On Wednesday, the United States saw its eighteenth school shooting of 2018. A student who had previously been expelled from Stoneman Douglas High School entered the school and opened fire with an AR-15, killing 17 students. As of this writing, 14 others were hospitalized. As tragedies like this one, and the canned responses that follow, become a standardized part of our culture, it is reassuring to see people pushing back against the normalization of such violence. After all, 1,300 children are killed by guns each year in the United States. Fifty-three percent of those deaths are homicides, and the remaining 38 percent are suicides, and for the most part, that violence is neglected or outright ignored by the media.
When our culture of violence is acknowledged, liberals and conservatives alike repeat their usual refrains about prayer, mental illness and gun laws. And nothing changes.
While it’s disheartening that we have allowed the victims of less spectacular acts of gun violence to be invisibilized, I find some hope in the fact that people still find some acts violence unthinkable. Amid all the harm that occurs in the United States, and the wars we barely notice any longer, our capacity for shock matters, even if it is not as constant as it ought to be. We have become inured to the ubiquity of gun violence, and in so doing, we have normalized it. There are a lot of factors in play with regard to such matters — including racial bias and social indifference toward crimes against the marginalized — but a major factor is constancy. When a horror that shocks the imagination becomes a regular occurrence, the human mind adapts. Our capacity for shock erodes. Our sense of urgency can diminish, and we may begin to ignore the problem, because we feel helpless, and simply can’t bear to look.
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When our culture of violence is acknowledged — usually because of a concentrated act of destruction like this one, with numerous fatalities — liberals and conservatives alike repeat their usual refrains about prayer, mental illness and gun laws. And nothing changes.
After Wednesday’s shooting, I came across some images from the Instagram page of the suspected shooter, Nikolas Cruz. From guns and knives to a MAGA hat and a frog Cruz claimed to have killed, Cruz’s photos foreshadowed something terrible, regardless of scale. In a culture of care and regard for others, there would have been some intervention here a long time ago.
These moments of shocking mass violence never seem to spark such conversations on a broad scale. Instead, we turn to talk of punishment. But as Cruz’s expulsion reminds us, punishing troubled youth does not detoxify our communities. Would things have gone differently, in Cruz’s case, with greater community intervention? Perhaps not. We cannot know, and I’m by no means pointing an accusing finger at those who interacted with Cruz. Rather, I am naming a genuine failure of our society. We have not, large-scale, made any necessary efforts to address violence in a transformative manner, even though smaller scale restorative efforts have shown great promise. Rather than initiating conversations about what more we can do, moments like this one only seem to reinforce a cycle of futile discourse.
In a society that both saturates itself with violence and extends its violent reach around the globe, it’s not surprising that few people want to speak to why violence occurs.
Discussions of gun violence in the United States are something of a political treadmill. We all know the script. Republicans offer thoughts and prayers, liberals demand more criminalization of those who possess and use guns, and nothing ever changes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has forwarded legislation that would ban the AR-15 — the weapon Cruz employed in Wednesday’s shooting, which was also wielded in mass killings in San Bernardino, Newtown and Sandy Hook — acknowledges that the effort is a symbolic one. Feinstein argues that the bill exists so that “the American people will know that a tool to reduce these massacres is sitting in the Senate, ready for debate and a vote.” What the country gains from this knowledge, in the current climate, when such a bill has no hope of passage, is unclear. In a country where gun laws are already shoddily enforced, and prosecutions disproportionately target the Black community — with an even greater racial disparity in federal gun prosecutions than in drug prosecutions — a bill that sits idle, reminding the public that Republicans don’t care, hardly seems solutionary.
In a society that both saturates itself with violence and extends its violent reach around the globe, it’s not surprising that few people want to speak to why violence occurs. The problem is so massive that it’s overwhelming, so we instead question the tools in play. Regardless of whether a law would have stopped the killings politicians cite while endorsing it, liberals will reliably back those laws. It is not deemed relevant, in such conversations, that over 5 million Americans already own AR-15s, or that fears such weapons might be banned have only led to surges in sales after major shootings. When the first assault weapon ban went into effect in 1994, there were approximately 1.5 million assault weapons and more than 24 million high-capacity magazines in private hands in the US. That law, of course, was easily evaded by manufacturers, because its rules were incredibly specific, and thus made room for minor deviations. After all, the term “assault weapon” is largely political; there is no fixed technical definition. A ban on all semi-automatic weapons is not feasible, because such a bill would functionally ban most guns in the United States — which is a goal that neither major party supports.
It’s noteworthy that the 1994 ban caused “no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence,” according to a 2004 report to the Justice Department. Such findings were fairly unsurprising, since assault weapons were used in only 2 percent of gun crimes prior to the ’94 ban — a number that also mirrors current statistics.
Mass shootings are merely the amplification of a very American phenomenon, and we do not have a broad-based commitment, as a nation, to combat the roots of violence.
Political power has shifted between the major parties multiple times since 1994, but the United States has never meaningfully altered its relationship with firearms. Even in 1994, assault weapons that had been purchased prior to the bill’s passage remained legal. A similar non-retroactivity provision should be expected in any future gun legislation that may one day, in the not-so-foreseeable future, come to a successful vote, because the Republicans and the National Rifle Association — along with a large portion of the US population — would demand as much. In 1994, that meant 1.5 million assault weapons remained legal. Now, it would mean over 5 million AR-15s would likewise remain legally owned.
But highlighting the futility of gun control arguments seems to have little impact on their regurgitation. Something is better than nothing, Democrats often insist. But at a time of constant crisis, and unthinkable harm, is something that accomplishes nothing really better? Are we, like Feinstein, trying to define ourselves as being more moral in our aims, even if we are ineffectual in our efforts? It’s past time we acknowledge that this “something” confines the energy, imaginations and efforts of those who fixate on it. These gun control arguments are a feedback loop that goes nowhere and does no good.
We can’t jail our way out of this violence. Laws don’t halt addictions, and this country is addicted to guns. Firearms are fetishized, to an alarming extent (probably in many of your own minds, if you’re honest about it), and the country is flooded with them. Gun sales are actually down under Trump, but that won’t ultimately matter, because the weapons are already out there. And if you’re imagining a world where police kick down doors and pry the guns from conservatives’ still-warm or cold, dead hands, I think we are living in different worlds.
In the world I live in, people like Cliven Bundy get to point rifles at cops, in armed standoffs, without consequence, while unarmed Black and Native people are gunned down with impunity. White vigilantes are found not guilty, regardless of the blatancy of their crimes. Marginalized people are gunned down without cause by police, while white spree killers are brought in alive. The world I live in is one of systemic violence and structural racism, wherein marginalized people are ensnared by the criminal punishment system for self-defense.
Prohibition has never saved us from ourselves — only transformation can do that.
I am aware of the much-touted success stories, of other countries that have enacted strict gun laws, but such comparisons tend to erase the many differences between those countries and the United States. We live in a death-making culture, and we are world leaders in that respect, on a variety of fronts. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, the United States is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world — a characterization that’s as true now as it was when MLK himself was struck down by American violence. Violence takes many shapes, and our acceptance of it as a social, cultural and economic norm creates a landscape where blatant, physical manifestations of our country’s corrupt character are inevitable.
Mass shootings are merely the amplification of a very American phenomenon, and we do not have a broad-based commitment, as a nation, to combat the roots of violence. As the opioid epidemic ravages communities, Donald Trump claims an increase in the violence of incarceration will solve the problem. Programs that address desperate conditions and community conflicts, in a caring, transformative manner, are not prioritized in our society, even amongst those who would bristle at Trump’s carceral “problem solving.”
I do not, in this heated moment, expect people to stop discussing gun control. It’s a refrain that won’t fade easily, and many are deeply invested in it. But I will ask, given all that we know, and all that’s at stake, that people not treat calls for such legislation as ends in themselves. Prohibition has never saved us from ourselves — only transformation can do that. Idle laws are a poor substitute for the work of building a society that truly values life and prioritizes the creation of safety. The real work lies in unravelling our death-making culture, and facilitating the transformation of both individuals and communities.