ENDING MASS KILLINGS: EMOTION OR RESULTSPosted: January 16, 2013
Today, a month after the mass killing of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama presented a plan for the reform of gun laws at the national level. His plan includes actions that will be taken by federal agencies under a group of executive orders, as well as those that depend on congressional legislation. While the President included a phrase in reference to the daily slaughter of Americans (mostly by handguns of various types) his emphasis was on the regulation of military style weapons like those used in Newtown.
The mass killing at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, 2012, has generated an ongoing political and media discourse about the reform of gun policy. At the highest level of government, Vice President Biden chaired a series of meetings with interested individuals and groups in an effort to devise the national policy recommendation that the President presented to the country. However, it is questionable whether any resultant actions will do more than address the emotional concerns that the Connecticut killings brought into a uniquely sharp focus while doing nothing to mitigate the epidemic of gun violence that has imposed a regime of terror on many of our nation’s communities.
The emotional response that is sweeping the media and mainstream political establishment betrays an understanding of violent crime that differentiates and prioritizes among victims and perpetrators on the basis of race and class. The response will, in all likelihood, fail to address the circumstances that generated over 470 gun deaths in my city, Chicago, in 2012. The facts about homicides committed by use of firearms contradict the misplaced emphasis on regulation that reduces the likelihood (we cannot say prevents) of mass shootings like those that were committed at Northern Illinois University, Fort Hood, Tucson, and the 27 other mass killings from 2000-2012. These killings resulted in 245 people killed and 218 people wounded. Arms identified as assault weapons were used in five of these attacks. Semiautomatic handguns were used in twenty-four of these shootings (one in conjunction with an “assault weapon”).
The killings that plague urban communities are done with handguns, not assault weapons. The image of gangbangers rolling up on their enemies with AK47s blasting out windows and walls, shredding flesh, shattering glass, killing intended victims and random persons is the stuff of crime movies perpetuating motifs from the “Roaring Twenties.” Gang murders generally involve a single victim, perhaps two. The weapons of choice are the most average of handguns: medium caliber revolvers and semiautomatic pistols, these latter being automatic in the sense that the firing of one bullet causes the chambering of the next, automatically cocking the weapon so that one shell is fired each time the trigger is pulled. These are not the military type of automatic weapons that begin to fire when the trigger is pulled and continue to fire until the trigger is released. The capacity of these weapons ranges from six shells in the cylinder of a revolver to 10-33 rounds per magazine in the Glock line of handguns. These guns are chosen for their ease of concealment and transport. They are the weapons of choice for assassination at medium range, not for firefights.
The President’s recommendations are focused on three goals. The first is a limitation on “assault weapons.” This consists of the prohibition of (a) weapons that are capable of firing automatically and rapidly from the time the trigger is pulled until it is released, the types of weapons that are used in combat, and (b) magazines that are capable of holding a large number of rounds, thus requiring minimal delays in the firing of hundreds of rounds per minute. The second goal is limiting access to firearms. This has been articulated as (a) universally required background checks (especially removal of the “gun show exemption”) with an emphasis on (b) preventing the sale of firearms to persons with demonstrated mental instability. The third goal is to make schools safer and less vulnerable to attack. This has been defined as (a) providing resources for enhanced security (i.e., armed guards) at schools, if desired, and (b) providing more support personnel who are capable of helping students deal with emotional problems.
These goals will be very difficult to achieve. Not only will the Congress have to overcome members’ habitual deference to the NRA, but fiscal conservatives will have to be persuaded to allocate money for federal agencies and state and local governments to implement the actions that the President has proposed. But beyond legislative opposition and inertia, there are other, systemic impediments. The manufacture of “assault weapons” (however defined) is an essential source of profit for the arms industry, which is intimately entangled in the military-industrial complex of this country. Arms manufacturers must be able to produce the weapons used by the uniformed military and its parallel forces in present and future operations. The market for military-type firearms is global and it is being supplied by arms manufacturers from a number of countries. But the US must stay active in this market in order to fulfill its diplomatic as well as directly military goals. Currently the US leads the world in the sale of weapons, with sales to developing nations rising as sales to industrialized nations (many of them also arms exporters) decline. And as long as the weapons are made, they will find their way into the US civilian market. As newer and better weapons are developed, last year’s models will be dumped onto the world market, some of the inventory going to the militias and cartels of the developing world, and some going to private citizens and groups in this country.
The goal of limiting the access of mentally unstable persons to weapons is also likely to be thwarted. A large number of forces converge to prevent many of the most troubled people from being brought into the mental health care system. And the reluctance of our lawmakers to mandate and fund the data systems that integrate information from mental health providers and arms sellers will make it unlikely that individuals who have been identified as threats to themselves and/or others will be flagged should they attempt to purchase firearms. In addition, not all mass killers are, or have ever been, in treatment. Nor do they all produce diaries, videos, letters, school papers, or verbal threats that indicate a predilection for mass violence. The profile of the potential mass murderer has yet to be developed and absent a workable profile, prevention of mass killings is very difficult. The most common characteristic among these mass shooters is their subsequent suicides. The rage that is expressed in the taking of many lives is perhaps a rage that is basically self-directed; the suicide might be at the center of the killers’ motivation. But this is only speculation.
The last goal, increasing resources in schools, has been established in the context of shrinking state and local resources for education, law enforcement, and other basic needs of the civil society. It will be a great irony if, while teachers are being fired, class sizes are increasing, and instructional time is directed away from children as persons to the micromanagement of test-taking skills, state legislatures and city councils must find money for police officers and social workers to augment the staff in school buildings.
The racial element in the current discussion cannot be ignored. The majority of mass killers are white and, given patterns of residence and association, so are the majority of victims. The majority of both victims and perpetrators of “inert city” killings are black. The narrative associated with each crime is inseparable from the racial narrative concerning violent crime in this country. When the shooter is a white youth, the media and politicians immediately look for a psychological explanation of his actions. The shooter must be mentally ill. When the mass shooter is a Muslim army doctor, his actions are attributed to the malevolent influence of radical jihadist clerics. In these cases, the responses are directed toward (imagined) solutions, ranging from the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen in Yemen to the fast tracking of a series of national discussions leading to a presidential recommendation.
On the other hand, when a black youth is killed in a particularly egregious manner (for example, an honor student mistakenly killed in a gang shooting, or a child killed by a badly aimed shot) there is a moment of outrage that features media airtime, condemnation and promises from politicians, futile appeals to the gang members’ better angels by well-meaning community activists, earnest sermons by otherwise powerless clergy, and promises of intensified presence and muscular action by police officials. In the dominant cultural classification, the perpetrators of these murders are simply criminals, constituent proteins in the lethal virus of “gangs, guns, and drugs.” They are not subjected to speculation about their psychological abnormalities. They would never be flagged as mentally unstable should they actually seek to purchase guns legally. The slaughter of black youth is a disaster in plain sight that escapes the concern of policymakers. It does not even merit the pretext of urgency in pursuit of a solution.