The media storm following the Newton school shooting has left our nation with heavy hearts and that unanswerable question “but why…?” The shooting occurred the day left Dallas heading home for Arkansas to spend my Christmas break with my family. These incidents which have become all too frequent always leave me initially dumbfounded, but as the social scientist in the family people expect me to have a more educated response than a look of horror on my face. Within hours of the shooting Facebook and Twitter were aflame with arguments for gun control and explanations of mental illness. I found myself driving home in the dark and trying to explain to my father on the cell phone that it was “more complicated than that”.
Do we blame guns? Do we blame mental illness? Do we blame the media or video games? Do we blame American culture itself?
Part of the reason it is “more complicated than that” for me to explain to my father or most of the people I grew up with for that matter, is that Living Anthropologically’s simple answer is “measures to reduce and restrict the weaponry” would begin a debate met by deaf ears. Saying the word “gun control” to a hunter is the equivalent of saying “Internet censorship” to a member of anonymous. Certain topics trigger a panicked emotional response that jumps to the worst-case scenario first. I know that restrictions on semi-automatics and handguns are not the equivalent of a universal gun ban, but both the audience and the bigger picture need to be kept in mind. The weapon of choice is definitely one way to tackle the problem, especially if you see no use for the device, but it doesn’t fix the “why” which can always find a new outlet.
In his Neuroanthropology blog, Daniel Lende reminds us that “Mentally ill patients are not more violent than anyone else.” and “Guns don’t shoot themselves.” in his response to the two easy answers which have been put forth by the media and the public following the Newton shootings.
Following the Aurora shooting, David Dobbs argued that “Culture shapes the expression of behavioral traits. The traits don’t rise inherent as an urge to play basketball or a plan to shoot up a Batman movie. A long conversation between the trait and the surrounding culture shapes those expressions. Culture gives the impulse form and direction.”
In talking to my father who is very anti-gun control, I realized that there is a very big difference between a hunter and a gunman. A friend and fellow Arkansan, Justin Snook makes a similar connection in his blog post Guns and Games when he says “I learned to treat a gun sensitively and reverently whether it was in my own hand or someone else’s.” Growing up in rural Arkansas my first experience with guns did not come from video games or even TV. I remember being between 2 and 3 years old and my dad letting me pull the trigger on his .22 while he held the gun. As I got older both of my parents always re-enforced strict rules and behaviors relating to guns. Guns were always present in my household, but they were also always serious. The first rule I remember my mother telling me was to never go near the place my dad kept his guns unless he was with me. The first rule I remember my father telling me about guns was to never point one at anything or anyone I didn’t want to kill, whether I thought the gun was loaded or not. Guns were to be respected and were only used to hunt. My brother, sister, and I were taught that what we did with a gun was our responsibility. But this is not part of how most Americans are raised. While hunters-ed is required for hunting licenses it is not required to own a gun. You have to take two exams to drive a car but all you need is a background check to own a gun. This means that unlike me, many Americans are taught about guns through TV, movies, and video games. These media are artistic expressions of our culture so it is hard to blame them in and of themselves. Films no longer warn that “you’ll shoot your eye out” and instead depict firearm novices becoming epic heroes by picking up a gun. People who have never witnessed anything larger than a spider die are allowed to own handguns designed for shooting people and even semi-automatic weapons designed to shoot everything in sight.
If the people using them and how they are used, not the guns themselves are at the center of the “but why …?” question, then we that we are to blame. A cultural dialogue that allows people to assign the blame to others instead of accepting responsibility makes it possible for the gunman suicide phenomenon to become an accepted cultural script.
A young man (statistically most are males) has bad relationships with his family. He becomes/feels disenfranchised. He is alienated from his community and he begins to blame all the people in his life for how terrible his life is. That blame turns to hate and when he cannot take it anymore and is ready to end it all by killing himself he turns to the pre-existing techniques his culture has provided. Going out in a blaze of glory, maximizing his ability to hurt those who he blames for his state, and regaining control of his life in a hyper-masculine villainous act. Gunman suicide becomes the last desperate attempt at significance.
Lende argues that “If we’re going to think of violence as a sickness, then it is its own type of sickness, different in kind and in expression from the mental and physical ailments that also possess us. Violence is red in tooth and claw, seemingly primordial until we recognize how socially regulated it is.”
My best explanation is that the gunman suicide phenomenon is a social illness rather than a mental or physical one. These gunmen which have become all too common are suffering from a lack of the social components necessary to be healthy in body and mind. It is a social illness in that these gunmen are men who society has failed and in that the illness harms society itself. It takes the lives of the incident’s victims, it wreaks havoc on the lives of the victims’ families and the community, but it also traumatized us as a nation, as a globally connected world. The gunman is ground zone of the social illness, proving to us that in this hyper-connected and highly visible age a ticking time bomb can still remain in plain sight.