It’s Our Fault

A humbling look at society’s role in mass shootings

Florida State University.  Marysville High School.  The University of California, Santa Barbara.  Sparks Middle School.  Sandy Hook Elementary.  Clackamas Town Center.  Aurora, Colorado.  Tuscon, Arizona.  Oikus University.  Virginia Tech.  Columbine High School.

They are our fault.

Our society has blood on its hands.

I can understand the actions of the shooters.  I don’t sympathize with them, I can’t justify their deeds.  I can’t fathom hurting others as a way of coping with my internal pain.  I wish they followed any of a million other possible courses of action.  But I understand.  They were looking for a “noble way out” and they perceived nobility and maybe even romance in taking others out with them.  The shooters felt justified in their actions.  I understand.

What I can’t and never will understand is why we do nothing about it.

Mass shootings are nothing new.  They’ve happened throughout our history.  What is new is their frequency.  The average number of days between mass shootings prior to 2011 was 200 days; since 2011, that average has fallen to 64 days.  64 days in between a shooter opening fire in a public place and killing at least four victims.

Keep in mind this definition of mass shooting, used by the FBI and reflected in the chart below, means that the most recent Fort Hood shooting, the Santa Barbara shootings in May, 2014, and the Florida State shooting that occurred last night are not and will not be included.  This graph also doesn’t include mass shootings in private homes – like the one in Houston that killed a family – or shootings related to gang and criminal activity.

64 days.

mass shootings in america



Why are we complacent?  Why were we complacent when mass shootings occurred every 200 days?  Why do we continue to do nothing now that they occur every 64 days?

mass shootings in americaBetween 1982 and 2012 there were just three years without a mass shooting.  1 out of every 10 years we can expect there to be no mass shooting.  Why are we settling for that?

In any given year, we’re just as likely to have 4 mass shootings as we are to have no mass shootings.  In that 30 year time frame, there were, on average, 2 mass shootings a year.

It’s our fault.

We’re not doing anything.

In fact, we’re becoming resilient to the impact of mass shootings.  The theatre shootings in Aurora and terrible massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School prompted an extended debate about gun regulation.  But nothing happened.  Mass shootings continue and discussions about solutions wanes with each victim.  The Marysville High School shooting may have lead to voters in Washington expanding gun regulation but it did not lead to a national discussion.  National news media largely did not cover the Florida State shooting last night, not even on Twitter.  Americans are becoming brazen to mass shootings.  Mass shootings are losing their emotional impact.

And therefore, we are not doing anything.

The story is deeper.  Mass shootings are horrendous tragedies and tend to catch the public eye, but they make up a very small percentage of gun deaths in America.  In 2011, 32,163 people were killed from firearms.  Of those, 11,101 were homicide victims.  Almost all of the discrepancy between the two figures is accounted for by firearm suicide – 19,766 in 2011.

That’s 32,163 people who will never again see a sunrise, who will never experience the exorbitant happiness of love.  32,163 people from one year alone will never again have the opportunity to smile or laugh.

Every 15 years, we lose the population of the state of Wyoming.  We lose them forever.

This problem is quintessentially American.   We have the highest gun-related murder rate in the developed world.  It’s not even close.  How do we continue to do nothing?

It’s our fault, we let these deaths happen.  The problem is incumbent upon us to solve.  And we can.

There are two very important elements to mass shootings and gun-related deaths, both suicides and homicides, that we can change: prioritizing mental health services and expanding gun regulations.

Mental health carries a heavy social stigma.  It’s viewed as weak, as some sort of inane personal flaw.  People with mental illnesses are viewed differently; they’re viewed as damaged.  The stigma perpetuates itself: those with mental illnesses know they will be viewed differently if they admit to suffering from depression, schizophrenia, etc.  However, for some, allowing a mental illness to go unchecked can contribute to drastic actions.  These drastic actions, such as homicidal intentions and suicidal actions, only accentuate the stigma of mental illnesses because the actions and the illnesses are looped together in the eye of the public.  Many mass shooters suffer from some sort of mental illness.  Far too many of those who commit suicide suffer from depression.  We need to break that chain and normalize mental illnesses.

Those with mental illnesses need to believe they are not “strange” or societal “outliers”; they need to feel like receiving help for a mental illness is like getting help for bronchitis – normal, expected.  To normalize mental illness, we must accept it as part of who we are.

There is nothing wrong with having a mental illness.  This view must be collectively held in order for those with mental illnesses to feel confident in seeking help and telling others about their mental state.

We need bottom-up policies designed to increase mental health awareness and to expand mental health facilities.  Starting in elementary school, mental health awareness must be brought to the forefront.  A feasible solution might be integrating mental health awareness into a “Health” curriculum taught once a week or so.  Students would have the chance to read articles and stories that talk about mental health, watch videos about dealing with mental illness, and would be able to start an open dialogue from a young age.  Included in this curriculum should be readings and assignments that involve the parents.  This would build trust and openness, bridges that can be used later if the student finds him or herself suffering from a mental illness.

Middle and high school health curriculum should focus heavily on mental health.  Means of coping should be shared and the importance of seeking help stressed.  These years are when many students begin to feel the symptoms of mental health issues, especially depression.  Schools should invest resources into expanding on-campus mental health services, like individual and group counseling.  Students may be scared to reveal their illness at home so it falls upon the school to fill that void and provide an alternate source of help before, during, and after school hours.  Hopefully with availability and openness, students will feel comfortable seeking help if they feel the effects of a potential mental illness.

Mental illness impacts adults as well

Communities as whole also need to implement methods of normalizing mental illness.  Dialogues can be established at town hall meetings and open forums with experts where parents and community leaders can learn how to engage students in mental illnesses discussion and how to best support those with mental illnesses.  The community should establish a meeting place where those with mental illnesses – both youth and adults – can come together to share experiences and draw strength from each.  No one is alone.  Communities can foster that sentiment for the benefit of everybody.

Mental health is a serious issue that can contribute to drastic actions, such as suicide and homicide.  Our society stigmatizes mental illnesses and would rather pretend it doesn’t exist than commit resources to bettering the health and happiness of our members.  We need to change this flawed and dangerous perception.  It’s heartbreaking that we allow our brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, friends, coworkers, and neighbors to suffer silently.

No one is alone.

The other element of taking action against mass shootings and firearm related deaths is gun regulation.  This is a touchy political subject, but it shouldn’t be.  Too many voters define their views from misinformation and misperception of gun regulation.  They believe gun regulation means the government comes into their homes and forcefully pries the guns from the hands of private citizens.  Naturally that’s not true.  That so many Americans resolve to prevent gun regulation is perhaps the main reason these firearm-related deaths keep happening.

We have blood on our hands.

Another qualm Americans have is the utilization of tragedy for political gain, like pushing gun control.  Nonsense.  Advocating gun control following a mass shooting is not a political grab, it’s making the most of a sympathetic public in order to usher in reforms that will prevent such terrible occurrences from happening in the future.  It would be an insult to the victims for them to have died in vain.  Right now we’re telling parents of Sandy Hook victims that their 7 year old daughter died for naught – we could have prevented her death had we taken any number of actions any number of years ago, and her death won’t be the last: we won’t implement changes to prevent others like her from dying needlessly.  What better way to honor a victim than to use his or her death as an impetus for reform that could very well eliminate similar senseless deaths in the future?  It shows we value the victim, that their life was important enough that its loss caused change.  To do otherwise would be to insult their memory and the suffering of loved ones.

It’s time to implement far-reaching gun regulation.

Enough with the arguments that arming the populace will decrease gun violence.  No studies show that to be true.  It’s a fantasy.

We need universal background checks and the prohibition of semi-automatic weapons as well as high-capacity magazines.

Wherever guns are sold – whether at a gun show or a brick and mortar store – any buyer ought to go through a background check before a gun can be purchased.  Those with felonies, misdemeanor crimes of violence, and domestic violence on their record should not be allowed to purchase a gun.  Those with a record of mental illness should not be allowed to buy a gun.

Even better, the government should necessitate mental health screening for those who want to purchase a firearm.  Some people with mental illnesses may not have it on their record – they may not have exhibited signs, received needed help, or they recently developed it – and mandatory mental health screening would keep a dangerous weapon out of their hands and, if the person was unaware of having a mental illness, could spur him or her to seek medical help.

Semiautomatic weapons are designed for war, not for civilian use.  No citizen could ever need the fire power of an AR-15.  No citizen without military training can properly handle such a potent weapon.  There’s no defense for such powerful weapons.  They should be banned.

High-capacity magazines are also unnecessary.  These magazines give shooters enormous firepower and, in the words of some, “put the mass in mass shootings.”  There aren’t situations in which one needs more than 7 or 10 rounds of ammo.  Conservatives claim it’s necessary for home invasions.  Any home invasion is not going to involve more than 7 assailants.  Likely, it won’t involve more than three.  What many conservatives don’t realize or choose to ignore is that “those persons with guns in the home were at greater risk than those without guns in the home of dying from a homicide in the home…They were also at greater risk of dying from a firearm homicide….”  Add more rounds per clip and you can imagine the increased dangers.

Another favorite argument of conservatives is “if we implement gun regulations, then only bad guys will have guns because bad guys don’t follow federal law.”  Applying the same logic elsewhere, we don’t need stop signs because only careless drivers won’t stop at the corner of a street and since they’re careless in the first place, they wouldn’t stop even with a stop sign.

There’s constitutional precedent for these regulations.  The Second Amendment states “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Depending on interpretation, the right to bear arms is directly related to the maintenance of a well-regulated militia.  There term “well regulated” opens the door to firearm regulation.  The Supreme Court adopted this interpretation in the 1939 case United States v. Miller though it stepped away from this “collective rights approach” in 2008 with District of Columbia v. Heller.

Since the militia arises from the citizenry, a regulated militia naturally implies regulating the people.  This provides a constitutional ground on which background checks and mental health screening can be pursued.  Guns are the supplies of the militia and so, again, to regulate a militia, the government would need to regulate all elements, from the members to the supplies.  Thus semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines can be banned.

Commonsense is lacking.  Irrational fear grips many Americans.  It’s this fear that allows blood to be spilled and lives lost.  The blame most lie within and we must come to grips with the dangers of our inaction and seek to rectify our mistakes unless we truly are complacent with 32,000+ firearm deaths every year.

Continued mass shootings are our fault.  We’re to blame.  We haven’t done enough – if we’ve done anything! – to prevent future mass shootings from occurring.  America is riddled by firearm deaths and we continue to do nothing.  This makes each and everyone of us partly responsible for ensuing deaths.  That sounds grim, and it is, but we can also make a difference.

Let’s invest resources in mental health awareness and mental health resources.  Let’s be sensible with our gun policy.  Let’s be proactive and challenge ourselves to end gun violence in the country.

It’s our fault, but it’s also our solution.

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