This is a year in which the Supreme Court of this nation has influenced the social and political landscape to an extent unprecedented in modern times. From abortion rights to climate change, the rulings of this court have created an uproar that reflects and exacerbates the divisions that exist in our society. No exception to this trend, gun control and gun violence have likewise been affected by this court’s docket of opinions.
Let’s provide a context for this controversy on gun violence. A Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey recently showed that in 2021 a record total of 49,000 people were killed by guns, including homicides and suicides, an increase of 3,500 from the previous years’ record, attributable to increases in both categories.
While mass shootings do not constitute the majority of these killings, they, of course, grab the most attention, and their statistics reflect the same trend. Defined as incidents when four or more people are injured or killed, not including the assailant, since 2014, when statistics were first recorded, the frequency of mass shootings which remained around or below 400 per year shot up (if you’ll excuse the expression) to 611 in 2020 and to approximately 700 in 2021, a dramatic increase that seems to coincide with the COVID pandemic. According to a Washington Post survey on July 5, 2022, we are on target to approximate that number again this year.
This nation in particular has been the subject of criticism around the globe for its “gun-happy,” violent culture, a product of Western movies that glamorize the machismo that wielding power with a gun symbolizes. While some studies have attempted to refute this stereotype by citing research that shows the U.S. ranking 11th in the world in annual mean deaths from mass shootings, when examining the data using the median, a measure of central tendency that isn’t affected by statistical “outliers” and by comparing nations on an annual basis, the U.S. ranks as number 1. When it comes to gun violence, the United States statistically looks much more like other nations caught up in civil unrest, revolution, and war, than its kindred community of “advanced nations.”
THE SECOND AMENDMENT CONTROVERSY
Our nation’s founding fathers recognized the dangers that an autocratic government posed to its citizenry when formulating a Constitution for its fledgling democratic republic. In so doing, they enumerated a Bill of Rights, to protect the freedom of its citizens from tyranny. One of these, the second amendment, pertaining to the right to bear arms, states as follows, “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.” Over the years, since this nation’s founding, social and legal debates have ensued largely over whether our founders intended this to be a collective or individual right.
While an earlier Supreme Court ruling (U.S. vs Miller, 1939) reflects a “collective” interpretation in supporting legislation regulating interstate commerce of sawed-off shotguns (the 1934 National Firearms Act) on the grounds that such weapons have no relevance to the preservation of a “well regulated Militia,” rulings of the Court on the subject of this debate seem to have shifted toward the right in recent decades.
Perhaps the most controversial and well known Supreme Court ruling in this regard was the 2008 case, known as Heller vs District of Columbia, in which a police officer sued the District for its restrictive policy from allowing its citizens to own and keep a handgun. The District of Columbia Circuit Court reversed the District Court’s ruling upholding the law. The upshot of this Supreme Court ruling guarantees an individual’s right to possess a firearm, such as for self-defense purpose, independent of service to a State Militia. A second case that went to the Supreme Court (McDonald vs City of Chicago, 2010) further applied that ruling to state and local governments. Most recently, this year, in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association vs Bruen, the Supreme Court ruled that New York State law that carrying a handgun for self-defense purposes is prohibited without showing a specific need for doing so is a violation of the second amendment.
The fairness of our laws in this nation are regulated by a system of checks and balances amongst its three fundamental branches of government. Thus legislative efforts, both at the federal and state levels, have also been made to address these issues pertaining to the second amendment. In 1993, following the attempted assassination of President Reagan and subsequent wounding of his press secretary, congress passed the eponymous “Brady bill” that mandated federal background checks and a now-defunct 5-day waiting period as contingencies for purchasing handguns. In swift reaction to this year’s Supreme Court ruling and the recent tragedy of a mass shooting at a public supermarket in Buffalo, NY, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul, sponsored a raft of regulations and restrictions that were quickly passed into law specifying locations where the carrying of concealed weapons are prohibited, applying stricter restrictions on eligibility and safe-storage requirements, and even adding restrictions on the purchase of body armor, something used by the Buffalo shooter. Gun control laws thus vary on a state-by-state basis despite recent Supreme Court rulings supporting applying the second amendment to the rights of an individual. Here in Connecticut, a permit is required to carry handguns, open or concealed, and must be stored securely if someone under age 18 has access to them. Connecticut is one of only eight states that allows law enforcement to deny an individual’s right to carry a gun given sufficient reason for doing so. A violation of these statutes is a Class C felony, punishable by a sentence of at least two years in prison.
Regulating the sale of firearms may also be implemented by the private sector by rendering the purchase of firearms more easily identifiable. Earlier this month, for example, the International Organization of Standards, located in Geneva, Switzerland, approved a policy to create a purchase code specific to the sale of firearms by gun shop retailers. It is now up to the banks and credit card companies to adopt this code in order to put it into operation and make it effective.
PREVENTING MASS SHOOTING
Much has been made of the presumed profile of your typical mass shooter, understandably, because of the dramatic and tragic consequences of such heinous crimes. The typical profile portrays the killer as a disaffected loner, young, male, with mental illness. While there is evidence to support this profile, it doesn’t apply in all instances, and it doesn’t apply to the majority of deaths due to gun violence which are largely related to domestic problems. Many on the political right, in efforts to support the rights of gun ownership, point to mental illness, as if to say that this isn’t a gun problem or even a symptom of a society that deems the prohibition of the right to gun ownership a sacrilege as much as it is the problem of a delimited population of disturbed or deranged individuals in whose possession a gun, used for nefarious purposes, becomes a threat to society. But even though through simple logic we all agree that guns don’t kill people, people do, the promotion and accessibility of guns makes them a much more likely and efficient weapon to “resolve” one’s problems.
A recent article in the Opinion section of The New York Times, dated July 7, 2022, by the social and political journalist, David Brooks, titled, Why mass shooters do the evil they do, offered some illuminating insights into the causes of mass shootings and their perpetrators that disabuses us from an oversimplification that fits the stereotypes or narrative that may suit a political narrative. While Brooks grants that all mass shooters suffer from mental health problems, this doesn’t necessarily translate to a diagnosable mental illness. Hence, they are not likely to be easily identifiable in this way and, moreover, the causes are more complex and subtle than we might like to believe. In citing the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, that the evil men do is more a function of indifference than malice, Brooks points to our responsibility as a society to identify and address the social ills our nation suffers from, specifically alienation. We may also infer he is pointing a finger at social media when he identifies the lack of development of social skills important for emotional adjustment as another contributing factor.
When a society enamored by the ethic of success through competition is not sufficiently tempered by compassion and resources that promote social inclusion, the malevolent emotions of envy and resentment prevail. Brooks portrays the mass shooter as a young, disaffected male, struggling in school, an outsider not by choice, subject to bullying and real or imagined ostracism. The act of mass homicide is an act of suicide, both a cry for help and misdirected effort to wrest attention and validation from others in a dramatic, vain, and violent burst of “glory.” A vivid picture of this tragic character and the decaying social fabric that contributes to this mentality was most effectively portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix’s award-winning performance for the 2019 film, “The Joker.”
WHAT CAN WE DO?
To address gun violence and the tragic phenomenon of mass shootings is not a simple matter and thus must be viewed as an effort that requires intervention at multiple levels. First, we should focus on what preventive measures can be taken in our communities and school programs. In our communities efforts should be made to provide access of support services to families at risk, such as for financial reasons, single-parent households, and those identified as in crisis. Promoting community volunteer events may be one way to mobilize a community’s resource to aid families in need. School programs should institute policies to identify students at risk, such as those who are isolated, withdrawn, or bullied, if they don’t have such measures already in place and provide resources such as counseling services and school programs that promote inclusiveness, self-esteem building, and alternatives to violence as a means for conflict resolution, whenever possible.
Legislation at the State and federal levels should focus on laws that promote proper respect for ownership and use of firearms, making ownership of guns less easily obtained, and identifying risk factors that may be identified prior to having the privilege of gun ownership. Legislation also should limit access to the kinds of weapons that may be permitted as necessary for “self-defense” as distinct from those that can be used, such as so-called “assault rifles,” as potential weapons of mass destruction. The proliferation of illegally-obtained weapons and home-made weapons such as “ghost guns” also needs to be addressed through proper legislative efforts to limit their manufacturing capability and access where possible.
The history of the NRA has shown it has taken a decided shift over recent generations from one of promoting gun safety and responsible ownership toward a more political agenda. Likewise, during the same period advertising by gun manufacturers and merchants to promote sales of firearms, especially as targeted toward young males, has gravitated toward the exploitation of the appeal of sexual prowess and power machismo. These are problems that may be addressed through legislation not unlike those instituted for the sale of cigarettes and alcohol not long ago.
Robert Hamm Ph.D