Mass shootings, causes and cures: All of the above — and then some
How does our country cure this wicked and eviscerating rampage?
Partisans and policymakers will choose their apodictic cure, based on their apodictic cause.
Among the choices:
- mental health
- inflammatory public speech
- social media
- prior mass shootings
- white supremacism
We do not believe that any single one of these proposed causes can alone, or even preponderantly, explain mass shootings. At best, we would say “all of the above,” and even that doesn’t cover it.
Which means that the solution has to be multi-pronged. It is destructive of the search for a real solution to obsess on any single possibility. We should focus on all of them:
• Guns. This country has six times as many guns per capita as most European countries. That number includes military weapons — a favorite of mass shooters — in civilian hands. The idea that guns in this country play no role in mass shootings is absurd on its face. Equally, the idea that if the number of guns were radically reduced mass shootings would cease entirely is absurd on its face.
• Mental health. Virtually all people with a mental illness are harmless. That said, the lack of mental health in some mass shooters, such as the Aurora theater shooter, was a predominant factor. This raises three issues: Red flag laws, deinstitutionalization of people with mental illness, and background checks.
red flag: We are proud of the Colorado law that will block or seize guns from the mentally unstable. We support President Trump’s call for red flag laws nationwide.
Their oppenents call these laws unconstitutional, an assault on the Second or the Fourth Amendment. Regarding the Second Amendment: Would the opponents say that if a police officer faces a person pointing a gun at someone else, the officer has no right to intervene because that would deny the gun-pointer’s Second Amendment rights? This is absurd on its face. So is the idea that it is wrong to deny an unstable, mentally ill person the right to possess a gun. Just as the denial of the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater shows that the First Amendment is not absolute, red flag laws show that the Second Amendment is not absolute. The Second Amendment is not, in the telling phrase of the Wall Street Journal, a “suicide pact.”
Regarding the Fourth Amendment: Reg flag laws that are written without appropriate safeguards against arbitrary search and seizure will, and should, be shut down by the courts.
deinstitutionalization: The massive deinstitutionalization of people with mental health issues has contributed to mass shootings. As a broad public policy, the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illness must be revisited (which, parenthetically, would alleviate homelessness). However, to go to the opposite extreme and merely to confine people between four walls without appropriate psychiatric treatment is also a drastic failing (which, paranthetically, is a current practice).
background checks: People say, “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” Precisely. Because it is people who kill, potential killers must be stopped before they acquire a gun — via universal background checks.
• Inflammatory public speech. The idea that President Trump “pulled the trigger” in El Paso, Texas is absurd on its face, as mass shootings occurred on the watches of Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton. That said, the idea that President Trump’s inflammatory, insulting, gratuitous rhetoric plays no role in the development of an indifference to human life within our culture is absurd on its face.
Extremes mirror extremes. Trump, meet Colorado’s Mike Johnson. In the aftermath of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, Johnson, a Colordado Democratic candidate for the US Senate, said, “You either stand with the white nationalist holding an AR-15 or you stand with the mother of a two-year-old who is shielding her children from that AR-15.” As strongly as we disagree with those who oppose stiffer guns laws, Johnson’s statement is inflammatory and insulting in attributing malice and indifference to his opponents. Polarizing rhetoric on all sides is counterproductive.
• Social media. The mass shooter in El Paso apparently posted a manifesto on social media, and responded to a manifesto posted earlier by the mass shooter in New Zealand. On social media and mass shootings, we offer this observation:
Nothing, repeat nothing, in the First Amendment requires, in law or in spirit, any private medium, including any social medium, to provide “free speech” to anyone. The First Amendment guarantees one individual the right to say whatever he wants without government interference; it does not require any other individual or any private medium to provide a platform for that individual. The free speech guaranteed to an individual, or an individual medium, includes the right not to state or disseminate anyone else’s speech, digitally or otherwise. For if anyone or any medium were required to disseminate certain speech, that would be the government interference prohibited by the First Amendment. That would be a restriction on the individual’s or the individual medium’s own free speech. There is no violation, in law or in spirit, of free speech when a social medium or any other platform bans any speech, however innocent or incendiary. Bottom line: No social media are required to disseminate anyone’s speech. It is time, once and for all, for all social media to exercise their own free speech by banning all hate speech, and, in defining hate speech, erring on the side of caution.
• Prior mass shootings. Sin begets sin, as Ethics of the Fathers put it 2,000 years ago. Besides the need to prevent mass shooting intrinsically, they need to be prevented so as to reduce the copy cat incentive for the next potential shooter.
• Alienation. There is no universal pattern in the character of mass shooters. But there is a pattern to many of them: young, white, male, alienated people — by “alienated” we mean people almost all of whose existence is spent online. Obviously, a complex social problem given to no single answer.
• White supremacism. This, too, emerges as a pattern, though hardly a universal pattern, among mass shooters. Clearly, the more this ideology can be marginalized, such as being cut out of social media, the better. People who tweet or click on supremacist messages number in the hundreds of thousands. There is no way that the FBI can monitor all of these supremacists, although other countries seem to do a much better job at thwarting mass shootings or terrorist attacks. The FBI failed before 9/11 to detect Islamic terrorists and has failed many times since to detect domestic terrorists. That being said, it remains necessary to shut down the supremacist sites or, when that is not possible, to outargue them.
But it is not just social media. The next time that neo-Nazis decide to march, how about totally ignoring them, rather than broadcasting every wrinkle in their ideology and activity via NPR, the politician’s lectern, the newspaper headline, the website, etc.? The more white supremacism is denounced, the more it grows.
• Hate. This is not necessarily the same as white supremacism, or Islamic extremism, or anti-Semitism, or anti-immigrant sentiment. Each mass shooting coarsens society a little bit more. Even if a potential mass shooter is not infected by a specific ideology of hatred, parts of society itself carry and legitimate a certain dehumanization.
As viscerally understandable as it is to witness another mass shooting (or two in a row) and wish for a “solution,” for politicians to “do something,” an exclusive or predominant focus on whichever cause of mass shootings one chooses is no answer. There is no simple answer. But there are answers. There are many things that we can and must do, as outlined above. Needless to say, there is also prayer, and contemplation as to what other causes may be at play. As it says in Ethics of the Fathers, the day is short and the work is long.
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