Steve Curless's Blog

Miscellaneous Musings
DECEMBER 17, 2012 4:46PM

Come Together Right Now to End Gun Violence

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I have nothing brilliant or original to say in the wake of last Friday’s bloody apocalypse in Newtown, CT. Yet, I can’t let that horrible tragedy quietly recede into my personal and the national subconscious without saying something about it, disjointed as it may be, that registers my grief, anger, and despair and my sketchy thoughts regarding what may have caused this calamity and what, if anything, we might do to prevent something similar from happening again.

After the shopping mall shootings outside Portland, Oregon earlier last week, one of the first things that came to mind was, How soon before it happens again? And even if I couldn’t have foreseen how soon it would happen again or how bad it would turn out to be when it did, I wasn’t terribly surprised when it did.

That some mentally disordered person somewhere would lug one or more semi-automatic firearms into a crowded public place and start blowing away innocent people had all the inevitability of a seasonal hurricane or an earthquake in a seismically active region. We know it’s going to happen, we just don’t know exactly where, when, or how bad it will be. Yet, it stood to reason that it could well be sooner than later, exploding from the critical mass of the theater and mall shootings in Colorado, Oregon, and other recent locations.

This points to something I fundamentally believe about all such events. They ARE the human equivalents of natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. No one freely chooses to go out and gun down a bunch of innocent adults and children. They do it because a rare set of internal and external conditions coalesce, like they did in Hurricane Sandy, to cause them to irresistibly erupt in catastrophic violence.

One speculative scenario I’ve pieced together from what I’ve read is that the shooter, whose name I won’t print, had
Asperger’s syndrome; was painfully alienated from his family and society by his extreme social awkwardness and shyness; felt lonely, angry, bitter, hateful, and spiteful over what he perceived as widespread social rejection; was part of a Gothic subculture that magnified his alienation and its emotional outpourings; loved to play violent video games that aggravated his violent tendencies while desensitizing him to acting them out; had a careless, “prepper” mother with a gun fetish and an in-house armory; may have given off signs that he was on the brink of something awful but no one was paying attention or caring enough to do anything about it even though there may have been something they could have done; believed that he was a contemptible nobody in a society that glamorizes “somebodies”; paid close attention to the theater and mall shootings in Colorado, Oregon, and elsewhere and fantasized about them; and decided that if his lonely, miserable life as a hopeless social outcast was not worth living, he might as well end it by venting his anger and hatred for a society that marginalized and ignored him, and do it in a way that would make him a somebody that people would never, ever forget even if he wouldn’t be around to bask in the notoriety.

Like I said, this is all just speculation, but I would like to think that by examining all the available facts, law enforcement and behavioral scientists might be able to assemble a pretty accurate and insightful picture of the shooter and of what caused and enabled him to act as he did and that this understanding might prove useful for helping to prevent future shooting rampages.

In the meantime, after thinking about this awful story and reading articles and editorials about it and related issues such as gun control and mental health care in America, here are some of my ideas about steps we should consider taking to decrease gun violence in our society.

First, if we’re as sick and tired of gun violence as many of us say we are and, in any event, should be, why not declare that we, as a society, will no longer tolerate criminal gun violence and follow up by instituting severe, even draconian penalties for illegal gun selling, purchasing, possession, and use? For instance, why not summarily execute anyone who uses a gun to commit a crime? And why not incarcerate for life or for a very long time anyone caught carrying a loaded firearm in public without a legal permit?

Second, why not ban ALL sales of firearms and ammo to anyone who hasn’t been thoroughly screened and hasn’t passed stringent tests of firearm knowledge and proficiency, and why not require people who own firearms to be periodically re-screened and re-tested in order to keep them, just as we have to pass re-screenings and re-tests to maintain our driving privileges?

Third, why not ban the sale and possession of all high caliber, semi automatic assault weapons and high capacity magazines for civilians who have no exceptionally good reason to own them?

Fourth, why not refrain from publishing in the television or print media the name of anyone who commits heinous mass murder, thereby discouraging would-be mass murderers from seeking their fifteen minutes of fame that will never come to them by name?

Fifth, why not follow Rabbi Michael Lerner’s
advice and inculcate non-sectarian values and powerful psychotherapeutic, social, and conflict resolution skills in our children in our public schools?

Finally, why don’t we take it upon ourselves as individuals and as a nation to move far enough away from our enshrined “Greed is good,” libertarian, dog-eat-dog, “rugged individualism,” and “personal freedom” ethos to at least provide far better for the common good in terms of physical and mental health care and other social welfare while also becoming more empathic, compassionate, and caring as individuals toward our neighbors and all humankind throughout the nation and the world? For surely, whatever religion we embrace, or even if we embrace no religion at all, we would almost all agree that we’re lacking as a people in terms of how we care for “the least among us” and for the troubled, and the horrific events of last Friday should make this all the more evident.

Of course there are counterarguments to each and every one of my general suggestions, and some of them may even be cogent. But surely there are things we can do or should at least try to do to protect ourselves and our children not only from gun massacres but also from gun violence of all kinds, and surely there is no better time than now to draw upon the energy of our anger at the status quo and of our desperation for change in the wake of last Friday’s bloodbath of the innocent to come together and seek viable answers and solutions and not let the proverbial perfect be “the enemy of the good.” As President Obama eloquently stated in his moving memorial service eulogy last night, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this. If there’s even one step we can take to save another child, another parent, or another town from the grief that’s visited Tuscon and Aurora and Oak Creek and Newtown and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that, then surely we have an obligation to try.


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Hi Steve. Very well written and sensible.

Keep up the good work.

Steve, I read through your list of recommendations. It's not that I "disagree" with them. But I think that they would not accomplish what you want them to accomplish. Here are a few things to consider:

1) The law of unintended consequences, partially defined as "a perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended."

Take, for example, this recommendation: "And why not incarcerate for life or for a very long time anyone caught carrying a loaded firearm in public without a legal permit?" Probably the first week this went into effect, the police would do a traffic stop on a fellow who is carrying a loaded firearm. The guy had a permit to carry in public, but it turns out that his permit expired the week before and he didn't realize it.

Now you have a regular guy, a law-abiding citizen, who faces life in prison because his permit lapsed. I suggest to you that this is not the kind of outcome you desired. But -- this guy would be swept up by the law along with the people you want to catch. In other words, part of the price of draconian laws is that a lot of good people will be ensnared by the same net that catches the bad guys.

Another example of the law of unintended consequences is something that we've already seen. Under the Clinton administration "assault rifles" and high-capacity magazines were banned. We've already gone through that, so what happened?

First, it is difficult to define what counts as an "assault rifle." As the wiki article on the federal assault weapons ban notes "merely the possession of cosmetic features is enough to warrant such classification as an assault weapon." Stated simply, a rifle is an assault weapon because it "looks scary." The wiki article continues: "In the former U.S. law, the legal term assault weapon included certain specific semi-automatic firearm models by name (e.g., Colt AR-15, TEC-9, non-select-fire AK-47s produced by three manufacturers, and Uzis) and other semi-automatic firearms because they possess a minimum set of cosmetic features . . . " These feature include having a pistol grip, a folding or telescoping stock, and a bayonet mount.

In other words, a rifle that functions in every way the same as an "assault rifle," but that lacks the cosmetic features of an assault rifle, was perfectly legal. So I have to wonder how banning "scary" weapons could make anyone safer.

Another aspect of the law was to ban high-capacity magazines manufactured after a certain date. Two things happened: first, the price of pre-ban high-capacity magazines went up. Second, gun manufacturers created small, highly-concealable handguns designed around the limit of the 10-round magazine. Thus the law itself was largely responsible for the creation of the "sub-compact" semi-auto handguns such as the Glock 26.

2) Criminals don't respect the law.

Laws mean nothing to criminals. You recently wrote a post on the sentence of Anders Breivik, and I'm sure you know that Norway has very restrictive gun laws. These laws cover all firearms and all aspects of firearms ownership. In addition, Norway has far fewer firearms than the U.S. -- 1.3 million in Norway compared to around 270 million in the U.S. -- less than one-half of one percent of the guns in the U.S.. But in spite of all that, Breivik was able to shoot and murder 69 people. He also killed another 8 and injured 200 with a homemade car bomb constructed from fertilizer and fuel oil.

Something to consider -- We've always had guns. (And we've always had cars, fertilizer, and fuel oil too.) We've always had crazy people. We've always had people who are lonely and alienated. So what is it in the culture that has changed? This is what I want to know. I don't think mass murders are a gun problem (or a fertilizer and fuel oil problem); I think they are primarily a cultural problem.

When I was growing up my best friend's family never locked their front door. In fact, it was years before they even had a key to the front door. Today people have reinforced doors, security systems, TV cameras, etc., and they still don't feel safe, and for good reason. Something has gone very wrong with the culture, and I don't know what that is but I'd like to know.