The New York Times ran a frontpage article today entitled “Many Gunmen in Mass Shootings Share a Hate Toward Women.” https://nyti.ms/2MTr2JC Curiously, the online version of the article appears under U.S. News near the bottom of the NYT website.
The article cites multiple incidents in which the shooter, through personal conduct and in online writings, had shown hostility toward women, often because the shooter’s sexual aspirations had been repeatedly spurned. A number of the men were described as “incels,” which in current parlance stands for ‘involuntarily celibate.’
The suggestion that male frustration with females is the root of the mass killings, which have sometimes involved female relatives or romantic targets of the shooter, rings true. This idea is, of course, part of the more general idea that “mental health” is the root of the massacre-by-automatic-weapon-fire phenomenon that uniquely afflicts the United States. The putative president of the United States has adopted the NRA-sponsored idea of “mental health is the real problem, not the guns.” Mental health is a convenient explanation for the gun lobby since it aligns cognitively with our intuition that anyone who would shoot groups of strangers, often including children, must be nuts. These acts are not those of “normal” people. And so on. And on.
The mental health “explanation” also aligns well with what is often regarded as the central organizing principle of the American brand of democracy and way of life: capitalism and free markets. That principle tells us that we should be able to offer for sale and, as consumers, should be free to buy whatever we want. Our wants do not have to be explained or justified to anyone. That’s how the capitalist system and “free society” work together to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. So the theory goes.
Of course, our society has long recognized that capitalism must sometimes be limited because some people are dishonest and misrepresent to a gullible public the properties of products and services they offer. Other people are simply careless or disinterested in the implications of what they do that could harm people or the planet. Companies that pollute the air and water are good examples where regulation is generally accepted as necessary, at least prior to the election of Donald Trump.
Look at any road and you’ll see the results of the intersection of capitalism and regulation. Automobiles are generally regarded as essential for the majority of the population to conduct their lives as they prefer. But we also recognize that automobiles are dangerous. They kill and maim people. So, we regulate them in multiple ways. They have to meet some semblance of limitations on air pollution, rules on the shatter resistance of windshields, air bag specifications and so on. AND, of particular relevance here, society demands limits on who can operate an automobile. You must have a license. As far as I am aware, every jurisdiction in America limits access to driver’s licenses to people of a certain age who have done at least some study and passed a driving test to show at least minimal skills at handling a dangerous instrument. No rational person sees these requirements as an inappropriate limitation on the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” which are “inalienable rights” stated in the Declaration of Independence. In order to operate even a small aircraft, one must have a pilot license. These rules are not seen as an infringement of the right to travel.
There are, of course, a multitude of other examples in which society generally insists on regulation of some kind to protect the public from the potential harm arising from the use of certain instrumentalities. Fireworks are one. Raising livestock and burning trash in urban environments are others, among many such examples.
Interestingly, no sane person argues that “cars don’t kill people, people kill people” so let’s stop intruding on car ownership and operation by regulating who can use them. No rational person argues that operation of any automotive vehicle by anyone at any time of their choosing should be permitted.
The gun lobby will no doubt reply that “no one has proposed taking away everyone’s car but that’s what the gun regulations threaten to do to our guns.” Add to that the “slippery slope” argument – first you’ll take the automatic weapons, then you’ll use that to justify taking others, and so on until we have full confiscation in violation of the Second Amendment.” Perfect.
Well, not quite. In fact, we have already taken away certain “freedoms” regarding automobiles – it is generally not permitted to drive Formula One racing cars on the public roadways. Those cars were designed for one thing only – to go as fast possible in a controlled track or road-race environment. Racing on the streets in fact is broadly prohibited by speed limits.
To return this to guns, I am aware of no one who seriously advocates confiscation of all guns. What is being advocated is that certain types of guns be removed from civilian society. The objective is to prevent or at least limit severely the use in civil society of automatic-fire weapons designed and intended for use by military forces in combat. It is these instruments of death that are the primary tool of the mass shooter and ending access to them should go a long way to reducing the lethality of attacks against the civilian population by disaffected people.
The gun lobby will retort that it is impossible to eliminate all the automatic-fire weapons. That is another way of saying, let’s let the impossible goal of the perfect defeat the achievement of the good. It’s a phony argument whose real purpose is to retain the status quo. The gun lobby doesn’t really care how many Americans are killed or maimed as long as their agenda is protected. For the rest of us, it is critical not to be misled by the suggestion that “mental health” is the real problem. As the NYT article noted near the end, “Misogyny – or other types of hatred – is not necessarily a diagnosable mental illness.” Quoting the vice chair of community psychiatry at the University of California, Davis,
what ties together many of the perpetrators is “tis entitlement, this envy of others, this feeling that they deserve something that the world is not giving them. And they are angry at others that they see are getting it.”
In the end, we simply must recognize that the gun lobby position can never, and should never, be implemented. Doing so would entail the largest intervention into the personal lives and mental states of literally millions of Americans. Does the NRA really want the government interrogating and testing the mental state of everyone that someone reports as “angry,” or “hostile,” or “isolated?” How would this work? Is that the kind of society we want to live in? It’s irony beyond understanding that the NRA’s supporters, including the Republican president, purport to be behind a regime that would create the conditions of Orwell’s 1984 in our lifetime, with the government probing into everyone’s private life for signs of disaffection that could lead to mass murder. This is unimaginable but the necessary outcome of the “mental health is the problem” argument.
The common denominator is the guns. Stripped of access to automatic-fire weapons, unstable individuals may well seek other ways to fulfill their angry impulses, but inevitably the death toll will be reduced, more will be detected in the planning stages and lives thus will be saved. We can’t prevent every angry individual from carrying out his disturbed grievances but we can make it a lot harder and limit the potential damage. What we must not do is buy into the argument that the if we can’t be perfect, we can’t be better either.