To blame mental illness as the reason that Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old boy, used his legally purchased automatic weapon to kill 17 people at a Florida high school is to commit the logical fallacy to which conservatives often fall victim: to focus on the individual and not the group in analyzing a social issue.
For example, Tyler Cowen, the mediocre rightwing economist lionized by the mass media, has proposed that inequality of wealth is not a problem since individual families rise and fall in a few generations, meaning that wealth is not entrenched in the hands of the few, ignoring the fact that inequality has its impact on groups of people and that as inequality has increased in America the ability of people to improve their economic standing has faltered. Another example can be found in the increasingly harsh requirements conservatives in charge are setting for receiving food stamps or Medicaid, all meant to catch the very rare scofflaw individual while imposing severe burdens on large groups of honest and very needy people. A single bad actor, Willie Horton, was used to accuse the criminal justice system of leniency. A handful of family farmers—literally fewer than 100 a year—are invoked to justify limiting or ending estate taxes.
In the case of the epidemic of mass murders the United States has experienced in a 30+-year era in which violent crime in general has declined dramatically, authorities spend thousands of staff hours trying to peer into the minds of the individual perpetrators to determine why they decided to mow down the innocent. We parse the differences between terrorists and the mentally ill, and between Muslims/immigrants who are seen as terrorists and Christians/native-born who are seen as merely deranged, all the while forgetting the simple fact that anyone who sprays automatic fire into a crowd or a classroom is by definition mentally disturbed. Over the next few days, we’ll see a lot of media types ruminate out loud about what motivated Cruz, especially on conservative programming that will not want to entertain any discussion of gun control.
If instead, we focused on groups, we’d remember that all studies of gun violence across different populations point to one and only one conclusion: The more guns in a population, the more people will be injured and die each year of gun violence.
You don’t have to advocate the complete banning of all private ownership of firearms (as I would do) to recognize that there are ways to cut down on the number of guns in our society, and thereby decrease gun violence:
- Raise the standard for gun ownership to exclude groups of people who would be more prone to gun violence such as the mentally ill, those on the no-fly list and teenagers.
- Do a better job of screening people before they buy guns.
- Increase the training and licensing requirements, not just to make it harder to qualify for gun ownership, but also to ensure that those that own guns know how and when to use them.
- Limit the types of guns people can own, prohibiting those guns capable of inflicting mass destruction such as automatic weapons and guns that have been altered through kits to shoot more quickly. The basic question in determining what guns to allow relates to purpose: you don’t need an automatic weapon to protect your property or to hunt deer.
We could also limit the number of guns that each individual owns, a great idea in theory, but impractical in a country that values individual freedom: We have strict standards for car manufacturing, ownership and operation, yet no one has ever advocated a limit on the number of cars one can own.
There are plenty of proposed laws floating around that would reduce the absolute number of guns in society, and do so very efficiently, by focusing on those more likely to inflict violence and those types of weapons which they are more likely to use in committing their senseless acts. Bills that would ban certain types of weapons or kits to turn a conventional weapon into a killing machine. Bills that would improve our currently weak database of those who should and should not own firearms. Bills that would extend waiting periods before purchase and apply the waiting period concept to guns purchased at gun shows. Bills that would increase licensing and training requirements. Bills that would prevent certain groups such as individuals on the no-fly list from buying guns.
Opposition to the no-fly list ban exemplifies the conservative propensity for exalting the individual at the expense of the group. The group of individuals on the no-fly list are deemed as security risks because of their political views or suspected ties to terrorist groups. Some of the people do not belong on the list, but landed there because they have the same name as a suspected terrorist or through the mistake of an overzealous investigator. It is these few whom the Republicans claim they are protecting whenever they vote down the no-fly ban on gun purchasing. That the same elected officials are willing to trample the rights of these individuals and thousands others with phone, Internet and library use monitoring is inconsequential. When it comes to guns, the mentality is: Better that thousands of people too dangerous to be allowed to fly get their hands on automatic weapons than one righteous, upstanding American lose the right to bear arms. Again, the focus is on the individual and not the group.
Mass shootings at schools have become America’s traveling Grand Guignol. The Grand Guignol was a theatre in Paris that specialized in presenting live horror plays during the first half of the 20th century. But instead of taking the Metro to the historic Pigalle neighborhood, all we have to do to see the American Grand Guignol is turn on the news every few days and be assured of a vision of horror. We’ve already seen it 18 times at schools in the first 7 weeks of this year: The bloody and mangled images of dead children; the fearful and stunned faces of the survivors and families; the doleful community vigils; the terrible glimpses of the monster, sometimes dead and sometimes alive, but always conjuring the horrible realization that he looks like an ordinary human being, just like us; the tireless yet dreary narrative of the investigation replete with the latest techy advances in forensics; the poignant calls for action; the desperate attempts by the right to individualize the crime and isolate it from any trends except for imagined ones; the pious and patronizing denials that the gun he used had anything to do with the crime he committed. And then the return to things as they are.
But no need to worry, horror genre fans. If you missed the Parkland, Florida production of the American Grand Guignol, you’ll see it again in a few days. Coming to a town near you. It may seem like a rerun, but it will be a brand new incidence of the slaughter of the innocents. Again and again, all so gun manufacturers can continue to flourish.