Since writing this piece, a week after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando (12 June 2016), we’ve lost tens of thousands of lives, due to gun violence. The majority of them were not mass shootings, but those are the events that make the national news, most often. Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Santa Fe (TX), Stoneman Douglas, & yesterday, in Annapolis, MD, to name but a few. Two things haven’t changed in the past 2 years; Congress hasn’t passed any meaningful legislation addressing the means with which the violence is carried out and people are still acting on their worst impulses, driven by extreme rhetoric from our “leaders”. This is America.
Seung-Hui Cho, the student who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University, in 2007, had no criminal history. Adam Lanza, killed 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, and was not, prior to this act, a criminal. James Holmes, killed 12 people in Aurora, CO, wasn’t a criminal. Jared Loughner, Tucson, AZ, killed 6, not a criminal. Robert Stewart, Carthage, NC, killed 8, not a criminal. Jeffrey Weise, Red Lake Reservation, MN, killed 9, not a criminal. James Huberty, San Ysidro, CA, 21 killed, not a criminal. This list is but a small segment of the larger list of people who have been found guilty of murdering multiple persons in what we refer to as “mass shootings“. It is also a list of individuals who, prior to their crime, had never been convicted of a criminal offense. “No prior criminal history” is a common refrain found in many of the news reports discussing these and other (not all) mass murder events. It is for this reason that I am not worried about criminals getting their hands on guns.
The NRA and some of its supporters try to persuade us that it is not the average Joe who is committing these crimes, it is the work of criminals. We are reminded daily that if there are new gun restrictions, they will limit non-criminals (your average citizen) from obtaining guns; the criminals, however, will “always be able to get guns”. The problem with that narrative is that it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. When many of the mass shooters have never been found guilty of anything more than a misdemeanor (if that) by the criminal justice system, how can we call them criminals? The fact that their criminal history begins, and ends, with one act, should be a wake-up call to lawmakers; preventing criminals from committing these types of acts may not be their number one concern.
The next group to be blamed is rather difficult to pin down because of the varied behaviors that can be seen as normal or not normal depending on whose doing the assessing. Those individuals who are experiencing mental illness, hard to manage stress (post-traumatic, chronic, acute, et al.), or depression, are often singled out as “more likely” to engage in these kinds of acts. This provides another convenient excuse for the gun extremists (which are few in number compared to the millions of gun owners nationwide); when the shooter is found to be mentally unstable (which may or may not include those who are religiously intolerant, or affiliated with extremist views), they lay blame somewhere other than the weapons. But here too, these actions are not, in and of themselves, criminal. In the majority of these cases, criminal activity has occurred only after the shooting commences. So why does the vocal minority insist on talking to us about criminals getting guns and people who are mentally unstable, and armed, as a great danger to society? These folks aren’t the biggest concern, not even close.
Our society already watches out for those with criminal records. We “know” who commits crimes and we know some of the reasons why. We know about recidivism rates (and some programs that are working to decrease recidivism), and we keep our collective eyes peeled for the known “bad guys” who might try to do additional harm after serving their time (or they might not harm anyone). But we don’t have heightened senses for those who have never been charged with, nor found guilty of, a crime. They are the people we interact with every day.
Sure, most of us have talked about someone behind their back, with our spouses/partners, co-workers, pew-mates, bar buddies, and the like, about “his crazy rants“, reckless ways, violent vocal outbursts—concerning their wives, girlfriends, kids, neighbors, boss, local police, F.B.I., the President, et al. Yet, we assume that they, like so many others who have stated their disgust concerning the most recent “nuisance” in their life, are all talk and no action; because, really, who would act on these kinds of threats, especially after spouting off in front of numerous people—in public places.
Even Omar Mateen, who had some fairly normal teenage difficulties in his youth, was accused of domestic abuse, and is now known for perpetrating the worst mass shooting in our history, was not a criminal, in the eyes of the law. He was investigated and found to be a bit more of a threat than our friends Steve, or Ron, or Earl, or Pete, who like to talk big about what they’re gonna do to this, that, or the next person that “pisses them off”; but at the end of the day, everyone assumes it’s inane loud-mouthing, woofing, acting the fool, and all other manner of ludicrousness. So I ask you to think about the “criminal” and “mental illness” arguments that are made by some of our fellow citizens. Does it really make sense to concern ourselves with the known criminals when law enforcement is already paying closer attention to them? Should we really be watching our back constantly, because who knows when a person suffering from a malady of the brain is nearby? Or would we be better served to focus on what’s happening with the amount of gun violence in our culture; like, someone with a gun making a snap judgement, or maybe shooting up a street, or planning a massacre at a church, school, restaurant, club, workplace, or not planning it.
Most people don’t want to “get rid of the 2nd Amendment“; they just want some common sense measures to decrease the number of atrocities occurring in our nation. Policies that make it more difficult for anyone to obtain certain types of weapons or weapon accessories (high-capacity magazines, etc.) would be a good starting point. No, that won’t prevent all non-criminals (or criminals) from getting their hands on a weapon but it would likely prevent some of them—and that is better than none.
It is also better if the next mass shooting (because there will be more) takes the lives of 5, rather than 10, or 30, instead of 50. The families of those who are killed will be no less upset knowing that there were fewer victims of the violent act; the benefit, however, would be in knowing that fewer friends and family members were grieving the loss of a loved one. The cost of doing nothing is so much greater than any benefit inaction would generate.
If you’re reading this and thinking, the cost of any restriction on my rights to fully take advantage of the 2nd Amendment for my benefit is a cost I cannot bear. I would say, you might be kind of selfish, and furthermore, you’re never going to legally get your hands on the type of weaponry you would need to engage with a real military unit (you can’t afford an F-16), so why make such a fuss about restrictions aimed at saving lives. The idea of a militia (as referred to in the 2nd Amendment (Amendment II: A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.)), acting as a military force against a standing army, no longer exists. We aren’t fighting the Red Coats anymore, technological advances (and having the most lethal military forces in the world) have rendered local militias mute, for this particular cause. The Constitution, to include the Bill of Rights, must adopt to the changes in our society while meeting the challenges of upholding the intent of the Framers.
What we need right now is lawmakers who are willing to look at current policies and make adjustments to outdated laws in addition to instituting new ideas. This applies not only to assault style weapons but to mental health counseling services and policies aimed at moving our civilization towards a more open and accepting society; we are, at best, a cautious and private society (especially to anyone who appears different from us) and at our worst, we are angry and hateful, particularly when we feel our social mores, our “way of life”, is threatened.
Hate is the primary driver of violence. This is not a theory, or some notion that a wise philosopher came up with while sitting atop a mountain, it’s a fact. People don’t generally kill, or maim, or injure other people because they love them or find them funny; they perpetrate these actions because of hate. In all it’s forms, hatred makes us want to lash out at someone/something. Maybe the person who caused us to feel “this way” or maybe the person that happens to be close at hand. The recipient of our rage is not as important as our inability to control it. Hate is the emotion that feeds the desire to do harm, and it’s become a bit too rampant in the present day. It must be addressed; and the laws that tackle it must have teeth.
Legislating anti-hate policy is never easy, but Americans are not ones to shy away from a challenge. We have football (American Style) and Hockey, Baltimore and NOLA, Lumberjacks and Miners, and of course, we have Marines. We aren’t short on tough. But some of our lawmakers are short on courage. They lack the fortitude necessary to do what is right because it is unpopular with certain constituents and supporters. They are neither valiant, nor virtuous. They think first about themselves (i.e. re-election) and then about everything else. I don’t think of that as particularly American in character.
This may sound like a pie in the sky scenario, legislating acceptance and tolerance, but I’m not convinced that it can’t work. Sometimes, in order to create change, it is necessary to try the unthinkable. Maybe it could start with making civics and civility a more relevant piece of our educational curriculum. And communities could spend more time and money on making their members feel like they are part of the same gang (might even be an opportunity for some job creation here). Celebrate the uniqueness (the differences) that each group within the community contributes (just don’t get stuck on those differences, move forward to find similarities that are shared). Pretend, if necessary, that you like meeting new people; and in time, you might actually start to enjoy it.