Another mass shooting happened on Thursday, this year’s 274th (275th after another in Florida might make the list) and conservatives and liberals are similarly are coming out of the woodwork spouting the same rhetoric they have for years and no one will be changing their view. I’m noticing people are merging the two separate issues of mass shootings and overall gun violence into one gigantic monolithic issue, which is completely understandable, but is a misunderstanding nonetheless. According to the FBI, a mass shooting is a specific subset of gun violence when the shooter kills four or more people in a single incident (not including the shooter), typically in a single location. Because of that misunderstanding, both sides are constantly firing shots (no pun intended) at straw men that aren’t even standing in the same field. Combining the issues overly simplifies and undermines all the solutions proposed and I’ll explain below. As a disclaimer, I will disclose that I am a gun owner myself, but I currently do not own handguns or posses a concealed carry permit.
One side shouts it’s a mental illness issue, while another side claims it’s simply a continuing characteristic of having a population with a virtually unlimited access to guns. This is where and why the issue needs to be separated. Economic reforms that could alter widespread gun violence wouldn’t affect mass shootings done at the hands of the mentally ill. Most of the time, they either turn the gun on themselves in the end or square off to the death against police officers. They don’t really care about making off with the cash or the score. On the flip side, only throwing billions at mental health won;t have any measurable effect on widespread gun violence.
Furthermore, due to the fact that mentally ill mass shootings are (in the overall issue of gun violence) so distinct, it’s almost impossible for macro level gun legislation to alter it. So is it only a mental health issue? And is the state of mental health in the United States that abysmal?
Even though more than $4 Billion dollars has been cut from mental health services in the United States at the end of the last decade, in comparison, the united states still has comparable rates with other developed countries’ mental health services. It is absolutely true that Americans have easier access to guns than mental health services, that is more due to the makeup of our constitution and cost of both. Bearing arms is a right guaranteed by the second amendment compared to healthcare which is not. Also, you can buy a gun for only a couple hundred bucks when in comparison, that could only afford an hour or two with some mental health professionals. Also, as a side note, affordable care act actually includes more broad benefits for mental illness services, putting psychiatric illnesses on par with other health issues.
Looking at previous mass shooting perpetrators, we can see a variety of different situations surrounding their mental health. Allegedly, Adam Lanza’s mental illness was ignored despite calls to his mother. You can find sources that claim Elliot Rodger was and wasn’t mentally ill. And when you look at James Holmes, his case almost makes these calls for more access to mental illness seem trivial.
James Holmes isn’t as ambiguous, at the time he was currently seeing 3 mental health professionals. He was in an environment of highly educated people and he himself was part of a discipline related to mental health (neuroscience) so his situation, judging from his ease of access to mental health information and presumed lack of social stigma in his surroundings, couldn’t have been more ideal. One of the mental health professionals he was seeing even alerted the university campus’ threat assessment and security teams.
Yet he still killed 12 people and injured 70.
So it almost throws a monkey wrench into the idea that if people with mental illness simply received treatment, these mass shootings would disappear. You can easily cite articles claiming mental illness is the cause and then another claiming it isn’t. The debate in the mainstream media right now is more framed around “Was (insert shooter’s name here) mentally ill?” instead of “Do mentally ill commit more violent crime?”. One of those questions can be argued back and forth with Facebook photos and partisan jabs and the other is entirely based on epidemiological data.
Overwhelming majority of mentally ill are never violent, yet the media attaches such a stigma to them that there is a perpetuated fear of those suffering. Statistically speaking, mentally ill are far more often to be the victim of violence instead of the perpetrator. Almost 50 million people in the United States suffer from some sort of mental illness, that’s almost 1 in 5. If mental illness was as bad as the media and Hollywood suggest, it should be a mad max style pf wasteland out there.
Speaking of Hollywood, most of what the layperson knows about mental illness can be summed as something between the Joker from Batman and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These caricatures are rarely anything like mental illness in the real world. And the assumption is also that normal mentally ill behavior is light years away from normal mental stability. As if blue is over here, and red is way over there with blue being stable and red being mental illness. In reality, the two sides are much closer and more of a purple gradient than anything else. As a result of media sensationalism, people living with some form of mental illness are more stigmatized than ever before. Mental illness isn’t even monolithic, there are dozens of various types, but every time there is a mass shooting and the finger is pointed at mental illness, the stigma worsens for everyone suffering from one of them while a picture of some kid on CNN surrounded by guns becomes the poster boy for them all.
There are now laws in various states such as New York and Tennessee that mandate psychiatrists assess their patients for the potential to commit violent gun crime. It seems like it would make sense that psychiatry should be able to determine this right? Unfortunately, psychiatric diagnosis is largely an observational tool, not an extrapolative one and research dating back to the 1970’s suggest that psychiatrists using clinical judgment are not much better than laypersons at predicting which individual patients will commit violent crimes and which will not. 40 years later this was reexamined after the Tucson shooting with the same conclusion, it remains impossible to reliably predict which specific individuals would otherwise engage in the most serious acts of violence.
Specifically focusing on mental illness is a red herring, especially since there are 50 million people in the US who live with some form of it. What if all these shooters weren’t suffering from any mental illness whatsoever? The argument for restrictive gun control would carry much more weight. Mental illness is a convenient scapegoat for the gun lobby to push back, but if you suggest restrictions on mentally ill from buying guns, the gun lobby still rejects that because they “could make some reluctant to seek mental health assistance for fear of losing their rights.” Through all of this, don’t forget that there is a lot of money to be made selling guns.
But all this is still not approaching the issue head on. We’re spending 90% of our effort focusing specifically on mass shootings, a small snippet of an overall gigantic issue.
Overall Gun Violence
The hysteria regarding mass shootings exists because it’s one of the most profitable news media items. Consider this, there were more than 50 times more kids shot and killed in Chicago in 2012 than at Sandy Hook. But we see very little coverage about that fact. Why? Well because those don’t all happen at once. Meaning they can’t be used as a main event for a fear fest, otherwise known as the headline of Fox or CNN. For example, a student tweets about the shooting watch all the rabid journalists come out of the woodwork to try and get that “exclusive 1on1 interview”. It’s a sad fact in mainstream media that this type of shooting could be a journalist’s heyday.
That’s why 274 and 275 at the beginning of this article are commonly are counted numbers, but 10,000 deaths are 20,000 injuries are not. Mass shootings are a small pothole in the gigantic crumbling highway of gun violence and the proposed solutions of the right(better access to mental illness services, more guns etc) to curb mass shootings, won’t put a dent into overall gun violence. This is because not everyone killed by a gun was shot at the hand of someone mentally ill. On the flip side, the liberal solutions to gun violence are often very cherry picked as well(bans, more thorough checks that perpetrators still pass). Gun violence is not as simple as something only pertaining to weapons; it is a socioeconomic issue that is far more complicated.
Many left wing anti gun proponents always cite countries such as Norway and Hungary that have extremely restrictive gun legislation and in the same breathe, extremely low gun crime. However, as a result, the right wing always cites Switzerland, it has some of the highest gun ownership in the world, and less restrictive gun laws than the state I live in and yet is far lower gun crime than the US, so what gives?
If you only look at a few single metrics, you can cherry pick and argue pretty whatever you want. For example, check out this NY Times opinion piece and then this “Gun Facts” site that dispels specific gun control myths while using the words “crime” and “violence” and specifically “gun crime” interchangeably as a method to help its argument . Both are dripping with bias, but at least the NY Times tries to not appear so with blatant gun advertisements.
A subject as complicated as gun violence is not easily translated between countries with such radical different cultures by simply comparing 2 sets of numbers. Now I’m not saying you can’t compare countries as if they’re apples and oranges, but you can do a little better than looking only at ownership and gun crime. For example, Switzerland has mandatory military service (something you’ll never see in the US) and both Switzerland and Norway have extremely high rates of societal participation and very low rates of poverty and extremely lenient punishments for crimes (focused more on rehabilitation) unlike the US which is suffering from an incarceration problem (which is completely relevant a couple more paragraphs down). So in the end, it’s extremely misleading to compare the US and Switzerland.
If we want to look at a more similar country to compare with the United States we can look at The Czech Republic. The US and Czech Republic are actually very comparable as they have near identical poverty rates and gun laws, but the gun crime in the Czech Republic is far lower than the United States. The United States has about 30 times more gun related homicides than the Czech Republic (.12 (2010) vs. 3.55 (2013) per 100,000 deaths).
Although, the US isn’t the worst when it comes to murder rates, countries such as Mexico and much of Latin America have extremely restrictive gun laws and in some cases, up to 5 times more gun crime than the united states. Now here is where you can start to see a much more complex correlation that paints better picture. Cite Mexico and Latin America to an anti-gun individual and they will almost always try to point out that those countries are far more poor, uneducated and unemployed.
If they do that, then they just conceded that issues such as poverty and alienation carry far more weight than the availability of guns in the cause of violent crime. Take it a step further and, compare the demographics of who are the victims and perpetrators of violent crime in the US and you’ll find their levels of low education, high poverty and unemployment, societal alienation suddenly become very comparable to those Latin American nations. Even more so when you see the recurring theme is the illegal drug trade.
Getting back to The Czech Republic and knowing what we know about the effects of poverty, education, societal alienation, and the drug trade you’ll notice immediately that in the Czech Republic all recreational drugs are decriminalized rendering the drug trade mostly impotent. And remember, 48% of gun crime in the US occurs within organized crime disputes and so-called gang violence. In some jurisdictions, it’s up to 90%.
Another way of phrasing our current drug situation is a 2nd Prohibition, and we have data showing a spike in homicides during the first one in the 1920s and a second spike later in the 20th century when the war on drugs kicked off. So just end the war on drugs and legalize everything and we’ll be fine right? Well, it would help a significant amount, but it’s never entirely that simplistic. There are always a multitude of other forces at play. Only focusing on the correlation to drugs is ignoring the current economic state of ghettos.
Any given problem that we’re facing on a macro scale exists because of everything that happened in the preceding 50+ years. Our society does not exist in a vacuum, so let’s rewind the clock.
In 1944, Roosevelt signed The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, it was a bill that offered low cost mortgages and loans to returning veterans to buy a house, start a business, or pursue education. On paper it was a great idea and had amazing potential, but in practice the black community was extremely discriminated against. Southern Universities maintained they’re segregationist policies that kept 80% of black applicants for educational funding out of college.
A black middle class very comparable to the white equivalent began to form and loans were approved for many black vets. Unfortunately, home owners associations began to push back and neighborhood covenants forbid houses in those neighborhoods from being sold to black families. This is a practice known as redlining, one of the lesser known forms of segregation. As a result, the black community had to depend on subsidized housing, but in contrast to the GI Bill loans, they weren’t able to build equity that specifically leads to generational wealth.
This is where many ghettos came from. The 60s happen, black leaders are murdered, and jailed and you have a generation growing up in the 70s with the same anger and oppression but no direction. The Crips were formed to fill the void of the black panthers. Around the time manufacturing jobs started disappearing, unemployment rises and as a result, many turn to the drug trade for survival. In 1986, Reagan signed the first anti drug law which led to mandatory drug sentences and in 1988, signed another. This time, far more severe punishment for drug crime including the death sentence for kingpins. As a result, those imprisoned for drug related offenses more than quadrupled.
So by the 1990s, you have an entire generation with at least 1 parent behind bars. A generation that’s oppressed and like the one before it, is angry and stuck in a snowball cycle of poverty. They have kids young and outside of marriage due to a lack of education and access to contraceptives. Also in a related side note, Roe v. Wade had a delayed correlated effect on the reduction of crime, but that shouldn’t be considered my endorsement of abortion, but of contraceptives. Nonetheless, we now find a new generation raised by teens, oppressed abused and angry with no way out but the drug trade and sports
And here we are. There are a couple hard truths that both sides of the gun debate need to accept if we want to lower gun crime.
For the right.
- Mental illness is not the issue, it’s a deflection.
- Racism still exists today and its examples of it 40 years ago are still affecting our society today as well as poorer minority communities even more.
- More guns are not the answer, even more so than banning them completely. There is moderate correlation that more guns do lead to statistically more crime on average.
For the left.
- Even though there is indeed a moderate correlation, there are over 300 million legal guns in circulation and an unknown number of illegal ones on the black market. It is absolute impossible to control that. What, is the army going to go from house to house? That sounds like it would end well (yeah right). If we ban guns tomorrow it’ll be decades before we see any change in overall gun related crime. Banning guns is unrealistic and would be completely ineffective in the immediate future.
- The logic behind “Gun Free Zones” does not make sense.
Where do we go from here? I think there are clear holes that can be filled that both sides can agree on. This is less about guns and more about socioeconomics. First off, unlink school funding from property taxes and offer free child care within poor black communities and well funded schools Pre k-12. Offer free college tuition to all those who graduate. Whether or not it’s limited to state schools or all schools is another topic for another day. Offer jobs programs and increase the minimum wage. And most importantly of all, immediately decriminalize recreational drugs.
Doing those things will result in a drastic reduction of overall gun crime, but instead we talk about pointless legislation such as, cosmetic features, banning suppressors, and rifles that are used in less than 1% of gun crime. Some cities gun control is completely ineffective because you can drive 15min outside the city and buy whatever you want (Chicago for example).
In conclusion, the issue of gun violence is different (and I would suggest more pressing) than the issue of mass shootings. As well as the solutions, even if policies were put in place and completely eradicated all mass shootings, it still is only around 3% of total gun violence. By separating both issues, it would allow us to better focus on each issue individually which would increase the probability of bipartisan collaboration. It would also keep us off the merry-go-round of semantics by arguing past each other about two different issues while the mainstream media profits from the viewership.
-Logan T. Miles