Victims of the Virginia Beach shooting

Tragedy struck Virginia yesterday in the form of a mass shooting at the Virginia Beach municipal complex. The investigation into the shooter’s motive — undoubtedly tied to workplace violence — remains incomplete, but that probably won’t stop pundits and talking heads from indulging their usual tropes for and against guns.

I find both sides of the gun-rights debate to be tiresome. Gun control zealots act as if the availability of guns were the one and only issue: Limit access to guns and the country will be a safer place. Gun rights zealots act as if the ubiquity and easy availability of guns has nothing to do with the lone-shooter carnage that erupts periodically across the country.

To my mind, mass shootings are a complex social phenomenon for which there are no easy remedies. Permit me to advance a few propositions that, hopefully most reasonable people can agree upon.

Yes, the ubiquity and easily availability of guns is part of the problem. The fact that the overwhelming majority of mass killings are mass shootings is all the evidence we need to make this point. True, you can kill people by exploding bombs, running them down with trucks, and even stabbing them with knives (a growing phenomenon in countries with low rates of gun ownership). But alternative means of committing mass mayhem are either more difficult to execute, easier for law enforcement authorities to intercept, or less likely to be deadly.

But there is truth, too, in the argument that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. America has been a gun-owning society since its creation, and it has never been a particularly peaceful society. But shootings were most commonly the result of criminal activity or frontier lawlessness. The random mass slaying of innocents was exceedingly rare (if not unknown). Something has changed. People who are mentally ill or psychologically distressed have turned to mass shootings — often as a form of suicide by cop — as a way to express their extreme alienation. The wave of mass killings is a symptom of a larger breakdown in mental health.

Mass shootings are a predominantly male phenomenon. Males are more inclined than females to violent criminality across the board. But the mass killing of innocents seems to be a particularly male preserve. An FBI study of 160 “active shooter” incidents between 2000 and 2013 found that only 6 incidents, or 3.8%, were perpetrated by female shooters, according to the Guardian. (Mass shooters are disproportionately white, as well, although the disparity is less pronounced.) In a society obsessed with identity politics and fixated on racial and gender “disparities,” it is surprising that more attention hasn’t been given to this issue. Why are males (and to a lesser extent, whites) so much more likely express their social alienation or mental illness in this particularly horrific way?

Mass shootings are in part a media phenomenon. Not every mass shooter sees himself going down in a blaze of glory that will be immortalized in the media and on the Internet — but many of them do. Intense media coverage of mass shootings, along with the ritual expressions of pain and sorrow, creates a template for the mentally ill and emotionally distressed. People in pain want to inflict pain upon others. Mass media coverage emphasizes how effective mass shooters are in achieving that goal.

We will have to address all of these issues if we hope to tame this monster. Focusing on just one aspect of a multi-layered phenomenon will lead us nowhere.

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12 responses to “Mass Shootings a Multi-Faceted Phenomenon”

  1. Top-GUN Avatar

    Simple Solution…. let those who wish to and are willing to carry,, CARRY..
    When the cops are xx minutes away you need to be able defend yourself right now…
    I bet several folk in that office have conceal carry permits.. and there’s probably a no guns sign on the door,,, telling any bad guy it’s a free fire zone..

  2. Acbar Avatar

    Glad to see you present this issue with some nuance. Of course there is no simple fix, like simply banning the ownership of certain types of guns; but gun sales and purchase restrictions certainly must be part of any comprehensive solution. Getting at the causes of social alienation and anger behind so many mass shootings is something we rarely talk enough about except when there’s one of these horrific events.

  3. TBill Avatar

    Condolences and support to the families and Virgina Beach as they work through dealing with this tragedy.

    When I was a kid in Boy Scouts/Explorers in Pa., we loved shooting rifles on the range. I bought my own 22 rifle with my own money (hard earned dollars in those days).

    As young adults we moved to New Jersey to start our careers, and I could not even get a BB gun to shoot in the basement ( I wanted to get some stop-action photographs). You could get one with effort, but not in the store. In additon, you had to have character witnesses etc. No back then either.

    One time a friend in NJ asked me to be a character witness for his gun purchase, which I felt odd about agreeing to that, but my attitude was to help him because I sympathized with how hard it was to get a gun in NJ, and as far as I know, he was using it legally.

    Not sure it is still the same in NJ or if NRA has been able to weaken the NJ laws. But that is one example of how it might be possible to have America and still have some legal access to guns.

  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    It will not surprise any of us to hear that this murderer sent signals, made threats or explicit warnings, that his co-workers were even afraid of him and spoke up. Maybe not, and it certainly is not something the city will want out there due to potential liability issues. I know the arguments against the red flag laws, the potential for harm. I know the issues with firing people over suspected mental illness. But society has a right to protect itself from these deranged monsters – monsters we ourselves may be creating. Video games that desensitize to killing, thousands and thousands of depicted murders on Game of Thrones, “comedies” such as Killing Eve. Maybe those people warning of the dangers of TV violence 60 years ago weren’t so far off?

    Take away the semi-auto guns and the body count goes down, but I doubt that ends it. Knives can be quite deadly. Vehicles are a growing weapon of choice. Something else is going on. The future will look back on this and say, why the hell didn’t they see it themselves? Why did they fill all their brains with that poison, knowing so many didn’t really see the line with reality?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      The United States has been and still is a very violent country. I’ve read articles contending that, if there were no firearms or their statistics are ignored, we still have a high rate of assault and murder.

      I suspect some of it comes from our history of solving problems our own way. But the constant deluge of violent entertainment certainly desensitizes all of us to violence. Movies have always contained death, self-defense and murder. But the gore and casual nature of violence wasn’t shown. And the bad guys usually lost in the end. We believe that showing people constant negative portraits of themselves or positive portraits of their oppressors causes harm. Isn’t that the logic behind moving statues of Confederate generals from public parks to museums? So if that’s true, why don’t we pressure the entertainment industry to tone down the violence? I own some Disney stock. I guess I should do that.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Don’t other countries have mentally-ill, “alienated” , disgruntled employees, also?

    They still have murders, even mass murders but their murder rate (including mass murders) is a fraction of ours – and ours is more like many 3rd world countries where guns are ubiquitous.

    Rank Country Value Year
    1 El Salvador 108.60 2015
    2 Iraq 66.10 2007
    3 Honduras 63.80 2015
    4 Venezuela 57.10 2015
    5 Jamaica 43.20 2015
    6 Lesotho 38.00 2010
    7 Belize 34.40 2014
    8 South Africa 34.30 2015
    9 St. Kitts and Nevis 33.60 2012
    10 Guatemala 31.20 2014
    83 United States 4.90 2015
    168 Germany 0.80 2015
    171 Czech Republic 0.70 2015
    171 United Arab Emirates 0.70 2015
    171 Luxembourg 0.70 2014
    171 China 0.70 2014
    171 Poland 0.70 2015
    171 Switzerland 0.70 2015
    171 Korea 0.70 2014
    171 Spain 0.70 2015
    180 Ireland 0.60 2015
    180 Madagascar 0.60 2010
    180 Netherlands 0.60 2015
    180 Norway 0.60 2014
    184 Bahrain 0.50 2011
    184 Brunei 0.50 2013
    184 Austria 0.50 2015
    184 Indonesia 0.50 2014
    188 Japan 0.30 2014
    188 Hong Kong SAR, China 0.30 2015
    190 Singapore 0.20 2015

    There’s a further irony. The core premise for the 2nd amendment is to be able to overthrow a tyrannical government enslaving people – but the countries with the most restrictive guns regulations are called “socialist” and provide free health care and education and true despotic countries have terrible living conditions, lots of guns and high murder rates and those govts not typically overthrown by citizens with guns and replaced with “good” government.

    Countries like Syria, Somalia, Panama, Venezuela, Uganda… etc..

    And a country like Indonesia has a rate of .50 per 100,000. That’s the 4th largest country on Earth 269 million people – 87% are Islam. Or India 1.3 billion people, 80% Hindu with a murder rate of 3.2 – much closer to the US rate of 4.90.

    It’s just frustrating as heck – it’s the same kind of gridlock that we have with other issues like immigration, health care, climate, abortion. We just seem to have gridlocked ourselves on these issues.

  6. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    So where is the outrage at the non-stop violence produced by the American entertainment industry, movies, videos, music and games? Oh, their producers are generally liberal in their politics, make big contributions to Democratic candidates and have armed body guards (when they make big bucks). People scream First Amendment.

    But why is screaming First Amendment acceptable when screaming Second Amendment is not? Why no lawsuits by cities and states against the purveyors of violence training through entertainment? See above. Why no boycotts of actors, directors and producers of these materials? See above.

    And how about prosecution of sellers and buyers in straw transactions? We seem to crave more laws but won’t enforce the ones on the books. How do former felons get access to guns? Too hard of a problem. It’s easier to push to limit access to guns by ordinary, law-abiding people. What would happen if Fairfax County and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia made a concerted effort to prosecute everyone who sells guns to third-party agents who, in turn, provide the weapons to felons?

    I’m not opposed to the concept underlying Red Flag laws so long as there is sufficient notice and an opportunity for a prompt hearing. But let’s all remember that we are talking about a non-consensual entry into someone’s home by the police and the confiscation of personal property. We damn well better have some good evidence.

    And then there’s Fairfax County. It has statutory authority to obtain an inspection warrant to enter a person’s home to look for code violations, mainly fire code and occupancy code with cause and a refusal to grant entry. But given it’s desire to protect illegal immigration, the County has never requested one. So if I were the attorney representing a gunowner in a Red Flag case, I’d argue selective enforcement of laws, due process and equal protection. Don’t know if I’d win.

    And mental health. We likely went too fair when we had large institutions for the mentally ill. But now, we have nothing. And despite living in one of the most heavily armed communities in the nation (McLean), many of the good denizens are up in arms determined to prevent a group home for teenagers with mental and emotional problems from operating on a single property in McLean.

    It’s much easier to yell gun control than make the changes we need to reduce gun violence. Just ask the Post.

  7. TBill Avatar

    Just brainstorming here, but when we were kids we actually used guns (mostlty rifles) because everyone had them for hunting, skeet, shooting range accuracy skill – trying to knock out that tiny little bulls-eye, every single shot if you were good at it. We did not have internet, so there had to be other ways to have hobbies, and shooting was a fun sport.

    Prior to using guns as teens, we had excellent training courses on gun safety made by guess who? the NRA, in the days when gun safety for newcomers to the sport was their paramount concern, or it seemed so.

    Today there is less need for guns on a hobby basis, but of course Alaska and other rural states still have the hunting activity.

    Larry- Just an observation, the No. 1 on your list is also I believe close to the No.1 immigrant group to NoVA/DC region.

  8. Top-GUN Avatar

    Acbar says there’s no simple fix,,,
    And with a world full of nutty people, many in the U.S. taking psychotropic drugs or just smoking pot that is 10 times stronger there never will be,,,, taking away gun rights will never wor,, including magazine and other silly limitations…
    LarrytheG is loaded with statistics,,, well you can’t trust stats from different countries,, they figure stuff differently, they lie, and some of them lock up all of their crazies,,
    Gun ownership and carry rights are what we need to protect ourselves when the cops are a mile away and the shooter is reloading..
    I guranteed you their were defenseless people in that building with Virginia Conceal Carry permits,, and rules that forbid them from carrying…..

  9. A few thoughts here. I was going to start with my condolences and sympathies (and I do feel sympathy for the victims and their families), but that all sounds pro forma after so many of these. We seem to have no answer for these mass shooting or the day to day gun violence in our country. Larry showed some stats that showed our murder rate is far above other Western democracies but also other countries with different backgrounds. I don’t think there is going to be a significant reinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment any time soon, so I think we should look to countries like Switzerland, which has gun rights (and a similar reason for having those right — having a militia/citizen soldier history) to see what they are doing that might work for us. Once again, though, this may be fundamentally an issue where a special interest, the gun lobby, has captured a significant part of our government. You can see this in many of our chronic issues in the U.S. and Virginia.

    Larry, you misstated “core premise for the 2nd Amendment. It wasn’t to be able to “overthrow a tyrannical government enslaving people” as you said (presumably because citizens would be packing heat). It was to prevent the rise of an authoritarian leaders exploiting their control of a powerful standing army. The founding fathers saw how the British could maintain control with a relatively small army force. They wanted militias for defense, and this required arms being kept by those in the militia. (“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State. . .”)

  10. StateEmployee Avatar

    Does anyone find it interesting that Governor Northam was given extra armed security (Capital Police) when he became entangled in his own political issue, yet just about all state employees have ZERO armed security to protect them in the case of an active shooter.

    Let’s be honest and tell all state employees that in an active shooter situation on whatever floor, of whatever building, they happen to work on, that they have zero real protection while the bullets are flying around the paper thin cubicle walls.

    Given that most active shooters are only stopped by someone with a gun, be it by police or by taking their own life after confronted by police, let us be honest by saying that the Governor is unable (or unwilling) to help protect state employees (some state offices do have “security”, but they have no weapon to stop the active shooter.

    At the end of the day, state employees are on their own when the bullets start flying. Thankfully, Governor Northam had the forethought to effectively prevent any state employee from protecting themself, or their coworkers, by preventing state employees from carrying a legally purchased firearm.

    I’m not sure anyone planning to shoot up the office cares one bit about the Governor and his special legislative session on further restricting gun rights (unless Governor Northam is planning to assign an armed police officer to every employee – wait, isn’t that only reserved for the Governor).

    Good luck to my fellow state employees, and I pray that we never experience the horror of Virginia Beach.

  11. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Much of the impetus for the Second Amendment comes from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the reaction to the disarming of Protestants by King William II and the subsequent Bill of Rights of 1689. The right to bear arms was recognized as a personal right. It also included a prohibition against keeping a standing army in times of peace without the consent of Parliament.

    The Statute of Winchester in 1285 required all men to have arms suitable to his position in life and to be part of the militia. That principle continued for hundreds of years in various forms. Read F.W. Maitland, The Constitutional History of England, my old college textbook.

    So it’s seems incontrovertible that the Founders intended a personal right to bear arms. And as SCOTUS has held on numerous occasions certain regulation of this right is permissible while others violate the Constitution.

    And considering the right to privacy came from the Constitution’s penumbras and emanations while the right to bear arms is clearly in the text, it seems the right to bear arms stands firmer in constitutional law than many of the rights “found” by various justices over the years. I’m not necessarily arguing against the latter but rather, arguing that we need to protect the rights granted clearly in the Constitution and interpret them in the context of what the Founders intended. Or as former Justice Paul Stevens suggested, amend or repeal the Second Amendment.

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