The Killer in Me Is the Killer in You

As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, Jared Loughner’s shooting of US District Judge John Roll, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 of Giffords’ constituents on January 8, 2011, was not an aberration. Instead, it was merely the latest and most highly publicized of three recent gun-related incidents that have, however fleetingly, captured public attention.

There was the incident involving Clay Duke, whose December 14, 2010 takeover of a Florida school board meeting ended when he fatally shot himself. Samuel Hengel met a similar fate after holding two dozen people hostage at a Wisconsin high school on November 10, 2010. Loughner was, by all accounts, a deeply troubled man whose skewed view of the world led him to do the unthinkable.

When the final reports are written about these cases, authorities will note that Loughner, Duke and Hengel each acted alone – but the truth of the matter is that they had plenty of help from the rest of us.

We would, of course, prefer to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for their actions. but the fact remains that we’ve created a society in which millions of children and adults suffering from severe emotional pain not only go untreated, but also have access to the most efficient manner ever invented to harm themselves or others. Our roles in tolerating this kind of society indicate that we’ve moved beyond the realm of collective negligence to the ranks of full-fledged accomplices.

We’ve reached this point, in part, by genuflecting for decades to the health insurance lobby and to the most outspoken supporters of gun ownership. As a result, it is often easier for someone to get his or her hands on one of the nearly 300 million firearms in this country than to successfully obtain comprehensive psychological or psychiatric support.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, fewer than 20 percent of Americans needing treatment receive even minimally adequate services – a much lower rate than in any other developed country. And, judging from the lack of public outcry, few of us seem willing to challenge the status quo.

The upshot of this arrangement – murder-suicides of entire families, workers shooting colleagues at the office, children killing children in our streets and in schools – plays out across a nation that leads the western world in both civilian gun ownership (according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey) and untreated mental illness.

Reversing this momentum won’t be easy, as it will require not only a shift in our priorities, but also a concerted effort to better understand ourselves and our obligation to each other.

A crucial element of this equation involves coming to grips with the fact that, legal definitions notwithstanding, no one of sound mind commits a crime of extreme violence. Rather, it is an act born of profound psychological distress. Reaching such a dark place -where the unimaginable becomes plausible – is not a common occurrence. It is, however, something that can happen to any one of us, at any point in our lives, for any number of reasons.

Adding guns to the mix ups the ante immeasurably, creating a truth few of us wish to acknowledge: that the fragile nature of the human psyche renders background checks, registration and permits an exercise in futility when it comes to saving lives.

Reaching consensus on this reality will get us just so far, as a substantive change in the way we address gun violence will come about only if it is accompanied by a measure of resolve heretofore unseen on this issue.

Galvanizing the will of the masses to halt widespread violence is by no means unheard of. In fact, one need look no further than one’s own backyard to witness such an expression of will, albeit one intended to confront a crisis half a world away.

In an uncommon display of solidarity, millions of Americans, young and old, have raised their voices to protest the genocide in Darfur, where more than 200,000 Sudanese have been slaughtered during the past seven years. People of faith have responded to the carnage by leading an unprecedented humanitarian aid effort. Celebrities have come out of the woodwork to lend their names to the cause. And, in a unique show of bipartisanship, politicians on both sides of the aisle have joined the struggle by issuing a joint call to action.

Which raises the question: Why haven’t we responded to the 200,000 gun-related deaths that have taken place in the US during the same seven-year stretch with the same level of urgency and commitment? Where are the millions of voices renouncing gun ownership and demanding universal health care? Where are the faith-based leaders? The courageous politicians? The Hollywood stars? Why have the only high-profile demonstrations to link guns with medical insurance involved citizens brandishing firearms in opposition to health care reform? Is the perpetual gun violence taking place in our communities that much more tolerable to us than genocide in western Sudan?

Maybe so. Perhaps the discrepancy lies in our desire to avoid the guilt and shame associated with our complicity in tragedies like the ones involving Loughner, Duke and Hengel.

Or, to put it another way, maybe it is easier for us to pour our energy into ending the violence in Darfur because, in Sudan, we’re not the ones doing the killing.