There has been a lot of talk these last few weeks about school shootings because a particularly bad one just happened. We’re talking about it, I think, mostly out of a sense of obligation. Mostly, the way we talk about it is to talk about how talking will not do anything.
Whether the speaker starts or ends at that peculiar form of despair, the talking-about-talking tends to involve an obvious, legislative answer. How can you not see that all of this can easily be solved by
- gun control
- mental health reform
- arming teachers
- something something video games
- not worrying so much about statistically unlikely events
Can we start in a different place? Can we come together and recognize how profoundly, profanely abnormal it is that school shootings are a chronic problem in America?
Is This Actually A Serious Problem?
The Washington Post put out an article recently that disputes a statistic you might have heard: there have been 18 school shootings so far in this very short year. This isn’t the case. As of mid-February, there have only been 5 shootings that occurred during school hours and resulted in injury and
FULL STOP. 5 shootings before February 15, 2018 is approximately 1 school shooting every 10 days. That’s your comforting truth? Only once every 10 days, instead of once every 2.8 days? This should have the emotional impact of discovering that the sandwich you just ate is only 20% shit instead of 80%.
This is not only a troubling amount of shootings, it is a problem that is getting worse.
Another article that has been making the rounds recently claims that there are not, in fact, more shootings than there used to be. It turns out that if you ignore attempted shootings, ignore injuries, start in 1992, and go by two-year increments, it looks like shootings are declining. I understand that 1992 is a long time ago at this point, but is it really such ancient history that we’re willing to consider something normal and acceptable just because it started 26 years ago?
Both these articles miss the point in a big and common way: they assume that school shootings are disturbing solely because of the body count they generate. The danger isn’t that you, personally, will die or know someone who dies. The danger is that our current social structure is producing, with startling regularity, children who have limitless rage and no hope. Some–not all–of those human beings shoot people. I am worried about this group of unhappy people. The ones who find guns and go out in a hail of gunfire are the most pathological members of a profoundly pathological group. How many of them are there? What becomes of the rage-filled children who grow up?
Given the choice, I’d rather live in a society with a higher murder rate and zero school shootings. As unpleasant as murder is, it’s a very human thing to do. We’re apex predators and highly tribal, we’ve been murdering each other over resources or heartbreak or for vengeance since the very beginning. I doubt we’ll ever eradicate murder from the repertoire of human behavior, although reducing it is a great goal.
Anonymous mass killings are fundamentally different. The desire to kill randomly chosen members of your closest social institution–school, work, church–is not, to my understanding, historically normal. I’m more concerned about what manufactures these killers than I am about body count. Only a profoundly broken society routinely breaks children to the extent that random attacks on their fellow children makes sense.
What do we do? What law should we pass?
I’m willing to acknowledge the possibility that we’ve devolved, as a society, to the point where we need to limit our own access to firearms. I am also far more concerned about that devolution than I am about firearms.
I am a gun owner who is, unequivocally, in favor of gun licenses that require a basic safety test. I’m also in favor of background checks before every sale. I also know that these measures would not stop most school shooters from getting guns. Most of them are too young to have a criminal background and a lot of them aren’t buying the guns themselves.
Even getting the above passed would be a years-long battle opposed by one of the most powerful lobbies by this country. Completely banning all firearms might well reduce body count, but is it really enough that the broken people we create will have fewer weapons? Is that the long-term solution we need as a society? Guns have been around long before mass shootings, and they are present in societies that do not deal with this particular problem on a regular basis: guns did not cause this and removing them will not fix this at the root.
You can be for gun control and simultaneously think that banning guns isn’t a magical solution to the problem of rage and despair in America.
A lot of people with mental health issues get pretty upset about the idea that a mental health crisis is causing this. I certainly don’t speak for all people with mental illness, but as a clinically depressed person, here’s my perspective: Not all mentally ill people kill people, but it’s at least possible that all people who kill might be mentally ill.
Where does that leave us as far as actions to take? Maybe .000001% of the mentally ill population kills people, maybe. Tests with 99.99999% false positives are usually acknowledged to be bad tests.* Unfair tests. Rights-violating tests. Mental health screenings won’t work well for atrocity prevention.
Here’s a question: why are so many people mentally ill in this country? Is it because we’re getting better at diagnosing mental illness? Probably. Could it also be because we live in a sick society that asks impossible things of its members to the point that depression and anxiety afflict almost one out of every five Americans? I’m not a mental health professional, maybe these are super normal numbers across all cultures, but I wonder. Could it be that America’s mental health crisis is also a symptom of the thing that’s devouring our children?
America emphatically needs better mental health care. Once again, though, we are focusing on treating symptoms, not causes.
Frankly, most of our public school teachers have enough trouble teaching, never mind becoming the next American Sniper. Most human beings will either freeze or become hysterical in an emergency situation. It’s ridiculous to expect teachers to also be commandos. Just because armchair patriots like to fantasize that their dorito-eating asses would magically morph into kung-fu masters if required doesn’t mean teachers will undergo this metamorphosis in real life.
Even if this were somehow practical, please consider whether training the people who teach our children to shoot our children sounds like something a healthy, sane society would do.
Ban Video Games?
I thought this argument was dead, but like a spectacularly ineffective Christ it rises again.
This “solution” is both closest to and farthest from the truth. The proponents of this idea believe that our culture is sick, and I agree. What we have here is a profound philosophical crisis. I know we’re in philosophical crisis because video games are the closest thing we can find to philosophy.
There’s something almost beautifully naive about the idea that video games make people violent. We’re human beings. We were born violent. This isn’t a question of violence, it’s a question of why this type of violence. If Call of Duty is the religion of today’s kids, military recruitment numbers should be through the roof. I’m having trouble imagining why it’s translating into “kill your classmates” instead.
Video games are a relatively new and particularly cool medium for storytelling; an activity we have been doing since the dawn of time. When people become consumed with stories–when they spend more time in a story than in the real world–it serves as yet another red flag of a sick society: one that does not reward people sufficiently, one people are desperate to escape from. Video games aren’t the problem. They are yet another symptom of the problem.
None of these solutions actually address or stop the underlying problem.
These are not enough. Repeating your preferred solution like a mantra every time a child murders other children is more comforting than admitting you have no idea what the fuck is happening here, I get that, but let’s all say it together:
“I do not know why we are having so many shootings or what to do about it.”
It’s easy to become numb. We mouth the words about how it’s all very sad and horrible but let’s go beyond the sadness of dead kids for a moment and acknowledge how profoundly fucking weird this is.
Let us have a moment of horror for our weird dystopia.
* Incidentally, gun owners get upset about the idea of gun control for the same reason. The vast, vast majority of gun owners don’t use them to kill people. They feel personally attacked. It’s good to be aware of this. Back to Article