Guns and Politics

A gunman stood up at a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado and killed 12 people and injured 58 others–as many people as he could with the time he had and the arsenal he brought into the theater with him.  David Brooks’s response (here) comes down to this: “The crucial point is that the dynamics [of mass killings like this one and the others he cites] are internal, not external.”


Is there something we can do to better protect our citizens from the rapidly increasing chance that they will be slaughtered by someone with guns and grievances?  Brooks’s answer is yes: there are two things we can do.  First, we can have closer relationships with each other.

It’s probably a mistake to think that we can ever know what “caused” these rampages. But when you read through the assessments that have been done by the F.B.I., the Secret Service and various psychologists, you see certain common motifs.  Many of the killers had an exaggerated sense of their own significance, which, they felt, was not properly recognized by the rest of the world. Many suffered a grievous blow to their self-esteem — a lost job, a divorce or a school failure — and decided to strike back in some showy way.  Many had suffered from severe depression or had attempted suicide. Many lived solitary lives, but most shared their violent fantasies with at least one person before they committed their crimes.

I think it is a wonderful idea to be more social and inclusive, but here is what is not going to happen: we are not going to “recognize” the significance of these people in the way they think is deserved; we are not going to prevent grievous blows to their self-esteem; we are not going to prevent them from living “solitary lives;” we are not going to have everyone who hears a friend vent a violent fantasy contact the police.

We are, in short, not going to prevent people from having grievances.  But does that mean that we can do nothing to prevent these grievances from becoming the occasions for mass slaughter?  I don’t think it does mean that.  Brooks tries to show that there is nothing we can do by citing a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the effect that gun control laws are not effective.  I don’t think that works.  I haven’t seen the study he cites, but I’m pretty sure it compares states with stricter gun control laws to states with more lenient gun control laws.  I can see why no effect is shown in that comparison; indeed, it would be remarkable if any effect at all could be discovered.

Here’s another look.

The United States has by far the highest rate of gun deaths — murders, suicides and accidents — among the world’s 36 richest nations, a government study found.  The U.S. rate for gun deaths in 1994 was 14.24 per 100,000 people. Japan had the lowest rate, at .05 per 100,000. The study, done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the first comprehensive international look at gun-related deaths. It was published Thursday in the International Journal of Epidemiology. 

This quotation and the next one can be seen here.

Maybe comparing economically developed nations with a lot of gun violence to similar countries with only a little would be a help.  Brooks tries to head that off by mentioning mass killers from elsewhere: Ernst Wagner in Germany (1913), Robert Steinäuser (Germany), and Anders Breivik (Norway).  These have nothing to do with aggregate statistics, as Brooks knows.  The figures for gun deaths per 100,000 of population are Norway 2.22, Germany 1.16, and the U. S. 9.46.  Does Brooks really think that the gun laws of these countries are unrelated to the rate of gun deaths?  I don’t think he does think that.

He might be thinking that it is the gun culture—not the laws—that account for such high homicide rates here in the United States.

The CDC would not speculate why the death rates varied, but other researchers said easy access to guns and society’s acceptance of violence are part of the problem in the United States. “If you have a country saturated with guns — available to people when they are intoxicated, angry or depressed — it’s not unusual guns will be used more often,” said Rebecca Peters, a Johns Hopkins University fellow specializing in gun violence. “This has to be treated as a public health emergency.”

Brooks and I know that you can’t change a cultural feature by making laws about it.  On the other hand, the laws are not irrelevant to the direction the culture takes.  Our “acceptance of violence” is part of the culture, as Rebecca Peters says, but the availability of guns is part of the politics.

Brooks’s second solution is to be more aggressive in our provision of “treatment options,” especially for young men.  I think that would help, but what is he thinking people are going to be “treated” for?  Massacring without a license?  Oh…wait.  You don’t have to have a license for that.  “Treated” doesn’t sound like prevention to me.

As long as we have angry loners with guns, we will have attention-seeking killings.  Nothing the government can do will directly affect how many people are angry.  Nothing the government can do will directly affect how many people are loners.  No one is going to murder a dozen people in a theater with a switchblade.

Any ideas, David?


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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