hitting the mandatory 60 votes to move forward on debate.
So what’s going to happen?
Probably nothing. History has proven that mass shootings do little to move the needle when it comes to gun control.
That is despite the fact that mass shootings have become more common in recent years. From 2000 – 2007, an average of 6.4 mass shootings happened each year. From 2007 – 2014, an average of 16.4 mass shootings happened each year.
In addition, politicians have become resigned to the fact that gun control laws cannot be passed in the current political climate. Congressman Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told the Hill after the Charleston shooting that ‘Congress is becoming complicit’ in ignoring gun reform.
And if that is not enough, President Barack Obama essentially admitted that there is nothing he can do to pass gun reform in his comments following the Charleston shooting. ‘At some point we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,’ the President said. ‘I say that recognising the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now, but it’d be wrong for us not to acknowledge it.’