I’ve written extensively on gun violence, spoken on international TV and radio on the subject, and even pursued a gun license in the strictest city of one of the strictest states in the country. Despite my first-hand experience, the most ardent defenders of the Second Amendment — like those who marched on Richmond, Virginia this weekend to protest "Jim Crow" gun laws — will still tell me things like, “We don’t need more laws! We need to enforce the laws on the books!” or “We can’t stop every shooting because that’s just the price of freedom.” Those same #2A Avengers will of course acknowledge that yeah, okay, maybe NICS has some problems, or maybe those Parkland cops should have done something earlier, and then swiftly retreat back into the same tribalistic mindsets that always prevent human progress.
So I wrote this essay, hoping to have a rational conversation. It was originally published on Medium in 2018, but it remains frustratingly relevant, so I'm posting it here.
Naming something gives you power over it.
That’s the basic idea behind all the magic in every folktale dating back for centuries, from “Rumpelstiltskin” to the Rolling Stones’ “Hope you guessed my name.” Ancient shamans didn’t practice “magic”; they just had knowledge, and names for things like “eye of newt” that no one else could understand. To name something is to know it, and knowledge is power.Think about the relationship between “spelling” and “spells” and you won’t be so surprised that Harry Potter has been all over the gun violence conversations lately, on both the Left and the Right—which makes sense, considering that they have a word you memorize and practice reciting in order to kill people.
But when we talk about gun violence — or gun control, or gun reform, et cetera et cetera ad nauseam — we’re all too busy tripping over words to see the problems that we’re trying to address. And no, I’m not talking about “gunsplaining,” or even about the eye-roll-inducing “assault weapon” terminology (which is a distinction that I have come to understand and appreciate, and also a debate that is nothing but distracting on every single side of it). It’s hard to deny that gun violence is a problem in the United States of America, but it’s in our attempts to name that problem where we start to lose our footing, and thus, our focus (and I know a thing or two about focus).Perhaps if we learned to name the individual issues of gun violence that need to change, then we can start to identify specific solutions — one at a time, without infringing on civil rights or liberties. Then maybe then we could have some real conversations about how to make our society safer.
So instead of seeing at gun violence at One Big All-Encompassing Monolithic Problem, let’s look at the isolated areas where gun violence needs to be addressed: Domestic Violence, Suicides, Mass Shootings, Gang Violence, and State Violence.
1. Domestic Violence
An existing history of violence against family or loved ones is the greatest indicator of a person’s penchant for gun violence. An American woman is shot and killed by her partner every 16 hours, according to the Trace, and more male shooters attack their own families than schools or public places. In terms of the sheer number of deaths, the money we spend on terrorism would be better focused on the threat of husbands.
Perhaps none of this is surprising—but for some reason, we still don’t do anything about it. While the NRA loves to whinge on about self-defense, they ignore the fact that abused women are five times more likely to be killed by partners who own firearms, and 90% of women imprisoned for killing men had previously been abused by those same men.
That’s what I mean when I say “We have a problem.”
Felony offenses for domestic violence are supposed to mean that an American loses their right to gun ownership. But this requires the person to willingly turn their private property over to the government, or for the ATF to actively pursue civil asset forfeiture on those guns—neither of which is a very practical solution. (Enforcing this would also likely mean that in this country would be banned from carrying firearms, which is, erm, probably good, too.)
So what can we do about this? Legally, it’s complicated. But states like Rhode Island, California, Washington, and New York have recently enacted laws to prevent guns from even failing into the hands of misdemeanor* domestic abusers, and quite frankly, I don’t see a reason why that can’t be enacted everywhere. It’ll save lives, and it won’t infringe on the rights and freedoms of law-abiding gun-owners, or people at greater risk of being victims of violence. We can also improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (which even the NRA has mockingly acknowledged to be flawed) by standardizing the information that states and military are required to submit, under threat of financial penalty.
(*The one caveat I will acknowledge: this requires people to actually cooperate with authorities. And that’s easier said than done, for a number of social reasons that are difficult to legislate.)
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths are suicides, and almost half of all suicides are gun deaths. The majority of those victims are men, often with military backgrounds, and mostly over the age of 45.
This is the one place where mental health really enters the gun reform debate, and it has nothing to do with a risk of physical harm to others.
Suicides of all kinds are unfortunately difficult to prevent. But most attempts are impulsive, and 70% of people who survive an attempt won’t try again. Unfortunately, only about 10% of people survive a suicide attempt by gun — which means the trick is in screening those deadly impulse buys.
Some gun sellers in America have already started taking the initiative to spot suicide warning signs in customers, using grassroots activism to empower more community intervention. And in fact, when Australia enacted its gun ban, the country saw a drastic drop in suicides as well. If we want to focus our energies on saving lives, that might be a place to start. (Of course, this will also require investing more money in community resources and social work, too — but I think the return on investment is worth it, ya know?)
3. Mass Shootings
Mass shootings get the most attention, because they’re massive and tragic. More often than not, the circumstances around them are almost too absurd to wrap out heads around, so we search for scapegoats such as “mental illness.” But mass shootings account for less than 1% of firearm deaths — which unfortunately makes them kind of hard to plan for and around to base legislation upon.
Now, to be fair: mental illnesses do figure in about one-quarter to one-half of mass shootings. But anyone who knows anything about data will tell you 1/2 of 1% is not really a good indicator of anything, especially when about 20% of the population has a mental disorder, and those people are still significantly more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence. It’s also important to point out that, while gun violence in general is on the decline, mass shootings are becoming deadly—though not necessarily more frequent.
Now that all that data is out of the way, we still need to talk about the fact that mass shootings—especially in schools—are a problem. Given that small statistical sample, however, it’s harder to find solutions that will be applicable in enough situations to make a difference. This is about more than “walking up” and bullying initiatives. Because the most bullied people are LGBTQ+, or Muslim, or poor, or physically unattractive, while most school shooters are white men. But you know where we can start? Increase funding and training for social work, especially at schools, and give people the tools they need to express their frustrations.
See that? None of it will infringe on civil rights and civil liberties. It will infringe upon the people who don’t want to pay taxes and/or want to harm social services and public education. Poverty, opportunity, and violence go hand-in-hand, and they all require some financial investment to upend.
4. So-called “Gang-Related” Violence
This one is particularly frustrating, because it’s often racially charged — and thus, often used as a racist deflection (STOP?BRINGING?UP?CHICAGO? ). Even without the racialized aspect, it’s still quite complicated.
Unfortunately, it’s also true that 13 percent of gun homicides (but not all gun deaths) are gang-related killings, which affect mostly young men. And while there is a racial element, it has more to do with the survival tactics that people are forced to go through in order to survive in a racist society. This might be the only other circumstance (besides suicides) where mental health is a factor. But it’s not how the pundits would have you think – it has more to do with PTSD and the anxiety from poverty and survival in a society that criminalizes you from childhood.
If you ask me, much of this connects back to the same problems of toxic masculinity that lead to domestic violence. Even financial struggles or other markers of “manliness” can drive men to violence, lashing out at the world for their own perceived failures. Simply put, violence is a byproduct of anger, not of general mental health. That alone is not a legislative solution, but perhaps it can serve as a guide for the ways in which we cultivate our culture with compassion, empathy, and understanding—oh, and not automatically treating teens who misbehave like they’re already criminals, damned for life, as often happens in our racist education and justice systems.
Luckily, there are already educators and social workers trying to address these problems. Perhaps we should consider increasing their support and resources; after all, it’s better to address a problem before it starts than to spend all your money trying to clean-up the mess after the fact. But it has to start within the communities first. They know what’s best for them more than any government or police interference could help—they just need allies and support to make it happen.
5. State Violence
Neither the military nor the police should be excused from unnecessary acts of violence. History has shown time and time again that the use of violence as a tool of persuasion only engenders more fear and anger among the general public, and that in turn leads to more violence every time. The state should not have a monopoly on violence, and violence committed at the hands of the government is just as bad or worse than violence between civilians. This harkens back to the original intentions of the 2nd Amendment, too—to defend against a tyrannical government, a.k.a., state-sponsored violence.
Militarized policing, for example, is known to harm both police reputations, and community stability, without actually make anyone safer. The FBI has been watching and warning of an increase in violent white supremacists infiltrating police departments for years, and nothing’s happened to stop it.
Or consider the fact that at least 40% of police officer families experience domestic violence, according to the National Center for Women and Policing. And yet, the Blue Fraternity all but ensures that charges are never brought against the officers involved, even though it’s been established that patterns of violent behavior almost always lead to more violent behavior. The same goes for the rising problem of police brutality (or as the passive-voiced PR prefers, “officer-involved shootings,” a phrasing that’s intentionally designed to absolve the officers of any responsibility). Thanks to police union laws, officers who do commit excessive and unnecessary acts of violence are often transferred to or hired by another nearby department, with little to no consequences for their actions—despite the fact that they are likely to repeat them.
We should not excuse these acts of violence simply because they are committed by police officers. By doing so, we just enable more violence—which empowers more cops to act with extreme prejudice, which leads to more violence, which is met by more violence.
Much of this goes back to mental health as well, and the way we treat our veterans after subjecting them to the horrors of war. If a history of violence is the best indicator of future acts of violence, then training our soldiers to commit acts of violence—with little support for the PTSD they endure when they come home—is simply setting them up for more violence. That’s why veterans tend to be more susceptible to joining the ranks of white supremacists, or committing acts of domestic violence: it’s an outlet for the violence that we inflicted upon them by sending them to war in the first place.
(This especially true of men who receive other than honorable or bad conduct discharges. The military has their reasoning for their categories, which don’t impact a discharged veterans ability to purchase a gun in the future, even if the reason for their discharge had to do with violence. An improved FBI background check system would find a way to address this loophole, too.)
Unfortunately, this makes it easier for those same veterans to seek out the camaraderie and power of the military by joining extremist militias, or to seek solace in suicide, as mentioned above. Our society (rightly) likes to talk big of honoring our veterans, but there’s nothing honorable about subjecting them to these horrible fates.
We can’t find common ground unless we can actually identify the problem to solve—and we can’t see the problem if we don’t share the same words to describe it. That’s the source of our gun debate.
Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, I hope that we can all agree that reducing death and violence is a good thing for everyone. But we can’t just throw our arms and shrug after every awful shooting tragedy; nor can we throw our arms up and scream about every single death like they’re all the same.
Sometimes, the best way to tackle a larger problem is to break it down into smaller ones, and to make sure that everyone’s using the same words to refer to all the same things. If we’re ever going to deal with our gun violence epidemic, then I think this could be a good place to start.
Gun Violence Isn't a Problem — it's actually 5 Problems, with Different Solutions [Thom Dunn / Medium]