Counterweights: Dissecting Violence in America

April 19, 2013


The slaughter of elementary school children in Newton, Connecticut just before Christmas shook America to its core.  It also reignited the debate about guns, propelling it to the forefront of American sensibilities as it has never been before.  And of course, it brought out extremes, angry exchanges and much misinformation.  In this issue, Dr. Rob Page, dean of Social Sciences, and Angela Wheelus, counselor in Student Support Services, discuss the problem of violence in America, its causes, symptoms and some potential solutions. 

Page:  Since Newtown, many voices have chimed in with any number of reasons or rationales for violence in America.  But the causes of violence in this country are very broad and complex, and I’m not sure we can explore them fully in this forum.  But I do believe that gun violence in the United States springs from our human capacity for aggression, combined with Americans’ historical attitude toward guns, the ready availability of and easy access to firearms and ammunition and the number of guns in circulation.

Wheelus: What about mental illness?  Most of the cases we’ve heard about lately, most especially the Colorado theater shootings and the Giffords shooting in Arizona, have involved perpetrators with obvious mental illness.   When legislators concentrate on laws concerning guns or knives instead of mentally ill people, they’re ignoring a key contributor to these tragedies and sowing the seeds of many more to occur.

Page:  I don’t doubt that mental illness contributes to this kind of carnage, though only about four percent of violence in the U.S. can be attributed to people with mental illness.  But is our rate of mental illness dramatically different from other countries that have a much lower rate of violence than we?

I think it might be helpful to take a look at history.  The first colonists came to American from European cultures that were class-conscious.  Generally they were individuals of the less-privileged classes who here seeking opportunities that were not available to them in their countries of origin.  Typically, the lower classes in European society weren’t allowed to possess firearms, which were reserved for the professional or sanctioned military and the upper classes.

In the colonies the militia was the primary form of national defense.  Local militias were made up of part-time citizen soldiers who were land owners, farmers, bankers, blacksmiths and so on.  In times of threat these individuals would literally lay down the tools of their daily lives and pick up their weapons.  This set a precedent for the right of the common man to bear arms, which appealed to the free spirit of budding Americans.  This right was institutionalized in 1791 as the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

After the Revolutionary War, all through the times of our country’s expansion, personal gun ownership was not only a right but often a necessity.  Americans moved across a continent where there was no law and order in the European model, and where there were many natural threats to life and limb.

These factors may have formed the foundation for our cultural attitude toward the possession and use of firearms – that is to say, the so-called gun culture of the modern United States.

Wheelus:  That may be, but I don’t think that gun control laws are necessarily the answer.  Bad guys will always find a way around such laws.  Enforcing the laws already on the books would be more effective than adding more bureaucracy to control those who already follow the laws.  To deter criminals, more law-abiding citizens should be armed.

Page:  Well, we do already have laws, but they are the least restrictive of all those enacted by developed nations, and are sometimes not rigorously enforced.  In fact, America’s permissive and limited federal firearm legislation and reliance on the varying local laws of states and municipalities makes legal ownership of most varieties of guns possible.  America has the highest per capita gun ownership in the world.  In 2012 the Congressional Research Service Report of Congress on gun control legislation reported that there are about 310 million guns in the U.S. distributed among 40 percent of American households. The current population of the United States is roughly 315 million.

According to the FBI, in 2011 there were 12,664 homicides, of which 8,583 involved one or more firearms.  That means that more than 66 percent of homicides involved a gun.  Firearms are also involved in suicides and accidents.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 19,392 of 38,264 suicides in 2010 involved a gun. There were 606 gun-related accidents that same year.  So it’s no surprise that when the Harvard Injury Control Research Center assessed the literature on guns and homicide in 2004, they found that there’s substantial evidence that more guns mean more murders.  I find it logical, if disturbing, that where there is a tendency toward violence there is also a tendency to lay hands on the most effective means to perpetrate that violence.  And in America, that most often means a gun.

Wheelus:  I would counter your argument with an analysis of the breakdown of the family unit.  It is one of the major influencers for violence in our society.  So is violence in the media, portrayed in movies, music and games.  We have become desensitized to this level of violence, which should be unacceptable.  What we see or hear now would have been unthinkable two generations ago.

Social scientists cite studies that provide evidence that strong families are among the most effective mechanisms to prevent social problems of domestic, sexual and physical violence and crime.

There are video games on the market that are similar to military training simulations.  The realism portrayed in them is horrific and shouldn’t be in the hands of young children as a means of entertainment.  A child or young adult with delayed emotional development has difficulty differentiating between play and reality.  Research indicates that interest and pleasure in viewing violent media contributed to the prediction of violent behavior, but mere exposure to violent media did not.

As for music, I have often challenged people to look through their song playlists and delete songs with the words “bitch, slut or whor” in their titles.  By listening to words that degrade and dishonor women, we participate in feeding the violence toward women.

Page:  I certainly don’t disagree with most of what you have said.  I believe in strong families, and I discourage my daughters from listening to music with offensive lyrics or from playing violent video games, though they don’t have much interest in the latter anyway.  But I believe the way to approach this is multi-pronged.  Focusing solely on the social issues isn’t enough.  I think stricter gun control laws won’t instantly solve the problem but it may mitigate it a bit.

Although studies on the effects of tighter gun control on gun violence conflict with each other, some statistics suggest that decreasing the number of guns in circulation through tougher manufacturing, sales and ownership requirements may help.  So, too, might bans on specific weapons types and high-capacity magazines.  These restrictions don’t affect a citizen’s right to bear arms; they simply limit the types of arms one can purchase and own legally.

But look, there are already gun laws on the books.  Actually enforcing them would help.  The National Firearms Act of 1934 imposes a statutory excise tax on the manufacture and transfer of automatic weapons, short-barreled shotguns and hand grenades and other explosive munitions, and mandates the registration of those weapons.  The Gun Control Act of 1968 generally prohibits interstate firearms transfers except among licensed manufacturers, dealers and importers, and requires anyone in the business of selling guns to be federally licensed and to keep permanent sales records.  It also prohibits knowingly selling firearms to minors, convicted felons, the mentally disabled, dishonorably discharged military personnel and a few other categories of people.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban enacted in 1994 prohibited the manufacture for civilian use of semi-automatic assault weapons, including military-style rifles, shotguns and handguns and large-capacity ammunition magazines.  That law expired in 2002, however, and has not been renewed.

Wheelus:  We’ve discussed the many problems that we believe contribute to gun violence in America, but what about ways to solve the problems, decrease violence and improve our lives?  I say that first and foremost we need to restore community and family.  We need to give hope and vision to the young, and help them develop a positive purpose to their lives.  We also should address the needs of the mentally ill better, with faster interventions when necessary.  There is a great need to reopen psychiatric facilities that were closed decades ago, staff our community mental health centers, and consider a system-wide change in the restrictions from insurance companies on mental-health care resources that are in great disproportion to other health issues.

But remember, there is a very small correlation between having a mental illness and committing violence.  That correlation becomes more significant when mental illness is combined with drug use, according the John Monahan, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Arm more law-abiding citizens.  Allow college and school administrators to be trained in handling firearms and to carry them at work.  At the least, have security personnel armed while on duty.

Here at GHC, we have already tried to take steps to prevent violence and disruption via our C.A.R.E. team.  C.A.R.E. stands for Campus Assessment, Response and Evaluation.  The program was designed to foster a safer campus environment by having a professional follow up with a student who has been reported to the team as someone in crisis.  C.A.R.E addresses a variety of issues:

  • Suicidal or self-injurious thoughts, words or actions
  • Homicidal thoughts or writings
  • Dramatic change in appearance, behavior and circumstances
  • Unusual anxiety, depression, paranoia or elation
  • Use/abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Anger management difficulties
  • Disruptive behavior; violation of the student code of conduct
  • Verbal or written indications of violent fantasy or intentions
  • Strangeness or aberrant behavior
  • Mental health history related to dangerous behavior
  • Recent police contact
  • Unusual interest in police, military, terroristic activities and material

Page:  I’m certainly no expert on the best way to reduce violence in America.  Even psychologists, sociologists, biologists, psychohistorians and other who have studied violence for many years have no definitive answer to that question, or even to very general questions about the nature of violence, how to predict it and what to do about it once the potential is uncovered.  There are many suggestions but no answers.

I’ll list some of the suggestions that seem logical to me.  Most are very general and make plain common sense.

  • We can educate ourselves and our children about other religions, cultures and worldviews.  We can also learn about the realities of violence by speaking with or reading accounts by survivors.
  • We can encourage healthy attitudes and behaviors in our youth and in ourselves by becoming involved in personal and community relationships, decreasing the amount of time spend playing violent games or otherwise practicing lethal behaviors, pulling back from an obsession with media accounts of violence, staying away from alcohol and drugs, being intolerant of intolerance and so forth.
  • We can support, on the individual level, social development programs, such as anti-bullying and school enrichment programs, therapeutic programs( like counseling for victims of violence and support groups), treatment programs for at-risk populations.
  • On a relationship level, we can support relationship training, parenting training and family therapy.
  • Community-based violence prevention activities can include public education campaigns, modified and improved physical environments, police and support-personnel training, partnerships between police and community groups.
  • On a societal level, we can focus on the cultural, social and economic factors related to violence, and emphasize public and private solutions to these problems; enact policy changes to reduce poverty and inequality, and improve support for families; and promote programs and policies in the larger social and cultural environment to reduce the rates of violence in entire communities.

Wheelus:  There’s much we can agree on here, despite our differences of opinion about gun control  Sure, I wish we could have Japan’s 11 gun-related deaths a year as opposed to our 12,000-plus.  But doing what Japan does – severe restrictions on the types of guns citizens can possess, rigorous skill and psychological testing just wouldn’t work in our culture.  Besides, they have much higher suicide rates, so there’s some dark trade-off there.  However, if we begin working on some of the ideas we’ve put forward in this column, I really believe we can make a positive impact.  The effort will take all of us working together.

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