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The Gun and the Hand That Wields It

December 20, 2012

Guns, Mental Health, and the Tragic Shooting in Newtown, CT


by J. Andrew Zalucky

No Words

When I write articles, I usually try to take one side or the other. However, in the case of last Friday’s awful tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, there are almost no words to express the limitless horror and outrage at such an act. What can be said about the death of so many innocents, all of them teachers and schoolchildren? What arguments and debates can a writer even feel motivated to pursue in the aftermath of such a human catastrophe? A perfect storm of gun violence, mental illness, and a plethora of other known and unknown variables- I cannot hope to offer conclusive answers on much of this, but one can at least acknowledge what questions need to be asked.

I grew up in Wilton, just a few towns away from Newtown. Although my friends and I love to make fun of Fairfield County and all its cultural absurdities, it is our home. And though I was traveling out west when the shooting occurred, the news struck very close to that home, both physically and psychologically. Some of my fondest memories from high school come from many nights spent at Punk and Hardcore shows at the Newtown Teen Center, and many of my friends from college are Newtown natives as well- including my friend Blayne who sometimes writes a satirical column for my website. Despite whatever personal closeness I have to the event, I will try to approach this with as clear a mind as possible.

Guns, Guns, Guns

The issue of gun violence and ownership is complicated, one that I’ve been hesitant to take a firm stand on in the past. The complexity for me, and I imagine for a lot of people is this: I trust myself with guns, if I owned any personally, I have full confidence in my ability to exercise this right peacefully and responsibly- but on the other hand, there are many people who I am absolutely sure I could not trust with a gun. And besides, a law cannot simply be made on the arbitrary disposition or opinions of one person. Such a subjective decision would only undermine the whole idea of public policy. So how does one split this difference? And what role can elected officials justifiably play in doing so?

Policy questions like this present the legislator with a potential slippery-avalanche of moral hazards. For instance, I’ve heard many libertarians argue for more guns in society, particularly among teachers in principals. In short, “if the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary were able to carry concealed firearms, they would have been able to defend themselves and their students.” On its face, this makes sense, right? If you unpack this argument however, it runs into several new questions: Do we really want to send children to schools were the teachers are potentially armed? What if one teacher does not want to carry a gun, should they really have to deal with the social pressure involved? And besides, what if one has his or her own latent psychological disorders- wouldn’t this make this teacher a potential threat, enabled even further by access to firearms? And in that case, where does it end? Should we arm the students too?

But of course, this thought leads to another trap-door: if teachers can become killers, what about the cops? Police officers are just as human as anyone else, and just as capable of committing a crime as people without uniforms and badges. And come to think of it…what about the military? Anyone paying attention certainly remembers the shootings at Fort Hood. So rather than have guns in the hands of all citizens, do we just call for the disarmament of all- including the military? The question sounds absurd, but for the sake of principled policy, where do you draw the line?

If we at least assert that the military and some police officers should carry firearms, do we ban gun ownership among average citizens? Would that really make us any safer? Some writers like to point out Japan as their gun control gold standard:

In 2008, the U.S. had over 12 thousand firearm-related homicides. All of Japan experienced only 11, fewer than were killed at the Aurora shooting alone. And that was a big year: 2006 saw an astounding two, and when that number jumped to 22 in 2007, it became a national scandal. By comparison, also in 2008, 587 Americans were killed just by guns that had discharged accidentally.

However, it’s important not to overlook the various cultural, social, and political differences between Japan and the US. Perhaps the example of The United Kingdom might bear more relevance. When the Labor Party came to power in 1997, they put a law into place banning almost all private possession of handguns. Despite this, the results have been uneven, as government figures released twelve years later in 2009 suggest:

The latest Government figures show that the total number of firearm offences in England and Wales has increased from 5,209 in 1998/99 to 9,865 last year- a rise of 89 per cent.

In some parts of the country, the number of offences has increased more than five-fold.

In eighteen police areas, gun crime at least doubled.

It is true that the death rate per 100,000 people in the UK is still very low but it’s worth noting that banning guns will not be a cure-all to gun violence.

American readers should also take heart that despite high profile mass shootings, the US is not the murder ravaged banana republic that mass-media makes us out to be. In the last decade, the US gun-murder rate has hovered around 3 deaths out of every 100,000 people- very low especially considering our population size and the horrific numbers that come out many South/Central American countries (nearly 70 per 100,000 in Honduras!). And despite what judgments Europeans may want to cast on the US, there have been several mass shootings at schools in Europe as well:  Germany in 2002 and 2009, Finland in 2007 and 2008, and so on. And this is only counting those that occurred in the past decade. (Oh, and as for the expected comparisons with Switzerland, here is an article you may find useful)

A recent article in Reason magazine also points out the overall decline of violence in public schools:

According to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, schools have been getting safer and less violent at least over the past couple of decades – despite what (Mike) Huckabee would doubtless consider a period of rising godlessness. During the school year of 1992-93, for instance, the number of on-location murders of students and staff at K-12 public schools was 47 (out of population of millions). In 2009-2010 (the latest year for which data is listed), the number was 25.

By providing this information I do not mean to say that there is no gun problem in the US, but that the problem is coupled with other circumstances like poverty, social stability, and mental health.

Flying Over the Cookoo’s Nest

Many people, while not totally eschewing the gun problem, have instead focused on mental health and how it is treated/not-treated in the US. I happen to agree that this is the more pertinent problem, as criminals will get a hold of firearms no matter what the law says, but society will be more at ease if we take steps to prevent mental health from becoming an issue of public health. Over the last 30 years, laws concerning those affected have shifted from mandatory incarceration to medication and outpatient treatment. Earlier this year, I got the chance to speak to the owner of one of my favorite bars, who happens to be a former defense lawyer for the “dangerously mentally ill”, a euphemism for the criminally insane.

He explained to me that the reason incarceration rates have fallen is that both the legal and medical professions judged that it’s better to have most mentally ill patients out in public rather than institutionalized. First, incarceration of the mentally ill is very costly to the taxpayer, a fact easily understood by anyone with a passing knowledge of our already bloated prison population. Second, if patients can be treated in such a way so that they will not be a danger to themselves or others, common decency would say they should not be locked up for the rest of their lives. A fact he didn’t mention of course was the decline in funding provided to mental health organizations during the 1980’s.

Questions of mental health, like those of guns, can bring a lot of uncomfortable questions to bear. Who do we incarcerate? What illnesses should qualify? Should it be only be severe illnesses, or should it go as far as anxiety and eating disorders? Maybe we should re-open some of the old institutions to make more space available for treatment of the mentally ill and treat it like a public service. But what changes should be made to the model so that some of the well-documented and inhumane abuses of the past don’t repeat themselves? More than anything else, these questions need to be addressed by policy makers to take the pressure off of prisons, regular hospitals, and especially parents.

Readers should also keep in mind that just because someone is an introvert, or likes to keep to his or herself, or is generally a loner, does not make them dangerous or insane.

Don’t Try to Explain it Away

As the news poured in from Newtown, many political pundits and commentators made the expected references to violent films and video games, citing them as a potential cause for real-life aggression like that at Sandy Hook. Sitting at my hotel kitchen eating breakfast, it failed to surprise me that CNN’s Wolfe Blitzer would make such a connection. But I was surprised to read Joe Scarborough make the same argument in his column in Politico:

Entertainment moguls do not have an absolute right to glorify murder while spreading mayhem in young minds across America.

To be fair, he is a parent, and though I am not- I can imagine the defensive impulse that could lead him to think, “Something must be done, someone needs to pay”. However, the fact that this sort of response is understandable does not make it correct. Plus, even without examining a shred of data, it’s easy to see the moral upshot of blaming gun violence on the entertainment industry. By doing so, you fail to see the criminal as a conscious actor, with or without the mental illness, thereby exonerating him or her from personal responsibility. And if you look at the data, as Max Fisher does in The Washington Post, it’s clear that:

Looking at the world’s 10 largest video game markets yields no evident, statistical correlation between video game consumption and gun-related killings…In fact, countries where video game consumption is highest tend to be some of the safest countries in the world, likely a product of the fact that developed or rich countries, where consumers can afford expensive games, have on average much less violent crime.

If you’re searching for a way to explain things away, looking to violent video games will get you nowhere (blaming the rise of secularism in schools is an even more quixotic gesture). I would go even further than Fisher does and say that violence in entertainment may actually be the sign of a healthy society. People need to understand one thing very clearly here: aggression is part of our psyche, and there will always be a fascination with violence, gore, and bloodshed somewhere in the human consciousness. With this in mind I ask you, would you prefer it be on the streets, in real day-to-day existence much like it was before the 19th Century (and where it still is in the most miserable corners of the third world)? Perhaps it’s better that we have an outlet for this fascination in video games, books, films, and yes, music too. Honestly, if all we had were G-rated family comedies, self-help books, and Jack Johnson records, I’d probably buy my own straightjacket.

Some of you may be thinking, but what about those with mental health issues, couldn’t violent media trigger some impulse that can make a certain individual snap? Again, the problem in that case would be lack of proper care for that mental illness. Placing the blame on violent media would only be a counterproductive change of the subject.

For Civil Society

There are no simple answers to gun violence and the treatment of mental health. There are no absolute guidelines for where lines of private life and social cohesion intersect. However, there is one thing most of us do share, to live in a safe and open society that encourages human flourishing and achievement. With this in mind, questions of where guns belong in society tend to miss the point. The point is to try and work toward a society where guns are no longer necessary. This may not be totally possible and only the most naïve and condescending snob would suggest that human nature itself can be magically altered by public policy. But the goal of building the just society, one that takes our natural tendencies and channels them in the best way possible is what we should all hope to accomplish. It’s an environment we all hope for and that all parents want to see their children benefit from, including those parents who lost their own last Friday.

Candlelight vigil

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