Thinking about mass shootings: Seven died Sunday as a shooter invaded a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Investigations still are proceeding into the recent shootings at the movie complex in Aurora, Colorado, which killed 12 and wounded many more. In the past five years high-profile mass shootings have taken place at Virginia Tech, at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, N.Y., at Ford Hood, Texas, and in Tucson.
Then there are the everyday, less-noticed shootings in Rainier Valley, Renton, Belltown, the University District, Sea-Tac, and other local places. Chicago is undergoing a murder-by-shooting epidemic as victims fall one and two at a time.
The numbers are daunting: some 30,000 deaths annually in the United States by firearms. Of these, slightly more than half are suicides. About 40 percent are homicides. The United States leads the developed world in deaths by firearms (although, in recent years, drug-related shootings in Mexico have exceeded firearms deaths here). Japan, by contrast, has an extremely low rate of death by firearms. Laws there are extremely strict, and police will raid homes where they believe firearms are present.
We Americans tend to believe that, for every problem, there is a solution. Therefore our first reach in recent years — in particular since the shooting deaths in the 1960s of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, and the subsequent shooting of President Reagan — has been toward gun-control laws. If people are using guns to kill themselves and others, the thinking goes, let us therefore clamp down on gun ownership.
I believe this is a quite rational and appropriate response to American gun violence. Yet, in recent years, gun control has all but disappeared from the national political agenda. Democratic officeholders and candidates, especially those from urban, high-crime areas, at first led for gun control. But, more than 20 years ago, they lessened their efforts. They did so because they found the issue hurting their electoral chances in states with large numbers of hunters.
Officeholders and candidates of both parties also found themselves facing organized, well-financed campaigns on behalf of "second amendment rights" by the National Rifle Association and various sportsmen's organizations. It became easy to talk a gun-control game in meetings with urban and anti-firearms voters but, at the same time, to leave the issue out of party platforms and legislative agendas.
Will the most recent Colorado and Wisconsin shootings give new momentum to firearms control? No. Only in big cities where tough gun laws already are in force are there some mayors who truly mean business. In any case, in high-crime areas, illegal firearms and ammunition remain all too easy to get.
Meanwhile, what can we do about deranged shooters not committing suicide or using firearms in committing of crimes? The mass shootings almost universally are committed by such persons. The Aurora, Colorado shooter, it turns out, had been receiving treatment over a long period from a University of Colorado psychiatrist specializing in schizophrenia. The university first announced that it could not have known that the shooter, James Holmes, was on the verge of such action. But his psychiatrist then stepped forward to say that she, indeed, had brought his prospective danger to an internal committee which, in turn, decided not to warn the police or anyone else. Issues of medical-records confidentiality, among other things, came into play.
After-the-act examinations of the other above-mentioned mass shootings of recent years have also yielded information that colleges, the military, and other institutions have been reluctant to take pre-emptive action against anyone whose behavior sent warning signals but who had not yet committed overt violent acts.
The most recent issue of the Wilson Quarterly (the last non-digital issue to be published) contains a long article by Tanya Marie Luhrmann of Stanford on the evolution of professional treatment of brain disorders. In the 1990s, she points out, it was widely believed that schizophrenia and other psychiatric illnesses were pure brain disorders which eventually would yield to drug therapy. Now, however, scientists are recognizing that social factors, including the circumstance of patients' daily lives, are important in addressing schizophrenia and other serious disorders.
A particular incident or episode can, in fact, be a "tipping point" toward behavior which otherwise might not manifest itself. Holmes underwent such incidents, including a recent academic failure, which might have set him off on his well-planned rampage.
Can we identify and head off potential mass killers using firearms? In a few cases, maybe so. Was society mistaken, back in the 1960s, when governments decided to "deinsitutionalize" mental patients and close most of their hospitals? What was seen then as both humane and cost-saving now is being reconsidered as millions of dysfunctional, and occasionally dangerous, patients, often lacking caring friends or family, are left without adequate daily support and treatment. We see them daily on downtown streets.
Recent studies have shown that the current prevalence of gratuitous violence and sex in our popular culture is causing children and teenagers, in particular, to accept it as normal.
Violent death is all around us. The day after the Aurora, Colorado shootings, a pickup truck carrying illegal-immigrant men, women, and children crashed off a road in South Texas and killed 13, one more than had died in Aurora. Yet that story disappeared from the news the following day. Automobile deaths outnumber deaths by firearms. It is the spectacular, unexpected incidents that grasp and hold our attention.
It is difficult for us here to understand the burning hatreds which underlie brutal killings in places such as Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and Africa in particular and, in prior years, in supposedly civilized Europe. Life has not been treated so carelessly here since our decimation of Native American nations during the westward movement. One's tribe, religion, ethnicity, nationality, or political persuasion can be a potential death sentence in many parts of the world.
If gun control laws are difficult to achieve, they still must be pursued. If potential mass killers can be identified, they should be restrained before they act. We don't want censorship in our media and arts, but sensible self-policing policies need to be applied so that they do not celebrate violence and make life appear cheap.
Yet, even if all these things could be instantly achieved, there still would be firearms killings and irrational, destructive acts by the deranged.
I've regrettably come to regard such incidents as I regard forest fires. We should do all we can to avert man-caused fires, knowing in advance we'll be unable to avert them all. But we also recognize that nature-caused forest fires will break out, rage, and destroy. So long as irrationality and, yes, evil exist in our midst, violent and sometimes mass death will recur.
This is hard but necessary to accept.