On the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

On the morning of December 14, Adam Lanza, 20, killed his mother in their Newtown, Connecticut home. Then he drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School and fatally shot 20 children, ages 6 and 7, and six adult staff members before committing suicide.

My initial reaction to this story was anger. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so angry. Most of my Facebook friends expressed sadness and posted messages of sympathy and images of candles. I was disgusted. Just five months ago, 12 people were killed and 58 were injured in a mass shooting inside a Colorado movie theater and here we were again, responding in the same exact way. I posted on Facebook:

I’m so over the bullshit outpourings of “let’s mourn and pray and light candles”. And then what? It’s disingenuous when absolutely nothing will come of it. These poor kids will become another statistic like those of the Colorado movie theater, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and all the victims of the mass shootings prior to this one that nobody mourns for anymore. When will Americans actually DO something other than pay lip service.

Yes, I was angry and disgusted. It’s not that I didn’t feel expressions of grief on Facebook were genuine, but I do feel that such expressions, prayer chains, the lighting of virtual candles, and so forth, are the easiest, least threatening thing a person could do. They could post, pat themselves on the back for their humanity, and it’s back to Christmas shopping and grumpy cats.

Predictably, people said it wasn’t the right time to talk about gun violence or to politicize the situation. Everything about mass shootings in America is predictable and political. Back in July, following the Colorado shooting, I wrote that Americans are experts in shooting tragedies and we know exactly how the events will unfold.

There will be candlelight vigils and memorial services. The county sheriff will address the media a few times. The president travels to meet with the families of the victims. The shooter’s profile along with journals, letters, videos, blogs, or tweets, and the details of his upbringing will surface. There will be calls not to politicize the tragedy and then the debate over gun laws will resurface. It will be begin thoughtfully and then spiral out of control until it’s nothing but rhetoric and hyperbole. Somebody will say something insensitive on Twitter and other Twitter users will jump all over it. Some unfortunate guy with the same name as the shooter will be harassed on Facebook.

Americans will wring their hands and ask why and how this could happen and mourn and pray. Then it will be over and it will be back to business as usual until the next massacre.

And so here we are.

It’s only been in the last few days that my anger has begun to subside and grief is taking hold. I’m heartbroken. Is there any pain greater than losing a child? How about 20 of them?

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Writing this is difficult, but I want to write it.  I blog because I have something to say and blogging helps me process. I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts on this issue so making various points will have to do.

My Aussie friends ask when will Americans ban guns. Ever an optimist, I’m hopeful that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting will spur some real change, but here are some challenges we face.

Guns are fundamental to American identity.

In America’s early days as an agrarian nation, guns were necessary for hunting, which was a valuable supply source of food and income for settlers, as well as a means of protection and survival. Americans also needed to protect themselves from foreign armies. The U.S. wasn’t always a global power with a huge military. Once upon a time, there was no money or manpower to maintain a full-time army. Armed citizen soldiers carried the responsibility of protecting our country. Guns were also necessary as we expanded westward and had to deal with hostile Native Americans and outlaws. Guns are viewed as an integral force by which America exists. Americans are so desensitized to the presence of guns that when a sixth grader brought one to school this week and waved it during morning recess, other students didn’t report it until the end of the day.

Americans misunderstand the Second Amendment.

Amendment II to the United States Constitution is the part of the United States Bill of Rights and states:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

I’ve heard a few Aussies on talk radio respond to the recent gun violence by saying America simply needs to change its Constitution. It’s not that simple. The Constitution is the supreme law of the U.S. and amending it is complicated and difficult.  Since 1791, it has been amended only 17 times. It is designed to offer a federal balance of the national legislature and the states. However, the way the Constitution is understood is influenced by the courts.

The Supreme Court has issued two landmark decisions concerning the Second Amendment. One is that it protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm unconnected to service in a militia. The other is that it protects an individual’s right to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes.

Gun enthusiasts will point to the Second Amendment to argue against gun control. It’s a poor argument because the Second Amendment does not comment on what types of guns we can own, how many, or how to obtain them. We already have gun laws. They just happen to be ineffective and they need to be revisited. Gun enthusiasts will argue that criminals will always obtain guns, but most mass shooters have no criminal history and, in 49 out of 62 mass murders carried out since 1982, the shooters obtained their weapons legally. Australia and other countries with strict gun laws or other forms of responsible gun handling have shown us that if there are no guns to be had, there are no guns to be had, and that includes for criminals. And it’s not about eliminating all guns anyway. Critics will attack a straw man by equating gun control with the banning of all guns. Few Americans would support the banning of all guns and the Second Amendment doesn’t allow for it. It’s a baseless argument that serves simply to distract from the real conversation that needs to happen.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1816–1868)

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1816–1868)

Americans do not trust their government.

Americans believe that guns provide protection not only from criminality, but also from tyranny. America was born of revolution. Thirteen colonies joined together to break free from the British Empire. They lacked a professional army. Adult male citizens didn’t have much training or even uniforms most of the time and they had to supply their own weapons and equipment, but they took on the British Empire and won (with the help of  France, Netherlands, and Spain, but nobody ever talks about that). Americans believe they may someday have to rise up against the government. It’s stupid and paranoid considering the size and budget of the United States Armed Forces not to mention its police forces. No amount of assault rifles in your shed will protect you from U.S. military drones.

Aside from government tyranny, “survivalist” Americans believe they’ll need their arsenals when the U.S. finally collapses. Nancy Lanza was one such person. She owned over a dozen firearms. Her son Adam raided her gun collection and used one of her own weapons against her before driving to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Americans think it’s a dangerous world.

The Colorado and Sandy Hook shootings both sparked a surge in gun sales. I’ve seen gun enthusiasts comment that if only one of those movie-goers in Colorado or one of those teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School had been armed, the tragedy could have been prevented. It’s easy to speculate.

I have heard many people say that they need a gun to protect themselves. I have heard friends talk about being mugged or having their houses broken into. I have heard girlfriends talk about sexual assaults. I haven’t heard a single story first hand about a person who successfully protected themselves with a gun and we don’t have the numbers to support such a claim. I think people use guns to feel safe, but it doesn’t actually make us safer. Guns create violence more than they prevent and states with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths.

In 1968, communications professor George Gerbner coined the phrase “mean world syndrome” to describe a phenomenon whereby violence-related content of mass media makes viewers believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is. A pioneer researcher on the effects of television on society, Gerbner concluded that people who watch a large amount of television tended to think of the world as an intimidating and unforgiving place.

American media is violent and alarmist. It magnifies our fears, cultivates mistrust, polarizes us, and makes us a society that expects victimization. Media outlets are sensationalist and more concerned with being first than getting the story right.

Americans blame mental illness and don’t know what to do with it.

It’s easy to look at Adam Lanza and assert that he must have been crazy to do what he did. Nobody in their right mind kills his mother and then 20 innocent young children. There are some problems with linking mass shootings to mental illness. The vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts. Alcohol and drug abuse are far more likely to result in violent behavior than mental illness.

It’s also very difficult to predict violent behavior. Up until the morning of December 14, Adam was not so different from other young men. He was a good student, played Call of Duty, was fascinated by military equipment, had been taught by his mother how to handle a gun, and had no criminal record. He was described by others as well-behaved and intelligent if something of a loner and a bit nervous. He certainly wouldn’t be the first socially awkward kid we heard of though he may have had Asperger’s syndrome or autism.

Obviously Adam was troubled, but there are a lot of troubled people out there, people who are angry, who are loners, who walk out of jobs, who could snap at any moment. Most of them don’t snap and most of them, including many of the mass killers, have no history of violence. So how do we identify the ones that might? If we begin with the premise that we can’t identify potential mass killers, the best we can do is limit their ability to shed so much innocent blood.

Mental health care does deserve greater attention. There are too many Americans not receiving the treatment they need and too many parents struggling with mentally ill children. But crying mental illness in the aftermath of a mass shooting is mostly a distraction. Displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group makes us feel safer and avoids the truth that the vast majority of murders are carried out by people who are outwardly normal and to whom we provide almost unlimited access to deadly force.

Americans will try just about anything except stricter gun control.

Shootings don’t tend to substantially affect views on gun control. Instead Americans look around it. Following Columbine, authorities cracked down on Goth fashions in schools and some banned trench coats and baseball caps. Following the Colorado shooting, some movie theaters banned costumes. Following Sandy Hook, there’s talk about arming teachers and even training children to tackle shooters.

Gun enthusiasts will come up with all kinds of reasons for why we have gun massacres  and pretend guns are not the problem. ericf at Daily Kos writes:

Something I wish every NRA toady and every fact-denying conservative could get through their heads is that other countries have violent video games, but they don’t have gun massacres. Other countries have violent movies and TV shows, but they don’t have gun massacres. Other countries have dangerously mentally ill people, but they don’t have gun massacres. Much as Mike Huckabee blames God being taken out of the schools, there are other countries where they don’t make kids pray or post the ten commandments on the wall, and they don’t have gun massacres. Much Jim DeMint’s successor in crazy thinks we probably don’t need legislation, but just an end to moral decline, conservatives kvetch everywhere in the Western world about moral decline, but only America has gun massacres.

Everything blamed for gun massacres, with one exception, happens in other countries, yet they don’t have gun massacres. What’s the exception? What do we have they don’t? More damned guns than anyplace that isn’t literally a war one, and I’m using “literally” correctly.

Gun enthusiasts believe the gun itself is meaningless, that if a person wants to commit mass murder, they’ll find a way to do it, and if it’s not with a gun, then it will be with something else, but that’s just speculation that’s not supported by any evidence. Violence occurs everywhere, but countries with stricter gun laws don’t generally experience massacres with other weapons.

The ad for the gun that the Sandy Hook shooter used runs with a the tagline“Consider Your Man Card Reissued.”

The ad for the gun that the Sandy Hook shooter used runs with a the tagline“Consider Your Man Card Reissued.”

American masculine identity is closely tied to violence.

There are some facts that we ignore about gun violence.  Forty-six percent of American men own guns (compared to 23 percent of women), 91 percent of domestic murders are committed by men, and 88 percent of these murders involve guns. Most mass shooters are young, white, and male. Gun deaths are an overwhelmingly male-perpetrated crime. It’s not that boys and men are biologically or genetically predisposed to be domestic abusers or mass murderers. However, violence is part of how American masculinity is defined and young white men have entitlements and privileges that are are not often examined in terms of how they are conducive to violence. We need to honestly examine the gendered cultural pressures our society imposes upon our boys.

Every day men with guns kill and mass shooters are an extreme symptom of that common everyday problem. The issue is huge, complex, layered, political, social, and cultural. There are more pieces to the puzzle of why this happens and how we can prevent it. We can talk about parenting and the anger and isolation our young people feel. We can debate whether prolonged and repeated exposure to violence in television, movies, and video games leads to diminished emotional response. We can question why football is more important to some people than the victims of this recent shooting.

There are no easy answers, but I remain hopeful about our future. It appears that President Obama will support new gun laws and, at the vigil in Newtown, he said he would engage law-enforcement officials, mental health professionals, parents, and educators because “Gun laws are a part of this, but they are not the only part of it.” He’s right.

“Because what choice do we have?” the president said. “We can’t accept events like this as routine.”

About the featured image: Mourners listening to a memorial service over a loudspeaker outside Newtown High School for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012. AP Photo by David Goldman.

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4 Comments

  1. Really insightful post that touches on all sides of the issue. Just wanted to let you know I enjoyed reading it and I’m sure others did too. Very well said.

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