Our Culture of Mass Shootings

Okay folks, let’s get some stuff out of the way first thing. I know responsible gun owners and gun enthusiasts. I know people who hunt and go to gun ranges and gun shows and they’re all responsible kind people who don’t relish the idea of blowing someone away. I assume you know these type of people too. I am not here to say that these people are a menace. I am here to say that as a country, not just gun owners, we’ve got a culture problem.

Now, let’s talk about what the problem isn’t, not directly.

Not Enough People with Guns.

This is just… It’s a solution that at the very least lacks nuance. It’s like people saying, “Fight fire with fire!” without understanding things like fire breaks or controlled burns… So they light your car on fire when they see flames on your house. It’s a “solution” that ignores the fact that some people self-select out of gun ownership because they know they wouldn’t be good gun owners or someone in their household wouldn’t make good choices if they had access to a gun. It ignores the fact that more active shooters makes things more confusing to first responders. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for someone to make a situation better because they’re armed and ready, but it’s really unlikely. I’ll get deeper on this idea in a moment but let’s move on to–


Okay, mental health issues can play a part in violent behavior. But DAMN if it sounds convenient whenever someone decides to mow down a bunch of strangers that person has mental health problems instead of, I don’t know, issues deciding that they’re going to kill people. I’m not splitting hairs here. Mental health problems come in as broad a spectrum as physical health problems. The person who’s afraid to order lunch because they think the server will laugh at them or the person who’s too depressed to move ARE NOT THE PEOPLE KILLING STRANGERS. Someone with severe mental health problems are more likely to kill themselves than someone else. In fact, those with mental health issues are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators.

We do have a lot of ground to cover regarding mental health in the U.S. Treatment is expensive and just getting it may (thanks to the current administration) make procuring insurance more expensive, if you’re insurable at all. We don’t know how to talk about it constructively. We don’t know how to recognize and sit with mental illness. Most people don’t really realize that they deal with those with mental health issues everyday, probably are friends with someone struggling with them, and at no point do these people act violent or “crazy.” We do have a problem with mental illness, but that’s not why we have mass shootings.

These two “answers” aren’t solutions, they’re symptoms.

These two answers to mass shootings in the U.S., however shed light on how we think about violence and who is entitled to commit it.

The idea of “Good Guys with Guns,” says a lot about who we believe, as a culture, is entitled to kill strangers and why. Part of it is right in the name: men.  We believe men are entitled to kill strangers. Why? Well… we’d like to think for home and family, that’s what we often say to conjure the image of a violent home invasion (getting to that in a moment.) But what if a man felt threatened when he passed a group of teenagers? What is his wife was cheating? What if he was let go from his job by some hot-shot new kid out of college?

What we really mean is that men are entitled to kill strangers (or more likely, people they know, especially intimate partners) to defend their masculinity. We believe this because violence or threat of violence is traditionally the only tool we give men to defend themselves against intangible threats like humiliation, a sense of worthlessness, and despair.

The home invasion fear fantasy isn’t groundless. Someone threatening your life and making your home unsafe is terrifying, and sometimes, yes, a stranger will do it. But the fear fantasy and the reality often don’t line up. Most of the time, people break into your house to steal your stuff, hope you’re not around, and try to leave ASAP. In fact, most of the time, you know the person stealing from you, and they live near you.

Let’s be totally honest: the fear fantasy of home invasion requiring taking a stranger’s life is of a white man protecting “his” women from another man who is younger and darker, I’d argue a man who represents greater virility in our cultural consciousness.

We don’t talk about certain people being able to protect themselves through violence. No one says, “If only Matthew Shepard had a gun, those guys wouldn’t have killed him.” “If only Samantha Geimer had a gun, she would have been safe.” “If only Trayvon Martin had a gun, he would’ve graduated college by now.” The examples are endless, but what they have in common is that, as a culture, we don’t want to see extrajudicial violence done to straight, white men by those who we deem less important.

Yes, of course, it happens. But I’m talking about our cultural attitude regarding which people kill and which people are killed, and our sense of what is right and orderly.

Now, regarding mental illness. It sounds compassionate and reasonable on the surface. “Who could do such a thing?” Obviously, someone who is sick. That’s the idea. Of course there are people who are ill and commit violent acts, the attack of Gabby Giffords and her staff is a notable one. But the term “mental illness” is meant to mean “random” and “unexplainable,” as if people have sick thoughts in a void, instead of the context of their everyday life. It also means that “crazies” should have their rights diluted: not only the right to bear arms, but the right to privacy because while guns shouldn’t be registered, people with mental health problems should be, and their status on the list should be made available to everyone with the ability to do a background check. Never mind that a history of domestic violence or violence towards women is better indicator of whether someone will kill a bunch of strangers than mental illness.

I don’t believe mentally unstable people should have guns. It seems like a bad idea all around for everyone. But the question of how we define mental instability and how we would have that information available to gun sellers is one that requires a lot of care and thought for protecting the rights of those whose medical information would become pretty easily accessible. It is a question worth answering, but it won’t stop mass shootings.

Summoning the specter of the “crazy shooter” after a mass shooting is similar to the specter of the rapist hiding the bushes. It happens, but it’s the most extreme version of a much deeper problem where most often the criminal simply seems in every way normal. And to extent, their behavior is tacitly tolerated or even encouraged.

Our response after mass shootings has parallels to that of rape culture. We all seem to agree that mass shootings are terrible… and that’s it. Those who call for greater gun control are told that they are trampling the rights of upstanding citizens. We’re reminded that if only more people ready to kill a stranger at a moment’s notice, things wouldn’t be so bad. (Who the fuck brings a gun to a concert? A movie theater? A school? An aerobic class? All of the above? PEOPLE JONESING TO KILL OTHER PEOPLE THAT’S WHO.) Usually some asshole talks about how men being more manly and available would somehow stop bullets.  I mean, if that dude had a gun, even better right?

If gun control doesn’t work, it’s because we don’t want it to. We believe that it is the right of certain citizens to kill, harm, and threaten many, many others. That these citizens are allowed to define what is just, and the rest must submit. That it is more important to these citizens to protect an image and understanding of themselves than it is to protect the very real lives that they take.

Our response to gun violence is revealing as to who we are as a country. After Sandy Hook, nothing was done to prevent it from happening again, expect putting the burden on very young children that they need to know how to hide from an active shooter. Our country’s children are less important to us than a man’s sense of superiority.

I believe that gun control will help. It won’t do everything, but it’ll help. (I mean, suspending someone’s driver’s license for a DUI doesn’t literally prevent them from driving but COME ON. You wouldn’t just shrug and say there’s nothing you can do.) But if we actually want to stop gun violence in this country, we must examine why it keeps happening with clear eyes. Look at the people who commit these acts. Listen to what they say and what they’ve done before. Watch how we respond. It will take more than laws to stop this kind of violence because we believe in this kind of violence.

We extoll it in our media: heroes kill so many nameless strangers in fun, family-friendly blockbusters. We talk about violence as just and corrective: regarding children, spouses, co-workers, and strangers. We set-up violence as the ultimate show of ultimate authority, especially when it comes to putting others in their place, as a means of exacting silence and compliance.

I don’t mean that we’re all psychopaths. This kind of talk may come out as a joke, a burst of frustration, or as a response to extreme feelings. But it’s still there. It’s everywhere in the U.S. We accept, even embrace, not only violence, but the structures that it enforces. Until we push back on the idea that a lost TV set is worth one life, that fragile masculinity is worth even more, that death is justice, we are complicit.

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