After every mass shooting comes the inevitable cries for gun control. Mostly from the left, of course, but not exclusively. Some want to “keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people”. Some want background checks. Some want bans of automatic and/or semi-automatic weapons. And some, despite their protestations to the contrary, want to ban guns outright altogether. And to be fair, I believe these people honestly believe that’s the solution. I don’t question their sincerity.
Supporters of gun control will point to studies that “prove” gun control works. But they don’t want to talk about places like Chicago that have some of the strictest gun bans in the country and also some of the highest murder rates. Or, that some of the recent mass attacks in France were done with weapons that are outright banned. How did that happen? For every anecdote and study on one side, there’s an equal anecdote or study opposite.
Here in the US we do have mass shooting more often, but we are in no way as unique as we want to believe. France, Norway, etc., all have had large mass shootings. This has been shown throughout the world. Take guns away, and people who wish to do great harm will find other methods. For every Las Vegas mass shooting in an open weapons society like the US there’s an Ariana Grande concert mass bombing in a place that bans guns. For every November 2015 coordinated shootings in France… where 130 people were killed, more than double Las Vegas… a country that severely restricts weapons there will be an Oklahoma City bombing of a government building. Plug a hole, a new leak appears elsewhere.
So, what is causing the increasing rates of mass violence? And that’s really the issue… mass *violence*, not just mass shootings. Focus on the motivation, not the tools. Guns have been a large part of our society for over two centuries, even kids routinely carried guns in some times, and until just the last 20 years there was never the problem with mass shootings that we are now experiencing. Focus on why these incidents are *increasing*.
These are MY thoughts, based on observation, reading, listening, research, etc. One caveat for this blog post, I am going to concentrate primarily on mass violence in the United States, not so much elsewhere, except for occasional comparison purposes. Ok, I believe that the increase in mass violence comes down to one primary factor, with some sub-factors…
Constant media attention
Yes, the media is driving this, primarily. I don’t think consciously, or as part of some grand conspiracy, or anything, but as an unintended consequence of the information age and the constant unrelenting barrage of information about everything that happens everywhere in the world. We can’t escape it.
As recent as 20 years ago, if there was a murder/suicide in your hometown, you heard about it. If it happened in a town 100 miles away, you maybe heard about it, and if you did it was in passing without much information. If it happened across the country you never heard about it (unless it had some celebrity aspect, or something). Fast forward to today and you hear about everything everywhere. This feeds the feeling and sense of hopelessness that crime is increasing when it’s actually not. The general trend has been that crime is going down over the last couple decades. So, how does this constant unrelenting barrage of dire information affect mass violence? Here’s my thoughts…
(*) By presenting pretty much every violent act that happens everywhere, people get a sense of hopelessness. People on the edge, or sane people with an extreme agenda, may feel the need to do something desperate, either for them self or their cause.
(*) The media, intentionally or not, but in their zeal for sensationalism, glorifies mass shooters. I cannot find the sources right now, but I have read that most shooters believe they will become famous through their actions. They will be remembered. People will be impressed. John Hinkley Jr. thought he would win Jodie Fosters’ affection by assassinating President Reagan, for example. The two Columbine shooters were in it primarily for revenge, I believe, but also a desire for fame as mentioned below, and they and the attention they got brought in a whole new era of attention for one’s cause. The images of students fleeing is etched in our minds.
Shootings keep getting bigger and bigger, I believe because they want to outdo the previous guy and become more famous than that person. A perverse form of one-upmanship, if you will. And it doesn’t help that every media outlet I have seen after the recent Las Vegas shooting has repeated the “largest shooting in recent American history” mantra, with a special emphasis on “largest”. How can that not encourage future shooters to want to ‘do better’?
But think for a second. How many shooter’s names do you remember? I can name the two Columbine shooters, because that really is infamous. It shocked us into a new reality. But the rest? I can name maybe two. Maybe. And there have been dozens. For the most part the fame isn’t coming.
(*) Related to the one-upmanship mentioned in the previous point, the media… through it’s intense in-depth coverage… provides a literal “how to” for future shooters. Just watch the news and get some handy tips and tricks, some do’s and don’ts.
Bottom line: The media is morally complicit.
So, what can we do about it?
First and foremost, lighten up on the glorification of the shooter(s). I have gotten some harsh rebukes for this stance, but I stand by it. I am not suggesting burying the stories and not report them at all. That would be just as irresponsible. What I mean is not obsess so much on the shooter. Usually by about the third day after a shooting the news media’s newscasts are almost completely about the shooter. What they did, how they did it, speculating on their motivation, chronicling their history since birth, repeating their name over and over and over, ad nauseum. They can report responsibly without making the shooter a household name. That’s glorification. There’s no way around it.
I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t report. Not at all. We need to be an informed society. Just lighten up on the glorification. We can get meaningful information without repeating the name every other sentence, without essentially putting them on a pedestal. I am not even suggesting we keep the name secret. It’s appropriate the first day or two, in moderation. In print articles mention the name once in the story but not in the headline. Whathisname can be called “The LV shooter” in the headline and the point still comes across. Again, being an informed society is important.
I am also not suggesting a change in law, and especially not suggesting repealing any portion of the First Amendment. If it came down to that I’d rather do nothing. But, they can and should do it on their own. Self-policing. The media already, except in unusual circumstances, almost never reports on suicides, especially teen suicides, so the precedent has already been established. Out of respect for the families, but also… wait for it… to not encourages others to do the same. Novel concept, right? Copy-catism is alive and well in the human species, and it’s happening here with mass violence as it would with individual suicides.
Consider this article from a couple years ago after Sandy Hook: The Media Needs to Stop Inspiring Copycat Murders. Here’s How.
After a wave of teen suicides in the 1980s, news outlets began reporting on these deaths more cautiously. Similar guidelines could help prevent more shooting sprees.
There’s also this Op-Ed piece from the New York Times from a couple years ago: What Drives Suicidal Mass Killers
“…rampage shooters have often been captivated by the idea that they will become posthumously famous. “Isn’t it fun to get the respect that we’re going to deserve?”, one of the Columbine shooters remarked.
(I removed the name.)
Please note that I am not saying that some tightening of gun legislation isn’t warranted. That’s fine. I am open to banning “bump stocks”, for example, though I believe we already have plenty of laws on the books that accomplish what we want to, just that some aspects aren’t thwarted by laws. People’s motivations will find a way. Unfortunately, politicians are never willing to simply enforce existing laws, they must pass more so that they can point to the new laws and show the people they’re “doing something”.
No, some gun law tightening will help, but having said that I sincerely believe that dialing back the glorification will have a much deeper and longer-lasting impact than gun control legislation will. The results wouldn’t be immediate, of course, it would take time for people to realize they’re not going to get what they want and they’d just die in vain.
Final final note: You will notice that I do not name any of the shooters or bombers by name. I refuse to do so. I refuse to give them anything even slightly resembling positive credit. No, the actions and the names of the incidents are enough. We know what they are. An example that we can still talk in depth about these issues without dignifying the perpetrators.