What do these mass killings tell us about our country?

Dec 17, 2012

What do these mass killings tell us about our country? Is our gun culture a healthy manifestation of our democratic values, or a sign that we have lost our way? Even our best friends in the world are appalled by our tolerance for these horrific episodes. Are they missing something? Or are we?

Bob Kaiser discussed the meaning of the Connecticut shootings Monday at 1 PM EST. Bring your best insights and ideas.

Hello and welcome to this discussion of the sad events in Newtown, CT, and their aftermath. I'll be here for an hour and do the best I can. Please send in your thoughts and comments.

I hope we are looking at all the possible causes for these actions. Prescription medication has side effects, Social Media allows for social isolation, and the economy (for young people) can have a depressing effect for who someone is and where they fit into society. There are other factors out there that don't come to mind. As far as what these mass killings tell us about our country? IMO Too much talking and not enough listening. Also, Its not fair to assume this is not a global thing after what occurred in Norway over the summer, and guns have been around too long to attribute the actions of these people (the effects of the actions, yes).

A meaty comment to begin. Thank you Dallas. Boy are you right about the complexities here. None of these killers could be described as remotely "normal," whatever that means. As a culture we shy away from mental illness, and avoid facing its consequences. Our jails are overflowing with people who are mentally ill, not really criminals, and it doesn't seem to bother us at all. 

I thought about the Norway example when writing the little blurb I did for this chat. Does it prove that this isn't primarily an American derangement? I don't think so. Would that guy in Norway have chosen mass killing had he not seen so many examples from us? Maybe, but I wonder. In any case, though we have seen cases in a number of other countries, we are certainly in a class of our own for the quantity of these episodes.

These recent killings can't be tied to the need for stricter gun control, as in every one of these situations the killer used legally available weapons that could not have been prevented with anything but a full out firearm ban which would be a violation of the second amendment of the constitution. Yet every recent occurrence has been punctuated by droves of people saying "I knew he was going to do something like this one day," or "He was always strange." Doesn't all of this violence point to the failures of the family unit and the dismantlement of our mental health institutions in the 1980's? I mean, if people who showed sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies could be committed to an asylum for clinical observation and some kind of treatment or even indefinitely held for public safety wouldn't that prevent so much of this violence? Wouldn't it be better than the fate that we have left them; living on the streets, being a ticking time bomb until they commit some horrid crime that lands them in the jail hotel for life?

Thanks for this. I agree that mental illness is a huge part of the problem, but I wonder if identifying potential mass killers could be as easy as you make it sound? We have hundreds of thousands of maladjusted, lonely, frustrated young men in this country, I suspect. Only a tiny fraction of them will ever contemplate mass murder; an even smaller fraction will do something horrific. How could you decide who was likely to commit mayhem? Not easy.

The Post's stats onUS gun ownership -- 270 milion guns, over twice as many per capita as the second most gun-laden country and 10 to 20 times as many as most of the developed world -- were almost as overwhelming as the shootings themselves. This is just insane. Enough already!

It is crazy that we have so many guns in circulation, almost one per citizen--of all ages.  In my five decades at The Post, we have printed scores of stories about accidental deaths caused by these guns--I'm sure there must be some statistics on this phenomenon, I don't have them. And I remember a small hanfull of stories about armed citizens foiling crimes or protecting their families with their personal guns. This is rare. 

And I challenge everyone to convince an intelligent foreigner that this is no big deal. I have lived in Europe and Asia and traveled the world, and I never heard anyone say they wish they had a gun situation like ours. On the contrary.

While Michael Moore's self-righteousness is annoying, he and Susan Faludi are right about the context of American gun violence. We spent a good portion of our history fearing Indian attacks and slave uprisings, and those fears linger in the way we talk about crime. The American Legislative Exchange Council uses racially charged code phrases like "law-abiding citizens" and "criminal element," and laws for concealed-carry and open-carry are based in white fears of urban minorities. Even the claim "only outlaws would have guns" is phony on its face, because Adam Lanza and Seung-Hui Cho weren't muggers or thieves. Most of the deaths from handguns stem from arguments between relatives or friends and from accidents, and massacres tend to involve mentally ill people. "A Christmas Story" had it right - our attraction to guns is merely a child's hero fantasy, and insensate evil is clinging to that fantasy in adulthood despite the costs for society.

Thanks for this good comment.

You can't hunt with them and they are useless for self-defense. The only thing they are good for is rampages like this one. They should never have been legalized and should be banned immediately.

I'd love to hear from someone who can offer an intelligent  rejoinder to this idea. Why indeed should these assault weapons be available? To what end?

We don't even allow our cops to carry guns and as far as I know we've never had an incident like this one. The "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is a joke. People WITH GUNS kill people and will continue to do so as long as guns are so readily attainable.

Here's one of those foreigners I referred to a moment ago. He's certainly right about one thing: people using guns kill people in vastly greater numbers than kill with any other method. It's the American way!


I hate to say it, but I don't think the guns are the real problem. Sure, without an assault rifle, the killer may not have been able to shoot and kill quite as many people. Someone who really wants to kill a bunch of people will find a way, if it isn't with guns, it will be with explosives or some other method. I don't know if there were any warning signs, but it seems that knowing what to look for in a person that shows they are about to snap and how to get the appropriate help would be the key to reducing the number of mass killings.

Another thoughtful comment. Once again, I am impressed by the people who participate in these chats. Thank you.

But I see a flaw in your reasoning. You refer to "the real problem," as though the whole complex issue can be reduced to a phrase or a sentence. Surely that is wrong. In this case, wasn't it the combination of readily available weaponry and apparent mental illness that made the madness possible? 

A question to ponder: Would Mrs. Lanza, the gun collector, have second thoughts about acquiring that rifle if we could ask her today?

Is the NRA afraid that if they let a single military assault weapon be banned, we will ban all guns someday? Because I sure don't know many deer hunters who need something that sprays 50 rounds a minute.

I think the answer is yes. The NRA and its allies have signed on to a dark and conspiratorial view that "the government" or "the politicians" or "the Democrats" have a secret plan to take away their guns, so they have to fight every single proposal that would limit accessability to guns of all kinds--and oppose them ferociously. Yet in my long life I have never met a practicing politician who proposed confiscating guns.

The Second Amendment is no longer relevant. We now have our own "Civil War." Could we not add a mega-tax and hard-to-get a gun law to alleviate all this?

Another simplification. Who is this citizen to declare a provision of our constitution "irrelevant"?  I can see wishing that it were, but that won't make it so.

Thank you for taking this chat Mr. Kaiser. What options are available to us as a society? Do we have to pursue federal legislation through our seemingly gridlocked national bodies? Can states or municipalities act independently to set their own agendas?

I have come to the view that many of our most difficult national problems are rooted in our unique culture(s), and therefore are not susceptible to quick political fixes. Money in politics is one example. Every democracy has a money-in-politics problem, but none is remotely the size of ours--we are Number One! We've tried many legal and political maneuvers to bring it under control, but in the last two years, thanks of course to the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, the problem is now gigantic, much bigger than ever. Guns are another example, I think. We tolerate a free and easy approach to guns that most advanced countries, probably all advanced countries, would never adopt, and consider crazy. But it's part of us, of who we are.

In its decision against the D.C. gun law a couple of years ago, the Supreme Court did leave room for some kinds of local regulation, though not for banning possession of guns. Many cities do have their own rules. The assault weapons ban that was passed in the '90s and lapsed in 2004 could easily be re-instated--if majorities in Congress would vote for it. 

But the long-term challenge, I think, is for people like you who are appalled by the status quo to decide to take it on. Polls suggest that the pro-gun sentiment in the country isn't all that strong, but that's not the issue. The minority that is pro-gun includes a great many who are fanatically pro-gun, and consider this their number one issue. They fight for it.  Those who are hostile or indifferent, by contrast, are overwhelmingly passive. They don't DO anything. That is our culture. How do you change a culture?  With very hard work over a long period of time. Which is how American women got "liberated," for example--black people and honosexuals too. 

Will you please address the correlation between mass shootings and prescribed drugs? Nearly all these in the past decade have been done by someone on one or more psychotropic drug. All the gun laws in the world are not going to stop someone 'amped' on these mind-altering drugs. Your (pharmaceutical company) sponsors won't like this one. Perhaps that's why Big Media won't include it in their issues and surveys? Please address this.

Thanks for this. I have to begin by confessing that I don't know the drug use by mass killers of recent years, but I suspect that you are right, many of them had indeed been on psychotropic drugs--or had gone off them. Someone has suggested since Friday that the president should establish a high-powered commission to investigate mass shootings and their causes. I'm typically wary of such commissions, but this might be a good idea. We are woefully ignorant as a society about mental illness, and about the drugs we use to treat it. I'd like to know a lot more.

I heard the most disturbing comment on the radio this morning. Some gun advocate explained that only if that poor teacher had had a loaded gun locked up in her classroom that she could have "taken him out" and saved the children. Gun advocates' answer to gun violence is to arm everyone, but what they're really doing is blaming the victim. This is simple misdirection so that we won't think too hard about gun control, or that the NRA has made it acceptable for everyone and anyone to own semi-automatic weapons. After all, they're fun! You can protect yourself in the event of Armageddon! Even though it appears that the only Armageddon is the one they create for themselves.....

As I said earlier, there are not many examples of armed private citizens using their weapons to head off mass killings, though we have an extraordinary number of amred citizens. Can anyone cite a single example?

I'm a naturalized American, Ausralian by birth, and many of my family are European so I have lots of personal experience on our different cultures. If you look at America's closest equivalents -- Canada, Australia and the UK -- those nations all have the same social problems we do. Obviously they have far fewer guns and far fewer homicides. But they're also all constitutional monarchies. They lack this ingrained sense that government = tyrant. They don't believe that individuals have to fight to protect themselves with guns if necessary. (My grandfather even gave up a Japanese rifle he took from New Guinea, for example, in the national gun turn-in after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre.) I'm not saying the Revolution was a bad idea, but it planted this malevolent seed we're still dealing with. We Americans are locked in one of those Mexican standoffs like in the movies, where even you could convince us that we don't need our guns to protect our freedom, we don't trust the other guy enough to put our gun down until he does, first. It'll take decades to change that mindset. Hopefully as these massacres continue to happen -- and they will -- we'll become more motivated to act. I fear the alternative is that we just grow numb to it all. Thanks.

An excellent comment! Thank you for it. Thank you for becoming an American.

I was out hunting pheasant and rabbits with my Dad when I was in grade school, and have a shotgun, rifle, and a pistol at home - all well-secured. I have absolutely no problem with citizens being required to register weapons on purchase, subject to a background check, and a mandatory course on weapon use/safety before possession. The new "Atlantic" has an article in which the author notes that the horse is long out of the barn - there are so many weapons now available, "gun control" is a joke. How to solve it? Ban assault weapons? That's a band-aid where a tourniquet is needed. We have a "gun culture" and we're stuck with it.

Thanks. As you saw, I had something similar to say earlier. But you raise a possibility that I hope gets more consideration. It does seem plausible to me that a legal regime of the kind you describe could be imposed, based, as is your comment, on the presumption that we are never going to be rid of guns, but that we can do a helluva lot better controlling them and their owners in sensible, limited ways. Why is our regulatory regime for cars and drivers so much tougher than our non-regime for guns? How does that make sense?

I see no good reason why the television industry has to cover incidents like this obsessively 24/7 for days and days. It only encourages other unbalanced individuals to seek fame by doing the same thing. These are tragedies and should not be treated as spectacles.

Well, because it's news. I am sympathetic to your exasperation with the nature of so much of the covrerage, even the extent of it, but what is the alternative? Do you want a national censor who will tell the networks what they can and cannot report, and how? I don't. In my view this overkill (play on words intended) is one of the painful prices we have to pay for a free press.

After 9-11, then-President Bush said that in order to protect American lives, some rights must be given up. His supporters agreed with him. So, why is it different now? Gun violence has reached an epidemic in our country and that occurred long ago. I have heard some suggest that it is time to hold another Constutional Convention and repeal the 2nd Amendment. That may seem drastic but it may be the only way to stop this nonsense. It is sad that our country actually has more gun violence than places such as the Congo or Iran...it does not say much about us as a country. What do you think? Is the repeal of the 2nd Amendment the only way to stop these horrors?

I am scared stiff at the idea of a new Constitutional Convention. You seem to presume that if we had one, it would be populated by people who agreed with you. I wouldn't bet on that. I always shiver when I see the public opinion polls that ask people if they support the freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights (including the Second Amendment). Majorities routinely say no. We were blessed by the Founders; I have always been reluctant to mess with their work. 

It seems like there is a lot of focus on gun control legislation. But no talk of government action around mental health issues. Should we be doing more to support our fellow citizens who need extra attention and support?


Dear Mr. Kaiser, I saw a comment on another web site that I'm not sure is true, but I report it here and would welcome your thoughts. The gist of the comment was that the NRA is first and foremost a trade organization for the gun-manufacturing industry, and given the durability of guns, it needs to expand the market for guns by promoting a gun culture. The comment drew an analogy to tobacco companies' promotion of "smokers' rights" groups which I found compelling. My question for you is whether you think that the characterization of the NRA is a fair one. Secondly, is there something to the idea that corporations are just too powerful in this country that our politicians become their handmaidens? I do not think that there is anything inherent evil in lobbying: politicians do need to be educated about issues underlying the laws that they enact. But it just seems out of control. Think about how hard automakers have pushed against increasing fuel efficiency, or how our spiraling health-care costs seem to derive in part from a pill-popping culture promoted by the pharmaceutical lobby (even though I recognize that some drugs do reduce the incidence of costlier interventions). Do lobbyists have too much access to our politicians? And does their undue influence on our political process underlie some of our societal plagues?

First, is the NRA just a moutpiece for the gun manufacturers? No. It has a big, fervid membership of citizens who care about their guns. I'm sure the manufacturers help out, and provide money perhaps (I don't know the facts), but the NRA would not be remotely as strong as it is absent its enthusiastic private members.

As to lobbying, you've come to the right place!  I wrote a book on this subject, published four years ago, called SO DAMN MUCH MONEY, The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government. That's a mouthful, but you get the idea. And yes, it's a plug for my book! Moneyed interest groups employe thousands of lobbyists; ordinary citizens employ very few. It is an utterly unequal battle. Moneyed interests have been doing well in Washington for three decades. Ordinary citizens? Not so much.

Regarding expanding gun ownership, the link that my producer Haley Crum is going to put right here shows you that in fact, fewer American households own guns than did 10 or 20 years ago. (Link) Gun ownership actually seems to be declining. Worth pondering.

Mr. Kaiser, thank you for taking questions today on this difficult topic. This isn't my original thought but it saw it posted somewhere and I found it extremely compelling. Not that long after 9-11 one man tried unsuccessfully to blow up a plane using his shoes, and because of that we all have to walk through a security check in our socks to this day even though there has never been another similar attempt. And yet these horrific shootings seem to happen on a regular basis with devastating loss of life but we are paralyzed to take any real and meaningful action to prevent them. Instead we all are overcome with grief in the moment and then promptly forget about it until the next one. No answer here, just an observation.

And a very good one.  In fact as a society we have responded again and again to evidence of things that needed fixing. Why do we all wear seatbelts today? When I got my first drivers license, no one had a seat belt. In fact, we have brought down the incidence of traffic deaths dramatically in this country by requiring cars to be safer and drivers to be more cautious, more sober, etc. There are countless examples of this. Why are guns different?

These tragedies are the acts of the people who perpetrated them and not acts of the public in general. If most people knew how to prevent these acts, they would take the preventive action. Any mass killing be it by gun, plane or explosion causes lightening unspeakable grief wherever it occurs (US or non-US) but don't blame society for the actions of individuals. Individuals are responsible for their actions and we must stop "throwing up our hands" to say that the US has "lost our way" or that the US is "tolerant" of these episodes because neither is tru.

I wish it were so simple; it isn't. If our society, our national character and culture, isn't part of the cause of this, then why do we have SO much more of it than any other country? I don't know the answer, but I am confident that your assumptions are incorrect.

despite the decrease in overall gun violence in the past 30 years, there had been 60 mass shootings and they had increased over time. The response from a gun rights advocate was that two mass shootings a year is "not an epidemic." If we can't agree on the tipping point of when this becomes a major cultural problem, then I don't see how one can expect dedicated gun rights advocates to agree to any restrictions on their own. Which to me says it's not worth courting their opinions. (For the record, I'm part of that vast majority who doesn't want restrictions on low-magazine handguns but does think that high-capacity magazines and rifles need to be regulated.)

Out of time already. A terrific outpouring today of heartfelt ideas--thank you all. This will be the last one.


Are two mass shootings a year an OK number?

 I don't think so.



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Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser is Associate Editor of The Washington Post.
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