For me, this past weekend was full of mental and emotional peaks and valleys. Locally, we had an eventful homecoming weekend full of football and an especially heart-warming queen crowning
And, unfortunately…car crashes that resulted in the death of five teenagers.
The news reported on the services held for servicemen who lost their lives in an airplane crash and a hospital was accidentally bombed in Afghanistan.
There were floods in the Carolinas.
I spent a lot of time in tearful reflection. There was a lot to think about including students in an Oregon Community College who were gunned down.
After word came that there had been yet another shooting, the shouting began. I heard shouts from the left. I heard shouts from the right. I kept hearing the same key words; gun control, 2nd amendment, mental health, freedom, and ban guns. After reading a few tweets on the subject, I realized I didn’t know enough to intelligently discuss the situation. I really only had vague ideas based on some of these shouting points. Why it took this long for me to get serious is still an embarrassing mystery. My guess is I didn’t believe I had enough power to change anything so, I didn’t bother to become better informed. I believe it was the following question posed on social media this weekend that caused me to take a closer look and become better educated.
“Why is America different?”
There are countries who have enacted tough gun control laws in response to mass shootings.
“Why is America different?’
I wasn’t sure I knew the answer to this question. Here’s the thing. Guns have always been part of my life. My father was a woodsman. We ate what he shot. Guns were just a natural part of my existence. That didn’t change as I became an adult. The people I knew hunted. And, there was always a shotgun in the back of the closet and shot-gun shells on the top shelf behind the folded sweatshirts awaiting a need for protection. I can never remember an issue with our guns being used irresponsibly. There was a deep respect for the seriousness of gun use and…a deep belief that gun ownership was a right. I tended to see the world of guns through my own experiences. I saw people shooting each other on the news were not in my neighborhood, not in my world. As a result, I guess I came to believe that it was only bad and sick people who used guns badly. When the Sandy Hook shooting happened, I was as devastated as the next person. But, it was soon reported that the shooter was a troubled young man with mental health issues. This fit into my already existing framework for why someone would do such a thing. I made the assumption that someone would be looking into how this troubled young man got access to guns and something would be done to correct this situation. It made sense to me that something would be done to stop access to lethal weapons by people with a history of mental illness. Evidently, I was very naïve.
It happened again and kept happening.
“Why is America different?”
I wasn’t willing to accept that we were less moral than other countries, as someone on Social Media suggested. So, I started reading. I read opinion pieces and realized that they might help me understand that we are definitely deeply divided on this issue, but they really didn’t help me understand why this was happening. So, I went on the hunt for research statistics. And, I found out something truly shocking. There isn’t a lot of research out there! One of the most pressing and disturbing phenomenon in our country isn’t being made a priority topic of research. In fact, I found research that suggested we aren’t collecting data in a way that could inform policy decisions. These types of shootings are being “lumped” together with other gun violence statistics. It was recommended that data be collected for ‘Rampage Violence”‘ using the model we use for terrorism or public health issues.
“Tragedies such as school shootings and the assault on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords share features that define them as acts of “rampage violence.” These types of events can lead to despair about their inevitability and unpredictability. To understand and prevent rampage violence, we need to acknowledge that current discipline-based violence research is not well suited to this specific challenge. There are numerous important, unanswered research questions that can inform policies designed to prevent rampage violence. It is time to develop alternative research approaches to reduce the risk of rampage violence. Such approaches should incorporate transdisciplinary research models; flexible, outcomes-focused organizational structures similar to those used to investigate other catastrophic events; and an expanded inventory of analytic tools.” Harris Jr., John M.; Harris, Robin B. American Journal of Public Health, June 2012, Vol. 102, No. 6, pp. 1054-1057. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2011.300545
In other words, we don’t know enough to know how to stop it because we don’t have meaningful data. A recent New York times article written by Nicholas Kristof also points to the need of a better approach to solving this problem.
We’re angry, but we also need to be smart. And frankly, liberal efforts, such as the assault weapons ban, were poorly designed and saved few lives, while brazen talk about banning guns just sparked a backlash that empowered the National Rifle Association.
What we need is an evidence-based public health approach — the same model we use to reduce deaths from other potentially dangerous things around us, from swimming pools to cigarettes. We’re not going to eliminate guns in America, so we need to figure out how to coexist with them.
One particular statistic did stand out for me. From the year 2007, we saw a sharp rise in the incidence of these types of shootings. I want to know what has changed in our culture/society during that time period. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back? What opened the flood gates? There hasn’t been a rise in the amount of the mentally ill or crime in general. So, what has changed?
“Why is America different?’
Although it has recently earned a negative connotation, profiling may be of some benefit to understanding how to stop these types of shootings.
… Not only do these massacres follow an almost stereotypical course, but the perpetrators tend to share common social and psychological disabilities. They are isolates, often bullied in childhood, who have rarely established themselves in effective work roles as adults. They have personalities marked by suspiciousness, obsessional traits, and grandiosity. They often harbor persecutory beliefs, which may occasionally verge on the delusional. The autogenic massacre is essentially murder suicide, in which the perpetrators intend first to kill as many people as they can and then kill themselves. The script for this particular form of suicide has established itself in western society and is continuing to spread, and to diversify.” Mullen, P.E. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 2004, 22(3):311-23.
Although researchers were quick to point out that so far there isn’t enough evidence to show the effectiveness of profiling, I found myself interested in this information. I do not have the power to affect policy changes and I’m really not sure I understand yet what those changes should be given that our country appears to be so divided on this issue. Almost 50% of us disagree with the other 50% After educating myself, I’ve come to believe America will never ban guns totally. But, that doesn’t mean I am powerless to affect this particular situation.
You see, I teach.
I teach high school. I come in contact with 14 to 18 yr old white males everyday. One of the articles I read over the weekend was How we All Miss the Point of School Shootings by Mark Manson. The author points out that there is time between when these individuals think about acting and when they do act.
These shooters know what they are doing. They’re not “crazy.” They don’t just “snap.” Most of them spend months or years planning their massacres. Elliot Rodger had apparently been planning his shooting for over a year. You don’t just show up with a 140-page manifesto and a large stockpile of weapons one day. You work at it for a long time. And you plan not only the violence, but the presentation for the audience, the performance — what they will see from you, what they will hear from you, the reasons why, the message. It’s all very conscious and deliberate.
After reading this article, I came to realize these people may be easier to detect than we might think. The one thing they all seem to have in common is a sense of disenfranchisement and…anger.
Despite being relevant and important discussions, the glamorous headlines are ultimately distractions — they just feed into the carnage and the attention and the fame the killer desired. They are distractions from what is right in front of you and me and the victims of tomorrow’s shooting: people who need help. And while we’re all fighting over whose pet cause is more right and more true and more noble, there’s likely another young man out there, maybe suicidally depressed, maybe paranoid and delusional, maybe a psychopath, and he’s researching guns and bombs and mapping out schools and recording videos and thinking every day about the anger and hate he feels for this world.
Mr. Manson added that one of the reasons this continues to happen is that no one is paying attention to these young men…no one notices them. He spoke to my conclusion that given the countries’ deep divide, legislation, poor mental health care, and probably cultural changes that we haven’t even identified, this situation isn’t likely to change soon. So, what are we to do? What can I do?
…Empathy. Listening to those around you. Even if you don’t like them very much. We have come to live in a culture where it’s taboo or unacceptable to simply check in with people emotionally and offer some empathy and understanding. I’m not saying this would magically fix all gun violence. I’m just saying that all of these things — the lack of gun laws, the lack of health care, the inability to have basic conversations with friends and neighbors about what’s going on with them, these are all extensions of a callous and self-absorbed culture that lacks any real empathy.
The chances are that I’ve seen one of these young men who are feeling disenfranchised and angry. Maybe they haven’t made a plan to mete out revenge…yet. Maybe I have time to influence them. Get them help. Intercede.
So, I went to school on Monday determined to look at my students a little differently. I determined to pay closer attention to conversations and comments. I was determined to talk to those kids who blend in to the walls or push people away. I would talk to the unlikable misfit or the one into “anarchy”. I hoped I could find a way to help them make connections with others, participate in school activities, and generally help them feel less isolated. Little did I know how soon my good intentions would be tested. Of course, the kids were all talking about current events and not surprisingly, in my rural part of the world the talk among my students was about gun ownership. I started hearing some rumors and I acted on them. Maybe my “paying attention” will make a difference, maybe not, but I’m paying attention.
I don’t want to over-simplify this situation. I just want to be realistic. Feelings run high and I’ve found that it is extremely difficult to even have a civil conversation about guns. It is difficult when half of us disagree and disagree vehemently. I will fight for better mental health care. I will fight for stricter legislation. I want tough regulation for sales over the Internet and at gun shows. I think these things are doable, realistic. I believe there is a mistrust of our government and so my vote becomes even more important.
I’m still not sure I can answer the question ” Why is America different”. However, I know we do need to talk and meaningful data needs to be collected. http://www.vox.com/2015/10/6/9465649/gun-violence-research-cdc.
Because this isn’t going away.