Las Vegas. Newtown. Orlando. Uvalde. From small towns to large, these places should be hitting our news feeds as likely vacation destinations, or not at all. Instead, they’ve been the sites for some of the most horrific mass shootings in history. As the years go on and these events continue, politicians demagogue ever louder for “assault weapons” prohibition, body armor bans, and closing of the “gun show loophole,” among other maladaptive and misguided policy recommendations. But what is really going on here? Will these prescribed solutions from our friends on the left side of the aisle actually have the effects they think?
Seek First to Understand
All too often when we experience problems in our country, eager politicians spring into action professing solutions and demanding measures that will allegedly fix our ails. If we’re lucky, we may get data to back up their prescriptive policies, but sometimes, as is the case with mass shootings and gun violence, the qualifier is simply, “common sense.” Surely, they argue, you can see the connection between guns and gun violence! But before I address that, I’d like to take a step back in our thought process. In our rush to digest the traumatic news of the day and demand resolution, I think we forget to ask, “Why did this happen in the first place?”
Ultimately, these shootings happen for a reason. Trying to understand that reason, as difficult as it may be, is called empathy. To be clear, I’m not talking about sympathy. But like the famous serial killers of the 1970’s and 80’s, we must try to dig in to their minds to find the instigating factors that in one case led an 18-year-old student to shoot up an elementary school, or a millionaire who seemingly had it all to open fire on thousands of concert goers from a 32nd floor hotel window. Just like John Douglas’ work in what would later become the hit TV show Mindhunters, we need experts who work to understand the “why” of these events. Only when we identify the why can we begin to formulate an effective, long-term solution to this problem.
Correlation Does Not Imply Causation
Now we have these events happening (we don’t know why) and we almost immediately become inundated by the numerous proponents for prohibition prescribing that our government disallow private ownership of this firearm or that feature that was involved in the event. Unfortunately, this fails the basic test of correlation versus causation. Let me give you some examples.
An intoxicated adult leaves a bar at 2AM, gets in his car, and while driving home hits and kills someone in a motor vehicle accident. The car and the alcohol are both correlated to the killing. In other words, there is a relationship between the objects and the event. However, that relationship is not causal, meaning that neither the alcohol nor the car caused the killing. It was the intoxicated individual who made the decision to get behind the wheel that we hold responsible. As a society, we’ve correctly concluded to hold the individual responsible for their actions, and this is backed up by miles of legal precedent.
I’ll give you another example. A police officer wrongly shoots an unarmed minority in any town in this country. We don’t blame the firearm, and we hopefully don’t blame the victim. We blame the police officer responsible because he made the decision to pull the trigger, and rightly so. How else could it be?
Only by understanding the differences between correlation and causation can we come to logical and effective solutions to mass shootings. The AR-15 is not a causal factor in mass shootings. They are certainly correlated to shootings just like alcohol is correlated to drunk driving, because you can’t have one without the other. But the weapons in my safe, and in possession by millions of law-abiding people across the country are not like the One Ring, constantly tempting Frodo with dark and corrupting power. Weapons, like all kinds of other objects, are inanimate.
This is an important distinction because it informs how we go about searching for a solution to the problem. Put differently, we don’t want to be placated with politicized platitudes that inevitably prove ineffective. Rather, we need to first understand the problem at its roots, and then we must attack it at the source.
What Does a Holistic Solution Look Like?
I keep coming back to the Columbine shooting in 1999. It was so unexpected and beyond the pale of understanding. In my mind it seems to be the precipitating event that started the trend of school shootings. For some reason, what those two kids did on that fateful day in April has spawned a wildfire of copycat events that continue to this day. We know that we need to study the “why” of these events, and I speculate that mental health plays a large role. In particular, let’s take a look at the policy of deinstitutionalization.
Deinstitutionalization is the name given to the policy of moving severely mentally ill people out of large state institutions and then closing part or all of those institutions. Beginning in the mid 1950’s and reignited again in the 1970’s, it significantly helped contribute to the mental health crisis we see today by discharging people from public psychiatric hospitals without ensuring that they received the medication and rehabilitation services necessary for them to live successfully in the community. Deinstitutionalization further exacerbated the crisis because, once public psychiatric beds had been closed, they were no longer available for the people who would later become mentally ill, and this situation continues to the present day. Consequently, approximately 2.2 million severely mentally ill people do not receive any psychiatric treatment in the United States.
What does this look like today? According to the New York Times, medical experts at Yale University had attempted to treat Adam Lanza in the years before he perpetrated the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Specifically, they noted, “severe and deteriorating internalized mental health problems,” later in his life. For one reason or another, it seems that his mother unfortunately neglected to heed their warnings.
But I think this highlights an opportunity for improvement. Parents may not have the time, money, knowledge, skills, or facilities to effectively care for a mentally ill child, and I don’t think this is a fair burden to lay at the feet of family and relatives alone. Rather than offering take-it-or-leave-it medical advice, effective societal support structures for the mentally ill and a dignified approach that destigmatizes mental health treatment may help lead us to more positive outcomes in the future. The key to this approach is it seeks to identify and treat the cause of the issue: mental health.
Note: My interest in improving mental health institutions is not a call for universal healthcare. I’ve seen some individuals in poor faith attempt to shoehorn loosely or even unrelated policies into the answer for mass shootings. I am not interested in commenting on other political issues, only in identifying areas for improvement specific to mass shootings.
Racism is also a seemingly common thread among some portion of mass shooters. As difficult as it may sound, racist individuals must be brought back into the fold of modern society. What do I mean? Well take a look at how social discourse operates today. Social media is used by individuals as well as politically correct corporations to identify racist personalities and push them into the shadows. Removed from contemporary discourse, these uneducated and maligned personalities fester and devolve as they become surrounded by individuals who only agree with them and encourage their dysfunctional thinking. For some, it’s often only a matter of time until they burst back out into society in horrific acts of violence.
How can we begin to address this? Before going into combat, you have to do reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. The more you can understand about your opponent, the better you can counter his moves before he makes them. So when it comes to racist people in our society, I think it’s helpful to try to understand them first.
Soft White Underbelly is an incredible Youtube project run by a man named Mark Laita. Described as interviews and portraits of the human condition, Mark talks to individuals who most would consider to be on the fringes of polite society. Have you ever wondered what a prostitute, a rapist, or a white supremacist has to say? What are their stories? I think Soft White Underbelly is a powerful tool that can help give us a glimpse into the personalities and behavior we’re looking to change.
Take Donny for example. Donny is a skinhead with a background that shouldn’t sound too surprising. Raised in poverty with no parents or role models to mold him, he found the family he needed in the white supremacist movement. His story isn’t terribly dissimilar to so many inner-city kids who find role models and family bonds in an all too idolized gang lifestyle. Drugs also played a significant role in his life; as of the time he was interviewed, Donny was addicted to Fentanyl. And so, we get a portrait of our opponent, in his own words.
What do we do with this information? Can we turn humans like Donny back from the path they’re on? Like Luke Skywalker talking about Darth Vader in Star Wars, we have to believe that there is something good still left in there, something worth saving.
Enter Daryl Davis. Daryl has an incredible story that was detailed during an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast in 2020. In short; Daryl, an African American man from Chicago, is responsible for the reform of over 200 Ku Klux Klan members, including some from the highest levels of that organization. And he did it all by using respect, patience, knowledge, and conversation. Now, I’m not saying we can all go out and be identical versions of Daryl Davis, but I think he’s given us the keys to unlocking successful discourse with our opponents on this problem.
In Daryl’s own words, “If you want to solve this problem of racism, we need to stop focusing on the symptoms… It’s like putting a band aid on cancer. You gotta go down to the bone and treat it at the source, the source of all this is ignorance. Ignorance can be cured. The cure for ignorance is called education. So, you fix the ignorance, there’s nothing to fear, because you fear what you don’t know. If there’s nothing to fear, there’s nothing to hate. If there’s nothing to hate, there’s nothing to destroy. So, we need to focus on the ignorance and we need to address it with exposure and education and conversation. We spend way too much time in this country talking about the other person, talking at the other person, talking past the other person. Why not just spend a little bit of time talking with the other person.”
Daryl Davis is an incredible individual with a powerful attitude, and I think we can all learn a lot from his example.
What Not to Do
Of all the possible solutions to the epidemic of mass shootings, I think mass punishment AKA prohibition is the least informed, the least effective, and has the potential to have the most damaging consequences down the road. Prohibition is the least informed because it puts a band aid on the proverbial bullet wound. It says, “We’re fine with these marginalized people living and working and struggling alone with their demons in our society, as long as they don’t have guns so they can’t bother us.” Quite frankly, this is lazy and shameful thinking as it leaves the least fortunate and most vulnerable among us alone and without support. Again, we must address the cause of the issue, not simply mask its symptoms.
Prohibition will also be an ineffective measure because it runs contrary to the American way of doing business. The fact is, as Americans, we want what we want and have a loose relationship with laws that tell us otherwise. Look at alcohol prohibition 100 years ago. Even at its height, most Americans probably knew where they could go to find a drink. Similarly, I’d bet most people today have tried cannabis products in one form or another, all while marijuana remains classified as a schedule 1 substance by the federal government. In short, making something illegal in no way guarantees it will go away; it will just be another band aid on the problem.
Finally, prohibition is outright dangerous for several reasons. First, it is dangerous because it will make criminals out of millions of law-abiding citizens across the country. The cat is out of the bag. There are an estimated 385 million firearms in private ownership in the US. Were prohibition laws to be passed, a vast majority of law-abiding citizens would not comply, and consequently become felons overnight. This is hardly the desired result of anyone honestly looking to solve the issue of mass shootings in this country.
Additionally, just like the rise of bootleggers, illegal alcohol importers, and organized crime syndicates in the 1920’s, there is no reason to believe something similar wouldn’t occur in the case of firearms prohibition. Mexican drug cartels already operate across the entirety of our southern border and exert complete control across vast swathes of territory in Mexico. Think about where the majority of marijuana in the US comes from. It would only be natural for the cartels to do the same with prohibited firearms. Were prohibition to be enacted, we’d in effect be helping the cartels (perpetrators of drug smuggling, human trafficking, extortion, and murder, among other crimes) by giving them another item to import and sell on our streets. So I think we must root the discussion of prohibition in reality and include these negative externalities; it simply isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
A Failure of Leadership
Finally, poor political leadership on this issue gives us an opportunity cost component that should be considered. Leaders on the left have a simple strategy, demagoguery and draconian laws, often bracketed by our four-year election cycle. It’s a case of when your only tool is a hammer, all of your problems look like nails. Every four years, liberals use our elections as an attempt to bash through legislation that would restrict the rights of tens of millions of law-abiding Americans while simultaneously failing to address the core of the issue. This lack of leadership has led to the broken record of liberal rhetoric that we see today.
Those on the right have another problem; when mass shootings happen, there is almost no leadership or constructive thought on the issue at all. Conservative rhetoric is reactionary, understandably so to an extent, but fails to generate any unique, thoughtful, or creative solutions to the issue. The call is often to arm teachers or to somehow put good guys with guns in schools. At worst, calls for active shooter training that includes blank fire rounds and flashbangs in elementary schools comes across as absolutely ridiculous. Like liberals, conservative leadership’s failure to address the core of the issue has contributed to the stalemate we’re in today.
What is the opportunity cost of this chicanery? In May of this year, President Biden signed a whopping $40 billion dollar bipartisan aid package to Ukraine, bringing the grand total of US aid up to $54 billion to date. How many mental health support facilities could we have bought for $54 billion? To how many underserved and at-risk communities could we have provided outreach and education? Even to band aid the problem, how many security guards could we have purchased to place in schools? Before Russia invaded Ukraine, we had no plan to spend that money. And yet, when the occasion arose, we found a way to make it happen. It’s shameful that we can agree to waste ungodly amounts of money on events outside of the US while allowing our country to fester and rot at home.
How do I know it’s not about guns?
Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold, wrote the following in her book, “Dylan and Eric had already been in certain corners heralded as champions for a cause. Tom and I received chilling letters from alienated kids expressing admiration for Dylan and what he’d done. Adults who’d been bullied wrote to tell us they could relate to the boys and their actions. Girls flooded us with love letters. Young men left messages on our answering machine calling Dylan a god, a hero…”
This tells me our society is sick. It seems to me these shootings are an external manifestation of some sort of internal societal neuroses. Banning guns simply doesn’t cut it. Something is deeply, breathtakingly wrong with us. This problem is huge and dynamic and tough, and it’s going to take a lot of hard work to turn things around. I won’t pretend to have all of the answers, but I think we can get there by first trying to ask the right questions. Moving forward, I hope we can avoid easy solutions and black-and-white thinking; we have to put the real work in and find the answers together. It’s the only way we can bring these events to an end.