by Ross Bishop
The facts are that wherever guns have been banned the number of homicides and suicides drop markedly. Where guns are legal, homicide and suicide rates are higher – a lot higher, supporting the premise that although guns do not kill people, they do make it a great deal easier.
In 1996, after a mass shooting in Australia, lawmakers tightened gun laws. From “The Journal of Public Health Policy”: “The firearm suicide rate dropped by half in Australia over the next seven years, and the firearm homicide rate was almost halved,” (from a column in the NY Times by Nicholas Kristof).
Although they receive publicity because they are sensationalistic, there are about 20 mass killings every year in this country, and that has been true for decades. Every year there are about 100 to 150 victims of mass murder. And that is not to take anything away from how terrible and tragic these events are, but those numbers pale in comparison to the 11,000 homicides and 21,000 gun suicides every year. And added to those totals should also be the 84,000 non-fatal injuries that occur from guns. That’s where the real gun problem is.
In his NY Times column, Nicholas Kristof went on to point out that, “More Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on the battlefields of all the wars in American history.
Regarding homicides, the problem is that a gun is the great equalizer. A gun in the hands of a dwarf makes him a giant. It gives him great power. And, if that dwarf happens to be extremely angry, a little mentally imbalanced, holding a grudge or is a drug dealer fighting a turf war, people are likely to die. Last year, eleven thousand people to be exact. In countries that ban guns, that is a rare occurrence.
Regarding suicide, a gun just makes it too easy. Slitting your wrists is painful and messy, jumping off a bridge is too public and pills make you sick. With a gun, it’s pull the trigger and you’re dead – 21,000 times last year. Where there guns are banned it isn’t that people find other ways, it’s that those suicides simply don’t happen.
In defense of of gun owners, the vast majority – like 99% of them – aren’t going to do anything stupid. That’s why they resent calls for the abolition of firearms. The situation is analogous to Richard Reid trying board a plane with a bomb in his shoe. Because of that one guy, now everybody has to take their shoes off at the airport.
But, until it happens to their family, gun owners live in denial about the combination of depression, guns and the likelihood that anything will happen to them. They simply refuse to accept that they or a spouse or one of their children may be driven over the edge to commit suicide. But it happens, 21,000 times a year! What’s interesting as I said, is that where guns have been banned, suicide rates decline precipitously.
The profile of gun owners differs quite a bit from the general public. Although they comprise only 32% of the population, white males are 61% of gun owners. Roughly three-in-ten (31%) whites own a gun, which is much greater than the rates of gun ownership among blacks (15%) or Hispanics (11%).
Gun ownership is a Republican thing. Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to own guns. The third of Republicans who own guns compares with just 16% of Democrats. While 37% of all adults identify with or lean toward the Republican Party, that proportion jumps to 51% among gun owners. This would fit with the somewhat more paranoid profile of Republicans generally.
And this is a very important point, because half of gun owners say the reason they own a gun is for protection. Although research does not support this belief, in fact, having a gun in the home makes the household a far more dangerous place, the belief, no matter how irrational, must be recognized. It makes gun owners feel safer.
In addition to all this, there is a small, lunatic fringe of gun owners who wave guns around to emphasize political ends. Guns feed the machismo and feelings of powerlessness of para-military, white supremacist, Promise Keeping, Nazi, Ku KLux Klan, Tea Party types; some of whom are dangerous, but also fairly identifiable.
Then there are the mass shooters. There will be few in number – maybe 20 of them this year. But confounding researchers, it is maddeningly difficult to separate one person from the millions of other disaffected souls who fit the profile perfectly, but never go on to kill.
“There are certainly a lot of people who have a lot of things go wrong, and they’re not committing mass murders,” said Mary Muscari, a forensic nurse at Binghamton University in New York who has researched mass killers. But when it comes to most mass killings, psychosis is not an issue. “Even when you look at mental illness, most people with mental illness are not violent,” she went on to say.
Many mass shootings are motivated by revenge or envy. Most mass killers have suffered some kind of chronic depression and frustration. That’s why many take place at a school or a workplace where the shooter felt rejected.
They externalize responsibility, blaming everybody but themselves for their failings. There are cases of psychosis, especially schizophrenia where the victims are indiscriminately targeted because the killer believes that everyone is against him. The shooter seeks revenge against everybody.
There may be personality problems involved. But for the most part, the pathology is situational, something just horrendous happens; catastrophic, as viewed by the killer, and he decides to get even. However, very few mass killers, including school shooters, actually snap. They don’t go berserk. Most of them are methodical. They plan this event, sometimes for months. They’ll take time to gather the weapons and the ammunition. At Columbine, for example, the planning took 13 months. And that’s not unusual.
These killers often exhibit risk factors that are generally tied to criminal behavior rather than mental illness – a history of abuse or ineffective parenting, a tendency to set fires or hurt animals, a sadistic streak, and self-centeredness and a lack of compassion. In most cases the killer lacks any compassion or empathy for his victims, instead seeing them as symbols of something he wants to obliterate.
Overwhelmingly, mass shooters are men. Our culture and media through violent movies and video games and stories of Wall Street banksters, reinforces the notion that manhood is about attaining power, social and sexual status. Violence is glorified as a way to get that power. Kids, especially ghetto kids, feel very powerless to begin with. The one way they can feel like they’re somebody, that they’re a man, is to get a gun and make money selling drugs. We offer few alternative models that are as appealing.
Mass shootings also hold the potential to spawn copy-cat murders as other would-be shooters see stories about the crimes in the media, and want to emulate them.
What to do? We really are dealing with three problems: homicides, suicides and mass shootings.
The best first step would be to ban guns. In America that is not likely in my lifetime, but it needs to happen. We could help the situation (a bit) by banning the sale and manufacture of military style assault weapons, large ammunition clips and “cop killer” ammunition.
Since it is almost impossible to identify the shooters in most of these situations for a host of reasons, a wise approach would be to become proactive and cast a wide net to identify troubled people generally and offer them help. They could be provided assistance, counseling, group therapy – whatever was needed to help them reduce their level of anger, depression and frustration. Could we get everyone? No. But we could significantly reduce the boiling point of society, save some lives and probably deal with a host of related problems along the way.
Would it be expensive? Yes. It would require a re-ordering of social priorities, to the tune of about one new aircraft carrier. Would it be worth it? That depends on the value you place on 33,000 lost lives and the monumental first responder expense, cost of courts, prisons, etc. Another way to look at this is to consider how much these people – not just the fatalities and their families, but the millions of other troubled souls we could also help, cost the society every year already? Prevention is always cheaper.
Our educational system cold also do a great deal to help the situation. Instead of being stuck in a 17th century model of teaching math and science, schools could teach young people social skills like having a relationship, raising children, conflict resolution, dealing with depression, money management, non-violence, dealing with disappointment, anger management and self-esteem, to name just a few. But that’s not likely to happen either.
Regarding the overall cost of these efforts, there’s a false economy at work here. When you scrimp on inner city schools, cut back social services or medical care for the underprivileged, reduce outlays for food stamps, cut drug counseling, provide no job training or job opportunities, and send what few decent jobs there are overseas, you save in one budget but the cost simply gets transferred elsewhere – like to the police or prisons – where costs are much higher. But what may be even more important is that you take away any hope for the future or any pathway out of the personal darkness that the underpriveledged acutely feel. You imprison them in a maze with no hope of escape. Doing this virtually guarantees socially deviant behavior, a high crime rate and an illegal drug trade with all of their attendant costs to the larger society.
(See: Gun Ownership Trends and Demographics, Pew Research Center, 2013)
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