Gun Violence And Its Social Roots

Screen shot 2012-12-19 at 11.54.15 AMIt’s quite likely that nothing at all will happen following the Newtown elementary school killings, in terms of curbing gun violence. But if there is a sea change of attitude and action, it would result from a critical mass of Democrats and Republicans who summon the courage to oppose the NRA’s threats to defeat their reelection campaigns, and then enact and enforce reasonable gun laws. Such laws would occupy the “middle ground” that respects the rights of sportsmen, target-shooters, and hunters, as well as those who want to possess firearms for protection of their homes; and yet, limits the availability of assault-type weapons that serve none of those purposes. At the same time, legislators’ actions would also include creating additional resources for mentally disturbed people, including helping families, schools, and the general public recognize potential signs of disturbance and greater sources of help. Legislation that protects the public from the easy availability of assault weapons and multiple rounds of ammunition would recognize the rights of people to be protected from the use of such weapons for killing.

But keep this in mind: Most mentally disturbed people never become violent. In fact, most killings aren’t committed by the severely mentally disturbed. Moreover, we can’t predict who might become violent. We know that certain combinations of emotions, such as intense anger, fueled by alcohol or drugs, may result in violence. But many people fit that profile and never commit a violent act, let alone murder anyone.

A deeper, more complex issue is harder to address. It concerns underlying cultural attitudes and norms within American society that diminish empathy for others; that promotes consumption of material goals, and supports treating others as “objects.” That is, the view that people are commodities to extract things from, for our own self-interest. This disconnect from others as fellow humans, as well as a disconnect within, from one’s own inner life, goes hand-in-hand with diminished respect and dignity for others, especially those who are “different,” intellectually, socially or emotionally. The phenomena of video games that portray violent killings and blood splattering all around; action movies and TV shows that glorify killing and torture, enhanced by special effects; TV reality shows that glamorize outrageous display of anger and destructive conflict; tabloid and mainstream newspaper and TV coverage of the latest sports star or entertainer who beats his spouse, is slapped with a restraining order… then marries her; the all-too-frequent child rearing behavior that includes humiliation, indifference, disrespect, destructive anger — all of these are intertwined threads. They underlie the conditions in which some individuals will explode with murderous rage. And can do so more easily with the assault weapons that are so easily available.

This is a complex issue, and hard to raise for serious discussion because they involve attitudes, values and behavior that are commonly accepted and embraced. But these are some initial thoughts, and I plan to elaborate a bit more on the underlying cultural forces at work, here, in a future post.