American Talk

The inevitability of American gun violence

Three years ago, after the then-latest horrific mass shooting (the one in Aurora, Colorado), I did a short, angry Atlantic item called “The Certainty of More Shootings.” It ended this way:

There will be more of these; we absolutely know it; we also know that we will not change the circumstances that allow such episodes to recur. I am an optimist about most things, but not about this. Everyone around the world understands this reality too. It is the kind of thing that makes them consider America dangerous, and mad.

After that came: the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, with six people killed; the shooting in a business office in Minneapolis, with six people killed; the shooting in a hair salon in Wisconsin, with three people killed; the Sandy Hook/Newtown elementary school massacre, with 27 children and teachers shot to death; the shooting at Santa Monica College in California, with five people killed; the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard, with 13 people killed; the shooting at Ft. Hood in Texas, with three people killed (which was different from the earlier Ft. Hood shooting, with 13 people killed); the shooting at UC Santa Barbara, with 7 people killed; the shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, with nine people killed; the on-air shooting of two TV reporters in Virginia; yesterday’s shooting outside Roseburg, Oregon, with ten people killed; and of course the countless other gun-death episodes.

I bet you had forgotten some of these.

I agreed with every word, and with every point of furious emphasis, in President Obama’s powerful statement after the latest massacre, in Oregon: His anger at the ritual of saying “our thoughts and prayers are with the families” but doing nothing to prevent further such killings. His stress on America’s status as the only “advanced” society in which mass shootings are routine. His highlighting the disproportion between America’s sky-is-falling sensitivity to the slightest potential risk that could be defined as “terrorism” versus its blasé acceptance of unending home-grown killings. His clear, cold reminder that it is an ongoing political decision by America collectively not to do anything to prevent these killings.

For now, all I can add is views from readers. From one in Los Angeles:

The astonishing chart in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog today, showing that the likelihood of dying in a car crash is severely negatively correlated with education, makes me wonder if the same is true for dying in gun violence. I bet it is.

And I bet that's a major reason there is no serious public policy attempt to stop gun violence. If dying of gun violence were positively correlated with country club membership or levels of investment income, I bet there would be dramatic policy changes tomorrow. But when the victims are poorer, or younger, or less white - those with real power simply do not care. It's heartbreaking and wrong

In real-time chronicling mode, I am putting up this note before completing a search for graphs or studies on this point. I am sure that the reader’s supposition is right it comes to “routine” urban shootings. The mass murders in schoolyards, colleges, theaters, and shopping-malls are different, in making it easier for better-off Americans to think, that could have  been me. Worse, that could have been my child. But evidently not enough people have made that imaginative leap to make a political difference.

From a reader in Florida:

I have a "modest proposal", ala Swift, as an attempt to get some cultural change in our our acceptance of gun violence.

Fully publicized unretouched crime scene photos.  Think for just a second if we all could see what a hollow point did to the head of a child at Sandy Hook... or Aurora... or Umpqua or ....  it might get some action.

If we want easy access weapons, we should see what they really do to a human body.

On one hand it's like making folks convicted of DUI's to watch crash movies, excepting that we in the popular culture haven't been convicted of a crime.  But then, maybe, we all have been guilty of doing nothing for long enough. It's crazy, I know, but sane proposals haven't worked.

From another reader in Florida. An important backdrop point about his message, of course, is that the very sheriff in Oregon running the Roseburg investigation is himself a ferociously outspoken foe of gun-control laws. Here’s the Florida reader, with emphasis added:

There's a really important dynamic that I think gives arsenalists their political power. It's open law enforcement sympathy for the armed faction of American society against the unarmed.

Culturally, I think American law enforcement thinks of itself as protecting the 35 percent of armed Americans against the 65 percent who aren't. It's crazy; but I think it's true. That's because actual police generally come from the 35 percent of American households that own guns. And more importantly, I think most of them probably sympathize with arsenal owners because many of them own their own arsenals. (10+ guns)

As long as police rhetoric and sympathy rests with armed arsenalists and not the unarmed, nothing is going to change. Police overwhelmingly support the laws that allow our debased gun culture to thrive.

It's worth noting that mass shootings are good for the gun business, especially during Democratic administrations. It's similar to how Katrina was a great achievement for the anti-government right. We have got to stigmatize the "gun hustler" industry. We've got to stigmatize the business of arsenalists in a way that splits them from police.

A very long-term project. And we have to come up with the language of seediness and gangsterism, like "gun hustler," to do it. Or at least that's my take. So mass shootings, like street level brutality and the Drug War are all part of the same issue.

From another reader, on possible cultural / commercial pressures:

Ernest Hemingway bought a shotgun from Abercrombie & Fitch and then went home and shot himself. After that, A&F stopped selling guns.

It might be effective to start publishing the names of the gun manufacturer and retail store who sold that gun for each killing. Shame is not the best motivator but sometimes it can work. And a policy like that wouldn't require any legislation, just journalist initiative.

WalMart did of course decide to stop selling AR-15 rifles, cousin of the military’s M-16, earlier this year. Unfortunately it is hard to imagine gun-show vendors or local weapons shops being as responsive as the old A&F to a mainstream-media shaming campaign.   

And, finally for today, perhaps the most sobering observation:

The problem isn't simply that we have too many guns in the US and that the barriers to acquiring one are so low; other countries such as Canada and Switzerland have comparable gun to population rates, and they do it without having a school massacre every year or two.

This school shooting phenomenon is distinctly American; it has become part of our culture, like it or not, one in which kids grow up being told they are the greatest thing on earth, one in which we have killed off all sense of humor for the sake of not offending anyone, one with very poor services for those with mental health problems, and one where now we've seen so many school massacres its well within our normal daily consciousness and cultural dialogue.

This post was originally published at The Atlantic