Mass shootings like those in Las Vegas and Sulphur Springs, terrible as they are, are only a small taste of the carnage that goes on in America on a daily basis, courtesy of firearms. Most of it slips under the media radar; it’s only when a bunch of people are killed all at once that the lead holocaust is considered newsworthy. It’s only then that the media start talking about what can be done about it.
And the line of thinking from most media talking heads goes like this. If the shooter was a Muslim, we need to tighten immigration laws. If the shooter was Hispanic, we need to build a wall. If the shooter was black, we need more prisons and tougher laws. If the shooter was white, thoughts and prayers will do the trick. And above all, protect the Second Amendment and sell more guns.
And the causes of all this violence? Well, in addition to immigration, some of the causes that have been seriously suggested are: video games; Hollywood movies; Barack Obama; day cares; the “liberal media” (hey, I guess if the violence isn’t reported, maybe it won’t exist); mental illness; antidepressants (nothing like hedging your bets); abortion; “taking God out of our schools” (not sure how that’s even possible, since God is supposedly everywhere); “gun control”; pornography; not beating kids enough (to teach them violence is wrong, don’t you know); not enough guns out there; and, of course, the victims of the shootings themselves.
The actual causes of gun violence are varied, complex and even to an extent inscrutable. So are the remedies. But as difficult as solving the problem may be, there are really just a few simple principles that we need to keep in mind.
1. Weave a web of regulation
Quite simply, a society should regulate the hell out of firearms. There’s no valid excuse for not doing so, no matter how much distaste you have for “big guvmint” cramping your right to shoot things up. One of the gun culture’s popular sayings is “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” — which is irrelevant, since regulation is not about “outlawing”. When you are required to be tested before obtaining a driver’s license. and stick to the speed limit, and drive in the right lane, does that mean that the government is trying to “take away” your car?
Regulation is not the final solution, by any means; on the contrary, it’s just the first step, a necessary foundation. It’s something that we can’t afford not to do, if we want to avoid a broken windows effect that invites crime and carelessness.
Of course whenever you propose firearm regulation, someone is bound to respond with another old tried and false big fat floppy red herring: “Criminals don’t care about laws”. Well, their victims might not “care about” bullets, either, but they’re still just as dead. Who the hell cares what criminals “care about”? The real questions are (a) what kind of message do we want to convey, and (b) do gun regulations (“gun control” in the haughtily dismissive vernacular) help reduce crime?
The evidence is very strong that they do, both when we examine states within the U.S. and when we examine countries around the globe. Japan, to take just one example, has very strict laws about types of firearms allowed, registration, background checks, renewal periods and penalties. And it has, on average, about 30 gun deaths per year (and as few as 6). In contrast, the U.S. (with a population about two and a half times as large) has about 30,000 gun deaths per year.
2. Think long term
Still, even if the U.S. adopts the same gun policies as Japan, that doesn’t mean that America will suddenly become Japan. They are very different nations with very different histories and cultures. Japan has a culture of respect and courtesy and a constitution that explicitly states the nation will never again resort to aggressive warfare. The U.S., on the other hand, has a long tradition of people believing (incorrectly) that they have a constitutional and/or god-given right to build up their own private arsenals without restriction. And a long history of brutally enslaving and exterminating entire races of people — with the aid of guns.
We here in the U.S. have developed a mythos that brandishes the almighty gun as the infallible key to conquest and power. That mindset won’t be changed overnight. And the effects of gun legislation or any other reforms cannot be expected to manifest immediately.
3. Get creative
When we talk about measures to curb gun violence, we’re not just talking about “gun control”. To tackle a problem of this scope and complexity, we really have to think outside the ammo box. Strangely enough, one of the most interesting proposals came in jest(?) from a comedian. Actually, that’s not so strange; comedians tend to possess the kind of insight that politicians and pundits rarely do. In any case, this is what Chris Rock said in 1999:
You don’t need no gun control, you know what you need? We need some bullet control… I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars… people would think before they killed somebody if a bullet cost five thousand dollars. “Man, I would blow your fucking head off– if I could afford it. I’m gonna get me another job, I’m going to start saving some money, and you’re a dead man. You’d better hope I can’t get no bullets on layaway”. So even if you got shot by a stray bullet, you wouldn’t have to go to no doctor to get it taken out. Whoever shot you would take their bullet back, like “I believe you got my property”.
Doesn’t it indeed seem logical that making bullets prohibitively expensive would reduce the number of times people fired them? Furthermore, the extra fees could be in the form of taxes that could go toward further steps to reduce gun violence and/or to clean up the mess it leaves. And what about target practice, you ask? Well, with today’s technology, it surely would be possible for virtual bullets to substitute adequately for the real thing.
And for that matter, technology offers a wealth of other possibilities. What about, as a random suggestion, mandating that guns be designed so they only can fire when handled by an authorized user. The point is that there are many, many different ways to approach the problem.
4. Radically alter public (mis)perceptions about firearms
And now we come to the portion of the discussion most pertinent to the content of this blog. Even if the Chris Rock Doctrine proves to be impractical, it at least makes a very important point: in order to combat gun violence, you have to condition the public to think about guns very differently. If you think this suggestion reeks of Orwellianism or totalitarian efforts to “reeducate” citizens, what you need to bear in mind is that the public already has been conditioned, for many generations, to have certain perceptions about guns — and those perceptions are quite faulty.
We have inherited the archetype of the rugged frontiersman who lived and died by his gun, lionization of the screen personae of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, and a false perception that an “armed good guy” has a good chance of stopping an “armed bad guy”. A great deal of what the public believes about guns has come from popular entertainment. This is not to suggest that Hollywood is to blame for the violence, but it is to suggest that Hollywood could play a role in addressing it.
Many people seriously think it’s practical to shoot a gun out of someone’s hand. Most Americans don’t even recognize the sound of a gunshot when they hear it, because they’ve been conditioned by entertainment media to associate gunfire with a totally different sound (an unfortunate fact that could affect how quickly a person can respond and get to safety in an active shooter scenario). In the movies, the good guy mows down the bad guy with both six-guns blazing (which in real life is a difficult feat to pull off); the bad guy dies immediately and the good guy rides off into the sunset without a care in the world.
Imagine instead a film industry that portrays gun violence more realistically and responsibly. Imagine studios that stop promoting action films by using publicity photos that make guns appear sexy and glamorous. Imagine an entertainment industry that routinely gives some indication of how much gunshot victims often suffer before they die, and how long it takes them to do so. Imagine more realistic portrayal of the emotional recoil that people feel when they fatally shoot someone — an effect that can haunt them the rest of their lives. Imagine this knowledge uniformly transmitted through awareness programs at schools like Straight Talk About Risks (STAR). Can we afford to be any more lax with kids about the dangers of guns than about drinking or drugs or sex?
If we instill in the public what horrific deadly implements guns can be (which is one of the purposes of enacting stiff gun laws), chances are not so many people will automatically reach for one to settle a dispute over a parking space. Ironically, we can help reduce gun violence by respecting guns — respecting them for what they are rather than worshiping them for what they are not.
5. Spread civility
Even if everybody had a gun, there would be considerably less violence if everyone behaved civilly. That’s a big pipe dream, of course; there is no way everybody will ever behave civilly, which is precisely why it’s a bad idea for most people to be armed.
The gun lobby likes to say that “an armed society is a polite society”. but the facts just don’t support such a thesis. Americans are armed to the teeth, but America is a seething cauldron of anger and rudeness. In fact, there is some evidence that gun ownership actually contributes to this animosity. In any case, it makes the anger and rudeness far more dangerous. The hostility quotient would be high enough even if left to its own devices. But it’s very far from being left on its own; it’s constantly being amped up by a virtual army of demagogues saturating every corner of American media and American culture. And it certainly doesn’t help matters any that one of them is currently in the White House.
Again, the U.S. will never become Japan. But by exercising courtesy as much as possible, we should be able to defuse many of the situations that lead to violence, and thus lead to shots being fired. Arming a society certainly doesn’t make it polite, but being more disarming can make it a bit more dis-arming.
6. Tame the Testosterone
You hear a lot about mental illness being the cause of mass shootings. Well, it does seem to play a role. But it’s clearly not the only factor or even the most important factor. There are approximately as many mentally ill women as men. But guess what? All the mass shooters, with one exception, have been male. In fact more than 75 percent of all violent acts are committed by males, and about 90 percent of killers are male.
Maybe some of this is biological. When my son was a toddler, we made a point of keeping him away from “war toys”, and minimizing his media exposure to weaponry. But he still went around pretending to shoot things with whatever object he could pick up. Maybe there’s something about having a Y chromosome that makes a person attracted to lethal phallic symbols.
But it’s also unquestionably cultural. (My son soon outgrew his armament phase, unlike many other males, and as an adult has shown no interest in guns at all.) Violence, and particularly an addiction to guns, is largely learned just as misogyny is. And the two tend to go hand in hand. Is it just coincidence that committers of gun violence frequently have a strictly patriarchal worldview, and often a history of domestic abuse? Is it just coincidence that terrorist cultures are also sexist cultures? Is it just coincidence that the U.S., which is a lead-sprayer’s paradise, is now discovering a widespread, deep-rooted epidemic of sexual harassment that has been right under its nose all along?
The gun lobby incessantly promotes an obscene, and obscenely profitable, lie: the pulp fiction fantasy that guns make you safer. (This is often bolstered by mythical “statistics” about defensive gun use.) In fact, having a gun multiplies several times the odds that you will be the victim of a crime and/or be shot yourself. You may assume (as many gun enthusiasts apparently do) that probability is for wusses, and you’ll beat the odds, by god. Maybe you’re even lucky enough to be right. But you might want to consider that guns and gun incidents don’t just affect gun owners; they affect potentially anyone the owner — or a recipient of his bullets — comes in contact with.
It would greatly behoove us to reduce and limit the number of guns in circulation. It should be at least as hard to get a gun as it is to get an abortion, and their use should be at least as stringently controlled as the use of automobiles. But we also need to radically alter how the public thinks about guns. And we need to clean up cultural garbage of more than one kind.
All of this constitutes a tall order, and we need to be in it for the long haul. But the benefits would be well worth the effort and minor inconvenience.