Is it my imagination, or do we seem to be having a spate of random and largely unexplained massacres lately?
They are horrible, and I think that there are things we can do to prevent them in the future. But I’m afraid that we are unable or unwilling to have a reasonable conversation about how to go about doing that.
Why? On one side, we have people who claim that school teachers should be armed. Those people are nuts. There is absolutely no evidence that arming everyone would reduce murders. Even school teachers go off the deep end. I know I would if I were confined to a school full of unruly kids every day.
On the other side, you have people who say that strict gun control laws would have prevented this. But the guns used in the Newtown killings were legally purchased, registered, and owned. And they were not real assault weapons. So I’m not sure that is the solution either.
Is there nothing we can do? Hardly. I tend to agree with Roger Ebert, who just repeated something he wrote after the Columbine murders:
Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?”
The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them.
I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.
I know newspapers want to report the news, but it seems that by doing so they are contributing to the problem. I’m not trying to lessen the horrible nature of this tragedy, but as Juan Cole points out, approximately 176 innocent children have been killed by US drones raining death from the sky. Isn’t this at least as horrible as 20 children in Connecticut killed by an unstable kid? I think we should all ask our local news outlets to stop giving so much publicity to mass murderers.
What else can we do? For one thing, stop cutting mental health budgets. For years, we’ve been cutting treatment for mentally unstable people, dumping them on the streets to become homeless, or sending them to prison, which is far more expensive (and far less helpful) than the treatments they used to receive. I think providing better mental health facilities would do a lot to reduce the number of massacres.
As I’ve said before, I believe that the second amendment clearly states that US citizens have the right to own guns. You may not like that, but you can’t legislate it out of existence. You would have to amend the constitution. But that also doesn’t mean that we can’t put in place common sense restrictions. After all, we have free speech, but that doesn’t mean you can yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. I would support requiring all gun owners to take a gun safety course, as well as pass a simple background check to make sure they have no criminal record or serious mental health issues. These tests should be no more difficult to pass than a driver’s license exam. Nobody should be allowed to purchase or own a weapon until they do this.
UPDATE: Anyone who wants to express an opinion about guns and gun control should read this article in The Atlantic “The Secret History of Guns“. Did you know that for most of its history the NRA supported gun control laws? As did Republican saint Ronald Reagan? And the Ku Klux Klan. And that the group most responsible for starting the modern movement promoting the right to bear arms in public was the Black Panthers? It’s true.
While you’re at it, read this article too.
UPDATE 2: And here’s a must-read article about a mother with a mentally unstable child, and the problems with mental health care in the US.
UPDATE 3: A post by cartoonist Matt Bors, concerning the media’s role in this craziness.