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Matthew Stokes: What’s behind the shootings?

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

I don’t know what to do about mass shootings like the ones we just saw in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. I’m not sure I have any answers. What I do know is that we cannot become numb to these occurrences, thinking that we can offer thoughts and prayers and retreat to our ideological corners and point fingers. We cannot become numb for all of the usual reasons, but also because free people cannot live like this indefinitely. If we are serious about the various freedoms entangled in this discussion, particularly freedom of speech and the right to bear arms, we have to explore creative ways of dealing with these problems. If we don’t, and if these horrors continue, we may find that less scrupulous leaders than the ones we have – imagine that! – would pursue a more radical solution to the problem.

Many commentators have gone straight to gun control in the last week, arguing that the X factor in America is the proliferation of guns. We can return to that question in a moment, but as others have noted, it’s worth remembering that guns have been common in America for generations. Military-grade weapons have been common, too, among collectors and veterans of foreign wars. The rash of mass public shootings is still a relatively new phenomenon, and it’s worth thinking about why the shootings were such a rare thing before Columbine. Before the internet. Before the proliferation of violent first-person shooter video games. Before the intense breakdown of family and community norms.Before a time when disaffected young men could hunker down in their basements for hours on end with their only contact or connection being with technology that affirms and exploits their discontent.

While each case is unique, there are some striking similarities among the perpetrators. The Los Angeles Times studied every mass shooting since 1966, finding four common themes among shooters.  The first two are harrowing: childhood trauma and a more recent crisis point in the weeks leading up to the shooting. The third theme is the problem of social contagion; shooters study the actions of other shooters. This is equally frightening in that once an action becomes an option for a disaffected person, it becomes difficult to predict and manage it.  It’s worth pausing here because the El Paso shooter added something to this problem that has in its own way served as a distraction.

The manifesto of the El Paso shooter was riddled with language about an invasion of immigrants; he said he took up these actions as a response to this supposed threat. This has led to greater intensity in our national conversation about race, and much of that is a good thing. Politicians and television personalities alike have caught much-deserved grief over their careless rhetoric. Whatever one’s view of immigration policy, the language of “invasion” and “invaders” is unhelpful at best, and incendiary at worst.

Yet there’s a sense among some that if we all just had the right views on race, then these shootings would subside. That might be true in the El Paso case, but the Dayton shooting suggests otherwise. Indeed, the shooter in that case appears to have left-leaning politics, though those politics appear to have had no bearing on his motives. The deeper point is that intense disaffection among a subset of young men is producing very violent outcomes. We should all be grateful if bigoted rhetoric went away tomorrow, but that would only be one less point of connection for disturbed and disaffected individuals. There would still be any number of grievances for them to latch onto as a means to justify their violence. We should work to end racism and bigotry in all its forms, particularly the white supremacy that is rearing its ugly head at the moment, but we would be mistaken to think that would solve all our problems.

Our culture is marked by its fractures. One wonders if these young men had simply had real connections to people who sincerely loved and cared about them, then perhaps their anger would have been less potent. Anger is always a secondary emotion, often masking deeper feelings of loneliness and alienation. Is it possible that these young men have missed the relationships and communities that ground us to one another, teaching us to see one another as real people deserving of peace and respect?  Above all, these young men suffer from a profound inability to realize that whatever their problems, violence against others does not bring about an answer.

The final point from the LA Times was that shooters have to possess the means to carry out their plans. That means clearing a lot of logistical hurdles, and it also means the ability to procure the necessary weapons. The report notes that procurement takes place in a number of ways, including 80% of school shooters acquiring their weapons from family. This is an area where gun-rights advocates need to think long and hard. I said at the outset that a free society will not tolerate these sorts of shootings forever. It would be wise of those who cherish their Second Amendment freedom to consider what they would be willing to sacrifice in order to protect those rights. Is there some form of registration you would tolerate? Some restriction on private sales or limits on particular mass capacity magazines? I am in firm agreement with those who argue in favor of the right to bear arms, even in the face of violent incidents. Stil it would be wise if responsible gun owners and their sympathetic policy makers worked to find some state-based solutions before a future president, Congress, and federal court system took a longer look at the issue.

We may agree that rights are pre-existing before government, believing with Thomas Jefferson that many of them are self-evident. But that’s not entirely true. Rights are not always self-evident, and it takes wisdom and patience to demonstrate why certain rights matter. The clowns with AR-15 strapped to their backs in a Starbucks no more demonstrate the validity of the Second Amendment than pornographers do the First Amendment. Now is not the time for egregious displays of your rights, but instead for calm and clear declarations that rights remain valid even in the face of severe trials. By focusing less on what we can do, and instead on what we should do as it pertains to the Second Amendment, we are able to both protect these freedoms and make certain that they are not abused by the disaffected and angry who would do us all harm.

Matthew Stokes is a contributing writer for the Alabama Daily News.  He is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. For more information on his work, follow him on Twitter at: @yellingstopal



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