As of this writing in August 2012, there have been a spat of lone gunmen on killing sprees in the United States. It seems pointless to review those incidents, they are well-analyzed in the media; yet they have an essential common element, the killer purchased a weapon legally before going on his rampage. If we could have a sane perception of guns and our relationship with them, then we might be able to discuss some common-sense ways of reducing gun violence. Yet, Americans are divided between the pro-gun advocates and those in favor of strict gun control. While this debate will not be resolved here, gun violence reveals two realities in American culture: the easy accessibility of guns and the intention of members of the populace to use guns in to enact violent mayhem. If Americans bought guns merely for safety, but had little intention of using them for violent purposes, perhaps America would not be suffering the horrible effects of gun violence in recent years. But when weapons of mass murder are relatively easily accessible by people who have an intention to do harm to mass numbers of people, we are seeing the devastating results of this combination. America ignores this deadly formula at its peril. While guns have been a part of our culture since its inception, the technology of weaponry is so advanced that certain legal weapons allow a marksman to take down human targets within a matter of seconds, and within minutes kill or wound scores of people.
While the gun debate rages on, the essential question is: what does peace have to say about the gun issue? It would seem, perhaps, that if a person loves peace she or he would largely be against guns; not necessarily. For, of course, some arms are essential for law enforcement and keeping the peace. We are not advanced enough as a human race to simply hold everyone accountable without some kind of lethal enforcement. And guns alone are not the sole issue. As pointed out in documentaries like Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” other countries like Canada have widespread gun ownership. As Moore suggests there may be something in the American DNA, our attitude of fierce individualism and being primarily concerned for one’s self and family that may contribute to the problem. In America we worship guns as if they are the sole preservers of safety and security. This may have made sense during the time of the pioneers when Americans staked their claim in largely wilderness areas to protect their land from intrusion. But in a contemporary world where populations are dense and the weapons are much more powerful, our environment seems to feed marginal individuals who seek attention and publicity through public acts of violence and destruction.
Violence drives our culture; our media is slathered with violent images, not only in films and television, but in computer games; ironically these games, in creating virtual realities of single-perspective combat, are widely accessible to children. The violence and imagery becoming increasingly realistic, and certain vulnerable individuals who already have a penchant toward escapism, can find violence a route out of reality. But again, we don’t want to simply this discussion as merely about banning certain items from the culture.
Mass violent outbursts are symptomic of a larger problem. We may think the problem is a mental health issue, and if we could get people the mental health they need, these incidents wouldn’t occur. That is only looking at a small part of the greater problem; why are individuals seeking to terrorize others? Is there something in our culture that creates the isolated, alienated individual such that he finds a solution in mayhem. Lone gunmen seem to be a speciality of the United States. Of course, terrorists in other cultures have a specifically political agenda and often have ties to larger organizations and networks. In the U.S., however, these gunmen are lone individuals, almost no one else is linked to their crimes. Their outlook is almost one of terrified isolation, looming on the outskirts of a society that doesn’t understand them and apparently doesn’t care. They are often pulled into media depictions of violence and living out grandiose visions of making the world “see” them. They may have been bullied as children and adolescents. They may even be extremely smart and college educated. Somewhere along the way, violence became an escape — perhaps a fantasy of breaking out of isolation and attaining power. We should not ignore Power; those who feel the most powerless may prove the most menacing. In American culture, people, particularly men, are judged by strict cultural standards. Your value is in direct proportion to your wealth, possessions, achievement. The kind of work you do determines your worth. It’s not who you are but what you do. Those who lack a strong career, financial success, or possessions are deemed worthless, losers, failures. And this message is repeated beginning in the earliest grades, those who fall behind, are seen as losers; ironically kids who are smart, but socially inept are also outcasts, perceived as eggheads and nerds. For the young man, there’s a mixed message in our culture: be cool, but succeed, just don’t look like you’re trying.
Ultimately, in American society, status is everything. This is one way we separate out the wheat from the chaff. It may be that our beliefs stem from as early as the Puritans of the 17th century, who believed strongly that only the “elect” were destined for Heaven. That belief, while no longer part of most religions in our culture, may still inform our subconscious. The idea that some members of the society are “better” than others seems to inform much of how we view and compare people in our culture. Notice, for instance, that in high school, if you belong to a certain group, often termed the in-crowd, you truly belonged. They may have been members of the wealthiest or the most politically connected families, or were simply social butterflys in school. Those who orbited along the periphery of the in-crowd were those who just didn’t fit in; at best the in-crowd simply ignored those on the outside; at worst they shunned, even bullied the outsiders. This status-consciousness begins, therefore, at an early age, and keeps expanding as one grows older.
Status may seem like a benign way of separating out the wheat from the chaff in our society. Yet, it is clear how important status is in finding work, being successful in relationships, and family with power and prestige. What it adds up to is a culture of superficial values, everything placed on external standards of success. Yet those who are successful require failures, just like winners of any game also require losers. In our culture of extremes in which we prize success and shun failure, we’re finding out that the “losers” also want to stake their claim; some will do so by ignoring society’s rules and finding personal fulfillment in ways that are creative and affirming, such as by becoming writers, film makers, scientists, and artists. Yet, some, unfortunately, seek to bridge the divide in other more frightening ways, such as in the gun massacres of recent weeks and years. The Gun, then, for those people is a symbol of power. They want to stake their claim, while almost literally taking no prisoners. Maybe as we seek to stop gun violence we need to look deeply at what makes people “snap.” It may be time for us to value what is truly important and to move beyond old external measurements of success and failure. The health and well-being of our society may depend on it.