The mass shooting of elementary school students, teachers, and administration at Sandy Hook has brought out the usual suspects with their panacea for more gun control as a solution for mass shootings. Interestingly enough, some of the same politicos that advocate gun control are also proponents of drug legalization. The facts would indicate that neither prohibition works very well if at all. Do people really think that if certain guns were outlawed that organized crime wouldn’t come in and fill the void? Or take gun manufacturers: Do we really think that if America outlawed gun manufacturing that some other country or foreign cartel wouldn’t come in and supply the demand? It was interesting that on one of the Sunday morning talk shows a couple of weeks ago, the Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, was one of the more moderate voices, saying that it wasn’t right to penalize law abiding gun owners. Instead, he advocated controlling or eliminating gun shows, where guns could be traded with no registration or license. While I am an NRA member, I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to place some limitations on the right to bear arms: After all, do we really want an angry neighbor owning a rocket launcher? Of course, if he (or she) is a member of a gang or terrorist group, he’ll find a way to get one, laws or no laws. The fact of the matter is that restrictions on gun ownership will do very little to change the patterns of violence in American society.
Then there was all this talk about mental illness: if only our mental health system was better funded these wackos would get the help they needed, or get locked up before they acted out. What this indicates, to someone who has worked in the mental health profession for over 25 years, is a profound lack of insight and knowledge about the capabilities of such professionals to prognosticate whether an individual will commit an act of violence in the future, in the case of individuals who have no, or very little history of violence in their background. We don’t have a crystal ball into the future as part of our repertoire. What we can predict is the kind of violence perpetrated by repeat offenders, such as the street violence in Chicago or Oakland. But most anyone with half a brain can do that. With tougher laws and increased incarceration rates, violent crime has decreased in the nation as a whole, and places like Chicago and Washington, DC, with stricter than usual gun control laws, have fared far worse than average. But there is really no way to accurately predict the propensity for violence on the part of an individual with no criminal record or history of violence, mentally ill or not, short of an ability to read minds (remember: some people do have a tendency to tell lies).
My response to the Sandy Hook tragedy is for all Americans, particularly the political and pundit classes, to look in the mirror. Ask yourself whether or not America has become a more violent culture, and to what extent you may or may not be complicit. Most of the very same celebrities, who appeared in an infomercial advocating gun control following Sandy Hook, have made movies where violence is deemed the solution to all of life’s problems. One of the movies that I saw following Sandy Hook was Wanted (2008), with Angelina Jolie portraying a member of a team of assassins, who train an office boy, bored with his drab life (played by James McAvoy) to become one of the team. What a perfect metaphor for the young bullied nobody, who decides to take out his frustrations with life and become somebody famous by breaking a mass murder record. How inspiring! I heard someone say that we shouldn’t publicize the name of the perpetrator, and in a way that makes sense, because these mass shootings at schools and colleges have all the markings of a copy-cat crime. And guess what: schools and colleges are “gun-free zones,” in other words, a great place to target practice on innocent victims without the risk of getting shot back, at least for 20 or so minutes.
Movies, video games, American foreign policy, crime in the streets, all serve to make America a more violent country. Unfortunately, the only way to stop a bad guy or a whole bunch of bad guys with guns is with an armed citizenry and that thin blue line of law enforcement, or by extension to international relations, with a well-trained military. But ask yourself, why could farm boys in the early Twentieth Century bring their hunting rifles to school every day with few if any incidents of gun violence in that arena? When I went to high school in the early 1960s, there were fights and even occasional brawls after football games, but no gun violence. What’s changed? I’ll offer an opinion: What’s changed is that we’ve let the genii out of the bottle. There were good things that happened in the 1960s, like civil rights and more personal freedom, but there was also a surge of violence, drug use, and societal and familial breakdown. All natural and social restraints were set aside by many that included a majority of the agents of cultural transmission, i.e., movies, media, schools, and colleges. The mores and religious traditions of America’s past were cast aside like so much excess baggage. Heinous crimes, unheard of in earlier times, cascaded onto the national stage. What had been unthinkable before, beyond the frame of reference of the average American’s psyche, suddenly became permissible or at least thinkable. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, we had “defined deviancy down.” This is not to say that increased personal freedom is a bad thing, but any honest appraisal of the culture that emerged from the 1960s and 1970s would have to admit that it’s been a very mixed bag. Like so many things, to evaluate the consequences of freedom: it all depends upon what you do with it. Ironically, at the same time that Americans enjoyed more personal freedom, there was a decline in the mediating institutions of family, community, church, and neighborhood, and an exponential increase in the power of the state. Thus, every time the American psyche goes off kilter with outrage at the latest atrocious crime, the American people, led by their pundit class, scream for another law to “stop this outrageous violence.” But nothing really changes folks, because the last thing we want to do is look in the mirror and ask, what kind of culture have we bequeathed to our children? It’s so much easier to just pass another law.