We all know the joke, and you can fill in your own punchline: it’s harder to ________ (vote, fish legally, join Girl Scouts) than it is to get an assault rifle in the United States. It’s funny because it’s so true.
Or at least it was funny until kids — so many kids — started getting killed. It’s February, at the time of this essay, and there have been seven school shootings in 2018 so far. In total, there have been seventeen firearms incidents in schools in the same timeframe, when you include suicides on school grounds, and the accidental discharge of a weapon in school. To teachers, parents, and kids, this means that every couple of days — three times a week — there is another incident where school is interrupted by gunfire.
Teachers and administrators are running drills in their classrooms as though we were in WWII England, listening for bomb raids. So, in addition to hearing news every few days of another firearms incident in schools, kids are reminded every couple of months that someone might come into their school and kill them and all of their friends.
Anyone who has ever cussed in front of their kids and eaten that cuss word in front of their kid’s friend’s mom knows that kids learn from everything around them, more by observation of what’s actually happening than by what they’re told. I don’t care how many times you tell a child they’re safe — if you look terrified, they will be, too. If you prepare them for violence, they’ll come to expect it.
There are only seven states in which zero school shootings have occurred. So right now, in nearly every state in America, a kid knows somebody who knows somebody who was involved in a school shooting — whether they’ve discovered it or not. Every child in U.S. public education who is scared to go to school is legitimately scared. I’d love to be able to tell you the specific likelihood that students will be involved, witness, or killed in a school shooting, but those data don’t exist since researching them amounts to anti-gun advocacy, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the primary agency responsible for researching situations pertaining to public health, is forbidden to do. The Dickey Amendment, passed in 1996, explicitly prohibits the CDC from providing us with the data we would need to evaluate this issue, objectively. I.e., what are the long-term psychological effects on students who survive, witness, or are adjacent to a school shooting? What relationship exists between gun ownership, mental illness, and wealth? What things make a child likely to become a shooter?
I can tell you more about the likelihood you’ll contract Ebola.
But at this point, all of those data would only elaborate on a conclusion evident in the bloody empire of data we’ve unwittingly amassed in the past three decades. It would be informative and illuminating to know more about why more people are shooting people (and shooting more people when they do), but we already know they are. We know they are male, we know they’re white, and we know what they’re shooting them with. So we really don’t need arm-deep datasets, pie charts, and infographics to tell us where to start.
Folks are arguing vociferously between two ideas: that we have a gun problem, or that we have a mental illness problem. The latter argue that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, so we should focus our attention addressing the mental illness elephant in the room. On the matter of researching mental illness’ role in gun violence, I couldn’t agree more. We have a serious problem when the second-most powerful people in our society — young, white men — are willing to kill to express their feelings of alienation, disenfranchisement, and despair. I’ve heard loads of sardonic discourse on the matter, snarky comments about the way the new world of feminism, hedonism, and heathenism are breaking the morale of young, white men, and if we need to dig into that, fine. Let’s dig in so we can face it. Maybe it is male entitlement. Maybe it’s the widening chasm between what young, white men were taught to be (and expect in return) and what the world currently values. Maybe the transitioning and evolving role of men in our society is painful and complex, and not well-supported by our current systems. As a feminist, I can’t say those sentences without a small amount of ire, having lived in the subjugated role for my entire life — it makes me grit my teeth to acknowledge sympathizing with the grief my oppressor feels, losing his job as my oppressor. But I have some experience on the oppressor side of the fence, too, as a white woman, and I have been extended sympathy and support. I have the chance to learn to be better, and the resources, as well. My ugliness has a name, and a course of redress. So, painful or not, I’m not more afraid of the answers to those questions or that poignant sympathy, than I am of a generation of children growing up broken by gun violence. Or, for that matter, the constant, unbearable weight of fear readiness for gun violence imposes.
Other folks are focused on guns as the problem, listing other developed nations’ tightened gun laws as the cause of their marked reductions in gun violence, per capita, and they’re right, too. Less guns mean less violence, period. More guns mean more gun violence, period. From a data perspective, anyway, and data doesn’t care how you vote. Guns with the ability to fire many rounds successively, whether by repeatedly chambering a round expeditiously, or by bump-stock modification, are easy to get in America. And they are the weapon of choice in school and mass shootings. The “guns are the problem” argument has gotten stuck in circular logic problems regarding the particularities of individual weapons. Perhaps exhausted by the argument, the popular retort has become that single-shot rifles and even six- or eight-bullet handguns would be preferable, since fewer people would die before the shooter ran out of ammunition or was stopped. This seems like the functional equivalent of saying it would be better to give Jason Vorhees an axe, rather than a chainsaw, because the axe gives his victims a fighting chance. He’ll only have time to dismantle one or two people before the cops get there, and the others will have escaped by then. I hate to see the conversation degraded to arguing about which guns are more killy, because that materially changes the conversation from how to limit gun violence to how to limit the number of deaths by gun violence.
While I’m interested in both, a horrible truth is that experiencing gun violence, even without being killed, is terrifically violent. Twenty to 31 percent of combat veterans (varies by war) experience PTSD, and they’re grown-ups, with fully-formed coping strategies, indoctrinated and trained to kill. Imagine what happens to kids.
People always talk about how resilient kids are. About how they bounce back from just about anything. But the truth is, they don’t bounce back — they survive. Because at young ages, whatever happens to them enters their schema — their expected construct of everyday living. That means that institutional racism, sexism, refugee-camp life — whatever — becomes the norm for them. But it being the norm, and them being adapted to it, doesn’t mean that it is psychologically healthy for them, or sustainable. No one can swallow their anger, maintain hyper-vigilance, or feel acute fear for extended periods without consequences. The body is not made to endure those things for long.
The remaining kids at Sandy Hook, at Columbine, at Parkland — they survived, but they are certainly not the same.
Finally, the conservative response to the “gun problem” argument tarries on the possibility of arming teachers with guns with which they can defend their class. This option neglects to include the terrible reality that gun violence makes victims on both sides of the weapon. Those veterans with PTSD? They aren’t sick just because of what happened to them. They are sick because of what they had to do. Killing people, or even trying to kill people, damages the people with the guns, too. And this is why we extensively train and indoctrinate our military and police before we ask them to wield those weapons on our behalf. Those weapons are heavy, and they come with a catastrophically steep cost: many of those who are forced to use them are never the same afterward. To ask someone to kill on our behalf is not the same as asking someone to usher children safely to the school bus, to break up schoolroom squabbles and interrupt any bullying or mistreatment.
And we’ve also neglected another critically important fact: we wouldn’t just be asking teachers to kill to defend their students, we’d be asking them to kill one of their students to defend their students. While we can all likely agree that the student with the gun should be stopped, in whatever way possible, asking a teacher to not just kill, but kill one of their own is unethical, unreasonable, and represents the most profound conflict of interest I can imagine.
We know more guns cause more violence. We know more guns cause more violence, particularly in wealthy nations, so we know our gun problem has a psychological problem. So in answer to the question, do guns kill people, or do people with mental illness kill people, the answer is yes.