Politics: Gun Violence and Mass Media

Okay, so I don’t feel like following the usual first-post trope of describing what this blog is all about.  Suffice to say, I don’t expect it to be this dark and serious most of the time.

Alright, anyways, moving on.  This week, two reporters were shot and killed on live TV by a disgruntled ex-employee of the station, who then proceeded to kill himself.  I’m not going to post links or sources – if you have Facebook or watch/read any news, you know about it, and if it’s news to you, then read on before going over to YouTube.

There has been an awful lot of debate about gun violence lately, as far as I can tell mostly in the form of linked articles on Facebook going back and forth like salvos between old sailing ships of the line, while pithy comments fight boarding actions on the side.  Sane people tend to agree that we’re having a bit of an issue with shootings lately, but everyone differs on how we should handle it.  Some favor strict gun control, though I myself don’t understand how they mean to implement it.  I don’t think a full recap of all the positions is necessary, you’re probably not living under a rock.

So, here’s my thoughts on the matter.  As cut-and-dried as strict gun control sounds, it would be very messy to implement and not very effective.  Regardless of how you plan to reign in the unstable gun-wielding persons, it basically comes down to two options.  Option A, voluntary registration: you ask everyone to come forward and tell some agency what guns they’ve got hanging around.  Of course, the danger here is that anyone unstable enough to go on a shooting spree would likely have no second thoughts about “forgetting” to register, never mind the many normal people who would refuse to do so on principle.  Then you can implement some sort of psych controls or tests/inspections on those who have registered, if you can come up with a good method and manage to afford it somehow.  Option B, you send people door to door to register or confiscate said guns.  I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want that job, and even then we’re assuming people have forgotten how to hide things or bribe people.  For a strict gun control policy to make a significant difference, it would basically have to follow one of those two flawed methods – we could and probably should implement better controls on purchasing new guns, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking there aren’t millions of unregistered guns currently littering the countrysides of America.

So, in a world where a deranged lunatic is able to track down a suitable weapon, what is the rational response?  I think  it’s twofold.

First, mental health care.  Often viewed as a lame riposte from the anti-gun-control lobby, this is a point that I feel is far more important than it gets credit for.  Speaking personally, I know that if I wanted to go to a therapist to discuss feelings of anger or whatever, I’d be paying out of pocket until I met my health insurance’s $6,000 deductible.  It’s a pretty decent plan otherwise, and fairly representative of most peoples’ plans in this day and age I think.  Why is it that I’m covered for preventative physical care to make sure my body doesn’t metaphorically fall off the dock, but not for preventative mental care to make sure I don’t go off the other deep end and go shoot up a mall?

Historically, the people who are so unstable that they use a gun to “solve” their problems don’t come from wealthy backgrounds where they could have dropped $150+ per week to talk it out with a therapist.  Added to that, our country has a stigma against any kind of mental health care.  “Oh, you have to go to the doctor because you broke your arm falling down the stairs while drunk?  Fair enough.  Wait, you’re going to a therapist because you feel like you can’t handle the world and it makes you angry?  You must be crazy, I’d better keep my distance.”  Our culture encourages people to hide their problems and bottle their emotions up, and predictably that sometimes leads to an explosion.

Second issue, attention.  One thing I’ve noticed is that these people who go on shooting sprees rarely come from supportive families and positions of respect.  Almost invariably, they’re the downtrodden loners who are unsatisfied with their personal and/or professional lives.  We come from a culture where, from a young age, each one of us is told that we’re special and that we can be or do whatever we want.  It takes most of us years to realize the truth – that none of us are special just for existing, and only if we’re absurdly fortunate can we expect all of our dreams to come to fruition.  Most people have trouble reconciling their expectations against reality, and some never make peace with it at all.

What does this have to do with the types of violence we’ve seen lately?  Well, I think that many of these people are basically acting out like children.  If a five year old is being a little jerk and you fawn all over him, does that teach him to behave better, or does that just encourage the kind of behavior you end up shaking your head at in the local Wal-Mart?  What if another five-year old is feeling neglected, sees the first one being a prat and getting attention for it, and decides “Well hey, I’ll try that too”?

Now we extend the analogy to adults and guns.  Take Marvin, a thirty-year old guy who works for minimum wage, lives in a shitty apartment, and basically hates everything about his life.  Marvin has long since given up on his dreams – he will never be an astronaut, he will never meet his soul mate and settle down in a house with a white picket fence and four kids.  At this point, Marvin’s dreams have condensed into a single desire – to be noticed, to be important, to have someone pay attention to him.  He watches TV, where he sees famous people being fawned over and glorified, but he knows he will never be like them.  He also watches the news, and there he sees the latest headline – some jackass out in the midwest has gone and shot up a McDonalds.  For the next several days, the news reports hardly look elsewhere – it’s all about this jackass, what his life was like, why he did it, why this and why that.  Marvin finds himself feeling jealous – why, this guy’s life sounds like it was even better than Marvin’s, and now he’s getting all this attention?  The next day, Marvin loses his shitty job and now can’t even afford to make rent this month, and with no family or friends to take him in, he’s face-to-face with the prospect of being homeless.  The rest of the story kinda writes itself, doesn’t it?

So we have a mass media that glorifies these gunmen, or at least pays enough attention that a similarly-troubled person could perceive it as glory.  How do we fix this?  Simple, we stop paying attention.  I’m not saying we sweep it under the rug – don’t hide the crime, but don’t make it a circus either.  Especially in the cases where the shooters kill themselves or are immediately caught, there’s no reason to  even release the name of the shooter, let alone turn the news into a 24-hour biopic of him.  I say we should shun these peoples’ memories, not place them on a pedestal.  Anyone who commits such heinous acts deserves to be erased from history, not engraved in stone.

How do we do this?  Simple – you, as a person, need to stop feeding the media’s lust for ratings.  They don’t put this crap up because it’s important, they put it up because we the public snap it up like ambrosia, gawking at tragedy and lapping up every little tidbit.  They don’t care that they’re setting a bad example, that they’re only encouraging more people to follow in a psychopath’s footsteps – they’re raking in the money with all that advertising, and you’re unknowingly feeding the machine.  So next time you see the news on TV doing a special on the latest killer’s life, change the channel.  Don’t share that link on Facebook.  Spare a thought for the trauma that those victims’ families are going through, then focus on your own life.

Okay, one final thought.  It seems everyone is worried over this “growing epidemic” of gun violence.  In truth, gun violence is pretty damned low compared to where it used to be.  In 1993, the peak of gun violence in the past several decades, there were 7.0 deaths per 100,000 people in the US.  In 2014, that number was 3.9.  2014 wasn’t an unusually low year either, that rate has hung right around 4.0 since the late 90s (so far, 2015 is not breaking the mold in this respect either).  So why has this been in the news so much lately?  Simple – people as a whole are safer, but our country’s lackluster mental health facilities and violence-glorifying media are drawing the crazies out of the woodwork.  It’s time to focus on fixing the things that will make a difference.  Most of these shooters are just people who didn’t get the help they needed in time.

Sources and related articles:

http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/05/07/gun-homicide-rate-down-49-since-1993-peak-public-unaware/

http://crimepreventionresearchcenter.org/2014/03/comparing-murder-rates-across-countries/

http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/past-tolls

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