One Nation Under Guns: The Construction of Murderers in American Culture
By David Metcalfe
July 30, 2017
When Life Hangs On By A Med: Biologically Based Deviance
Vince was born in China, and graduated from the University of Wuhan Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computers. He worked as a software engineer, and in 2001, moved to Canada. He got married, worked at various jobs, and was generally well liked by his coworkers and those who knew him in the community. He lived an incredibly ordinary life, that is, until the summer of 2008.
On a greyhound bus travelling from Edmonton to Winnipeg, Vince Li stabbed an unsuspecting, innocent man several times in the chest. The bus driver quickly pulled over and the passengers got out. Vince Li proceeded to behead and cannibalize his victim, while the passengers watched in horror. Li was arrested upon sight and later brought to court. Today, he is out and living free amongst the community (CBC News, 2015, Feb 28).
So how does a man commit one of the most repulsive and heinous murders in Canadian history and get away with it? It’s because Vince Li did not murder anyone. Vince Li is an ordinary citizen who works hard at his job, loves his wife, and is a normal member of society. The man on the bus that tragic day was a deranged psychopath, who believed that God was telling him to murder someone. That’s why Vince Li was not held criminally responsible (Puxley, 2009). Li is now living in Winnipeg completely free, and has not committed any deviant behavior, because he is on medication. Assuming he takes his meds, and that the meds work, he will never commit a deviant act again. Vince Li’s insanity is hanging by a thread, or more literally, hanging by a med.
Insane people do insane things. It’s nothing new. There are hundreds more examples of mentally ill people doing disturbing things that resemble the Vince Li incident throughout modern history. That is a problem for psychologists to find a solution to. In the case of Vince Li, there wasn’t a social community developing his beliefs leading to deviant actions, there wasn’t anything he was rebelling against, and he wasn’t imitating anything he had seen from other people. It’s a case of certain neurons not firing correctly in his brain, and therefore certain chemicals not performing their intended function. Put a pill in him that changes those chemicals, and you’ve fixed everything. It’s simple and manageable, and therefore, despite how horrific it was, it’s not all that scary. The Vince Li on that bus is nothing like us. Insane people are an “out-there” category that we need not worry about, because as long as you are sane, you won’t ever do something like that…or will you?
Insane Blame Game
Society is often quick to assign the “insane” label to the perpetrators of horrific crimes. After the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting in 2012, Adam Lanza was posthumously diagnosed as schizophrenic. In fact, much of the media rhetoric that followed emphasized his insanity, partially as an attempt to diminish other possible influences, and put people at ease. Anne Coulter, a conservative commentator, proclaimed that “Guns don’t kill people- the mentally ill do.” Some organizations even called for a registry of mentally ill people (Metzl, 2015).
We can see why people might blame mental illness for mass shootings. In fact, close to 60% of perpetrators of mass shootings showed symptoms such as paranoia, delusions, and depression before they committed their crimes (Follman, 2012). There are two very important things to consider based on that fact. For one, 40% of mass shooters showed no symptoms of insanity at all. These 40% are people who were completely sane, and did something that is widely considered something only an insane person would do. The second aspect to consider is that although 60% showed some kind of symptoms, it doesn’t mean that their insanity necessarily caused the shooting, or that their insanity is innately biological. In fact, it does not even mean that they were insane. Someone can show symptoms of something and not necessarily have the disease that is associated with it. A sane person might become depressed if a loved one dies, become paranoid if someone is stalking them, or become delusional if they are lied to very convincingly.
So what we have is a bunch of mass shootings (on the rise the last two decades), and they are committed by 40% definitely sane people, and 60% possibly sane or insane people. Even if we perfectly treated every mentally ill person, there would still be at least 40% of the mass shootings that would occur (and likely a lot more). When we examine all gun killing, only 5% was committed by people with a mental illness of some kind between 2001-2010 (Centers for Disease Control). Gun violence cannot be isolated to mental illness. The highest predictors of gun violence in general are actually a history of childhood abuse and binge drinking (Van Dorn, 2012). Instead of a proposed registry of mentally ill people, it would be more suitable to have a registry of victims of child abuse and alcoholics. A registry, of course, would be absurd, but it is important to recognize some of those links and how they might eventually create gun violence, and take steps to prevent it. This is clearly not an issue for psychologists to deal with on their own.
Consider this: there is a certain machine that results in the death of over 30,000 Americans each year. An initial reaction would be that we should get rid of that machine, but what if that machine served a great purpose? It would have to be a very important purpose to justify the deaths of so many people. The machine I’m talking about, of course, is motor vehicles. The value of motor vehicles is incredible to our way of life. Eliminating vehicles would be horrendous for society. Society is built around an assumption of ease of transportation. People wouldn’t be able to get to work, school, the grocery store, etc. The economy would crash. It would be a disaster. We can tell the value of a given thing by the measure of how detrimental it’s absence would be. Cars are extremely valuable, and ultimately warrant the deaths of a few for a much greater good.
Now consider if that machine resulted in the deaths of just as many people, but did not serve a greater purpose. That machine, of course, is guns. Oddly enough, gun and motor vehicle yearly death numbers in America are very similar, sitting around 33,000 each in 2013 (CDC, 2015), (NHTSA, 2015). If we took guns away, the detriment to society would not even be comparable to the absence of cars. In fact, we can look at Australia, Japan, Great Britain, etc. as examples of what might happen. All of them saw no major change, and perhaps even decreased crime (although that was likely a combination of factors). Would the government become tyrannical since we can’t defend ourselves? Well, now that the government has stealth bombers and nuclear weapons, it is hard to imagine what people could do with a few guns from a local store (Chemerinsky, 2004). And what a shame it would be that people wouldn’t be able to enjoy killing innocent animals for fun and hanging their decapitated heads on the wall. If guns were gone, children wouldn’t die of accidental shootings. And as I will suggest, the culture of violence would be radically reduced.
A Brief Auto-ethnography of Gun Culture
Last Sunday, I attended a church service in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It’s an intensely religious community, boasting one of the highest percentages of evangelical Christians of any city in America (Ridgeway, 2008). It was the regular monotony of church: a few songs, a speech, and some awkward meet and greets afterwards. The real worship, however, came after the service. We went to a restaurant where church members regaled us with stories of slaughtering animals for sport (so much for being stewards of God’s creation). Much to their excitement, there was a gun store across the street from the restaurant. I had been to gun stores in Canada, but they were specifically hunting stores, with a reasonable number of guns, and with the obvious purpose of hunting use only. This was no Canadian gun store. Sure, they had a hunting section, but it was largely overshadowed by the vast array of handguns and assault rifles. In chatting with a store employee, I was surprised to find out that there was no waiting period, an incredibly simple licensing process, and the background check merely consisted of giving them your name and address.
While in Denver, I made sure to visit Columbine High School. After reading extensively on the massacre in ’99, it was incredibly sobering. Although a tad macabre, I found it to be fascinating. The renovations make it a much different building than the one described in the ’99 shooting, but there were many notable areas that connected my memory to what I had read about. It’s a stark contrast to the gun store. At the memorial site of Columbine High School, you won’t find people cheering about how awesome guns are. You won’t hear hunting stories. You won’t see the gun culture that you see everywhere else in Colorado. You’ll find a solemn community living in the aftermath of the worst of gun culture.
Guns Don’t Kill People, But They Sure Help
Imagine that you could go back in time, say, 1000 or 2000 years, and you could bring one thing with you. There are many incredible inventions in current times that might be useful. You could bring a smartphone, but without wifi or satellites, it wouldn’t do all that much. You could bring a car, but you wouldn’t have roads to drive on, and the car might easily be stolen. I think the most useful thing you could bring with you is a gun. Just imagine how powerful you would be. You could just walk into the town square and shoot someone dead. Anyone that tried to stop you from doing what you wanted could simply be shot. You would hold the power of life and death in your hands. You would become a god to them.
This scenario is actually not all that theoretical. Throughout American history, guns have granted superiority. When Europeans came to colonize America, the natives were no match for their guns. 200 years later, when the American colonies sought independence from Britain, they shot British soldiers until Britain could no longer sustain the war. America was literally founded upon guns.
And it didn’t stop there. Nearly every time America had a problem, guns were used to solve it. Where in Britain, slavery was debated peacefully in the courts until eventually coming to a reasonable and agreed upon conclusion, United States had a civil war and a presidential assassination before slavery was abolished. Whenever a country doesn’t do what America wants (because of course America knows what’s best for everyone), they go in (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc.) guns blazing. That mindset carries over to individual Americans as well. Store clerks getting robbed? Give them guns. Women getting raped? Give them guns. Worried about bear attacks, home invasions, government tyranny, or muggers? The answer is always guns. Americans have a weird obsession with guns. Of the movies showing in Cineplex theatres as of July 30, 2017, all of them feature guns, except for the emoji movie, which probably still has a “gun emoji” at some point. The vast majority of high selling video games (Call of Duty, Mass Effect, Halo, Grand Theft Auto, etc.) illustrate a problem, and then the solution is found in shooting people.
But this supposed “solution” offers more of a problem than anything. The vast majority of gun use is criminal as opposed to self-defence (Hemenway and Azreal, 2000). Gun use as helping people is the rare occurrence. Guns are primarily found as a solution for criminals to get what they want through illegitimate means. Sure, there may be the odd time that a woman defends herself from a rapist by having a gun with her, but there are likely way more instances of women being raped while held at gunpoint by a perpetrator. Guns give criminals a much greater advantage than non-criminals. Imagine this scenario: a criminal breaks into a house carrying a shotgun, the owner of the house has a shotgun in a cabinet in his bedroom. Both have a shotgun, but the criminal is prepared, gun in hand, while the homeowner is caught by surprise, and needs to get access to his gun. Guns are not the great equalizer.
Remember back to the tragic story of Vince Li. If Li had a gun rather than a knife, he would have been able to kill way more people. He might have stuck to one person, but a gun certainly would have enabled him to kill more. And would Adam Lanza have been able to kill 20 school children in a matter of minutes if not for a gun? Would he have even gone ahead with the killing if he had, had to get an arms length away from them? Even with suicide, which accounted for 64% of gun related deaths in 2012 (Wintemute, 2015), how much easier did gun accessibility make it to commit suicide? Suicides are typically unplanned, majority of attempts are not successful, and majority of people regret attempting after a failed attempt. In fact, from the statistics gathered by the American Association of Suicidology, only 1 in 25 suicide attempts are successful. If they use a gun, it is essentially certain death (USA Suicide, 2012). If guns were gone, evil people, suicidal people, and insane people would still exist, but the harm they cause would be drastically reduced. There’s a reason the saying, “bringing a gun to a knife fight” exists. Guns do incredibly more damage.
Creating Killers: How Guns Cause School Shootings
Four things about gun violence have been established: it’s not caused by insane people, it gives people power, it’s a catalyst for violence, and there is a strong, well established gun culture. These four things serve to effectively illuminate understanding of certain types of murder, especially in the case of school shootings. America has seen a horrendous increase in school shootings. Between 2000 and 2010, America has had as many school shootings as 36 first world countries put together (Foxman, 2012). The Columbine High School Massacre in 1999 served as a precedent that sparked a huge trend in school shootings (Larkin, 2009). I will use these four aspects of gun violence to analyze this tragedy.
It’s not caused by insane people. Remember when I mentioned that someone who is completely sane might have symptoms of insanity if certain occurrences happen in their life? It is noted by psychologists, based largely on studying their journals, that Eric Harris was a psychopath, and Dylan Klebold was depressed (Cullen, 2004). The degree to which those issues were nature vs nurture is up for debate, but there is certainly a lot of evidence of the nurturing of those traits. Harris and Klebold were bullied horribly at school. They had fecal matter and ketchup covered tampons thrown at them, they were called “faggots”, and they were constantly belittled. Teachers knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it. Take any normal kid and put them in that environment for long enough, and they are very likely to develop anti-social behavior.
It gives people power. “You’ve been giving us shit for years. You’re fucking gonna pay for all that shit” (quote from Dylan Klebold in one of the Basement Tapes). Harris and Klebold experienced terrible inferiority and insecurity as a result of bullying and general lack of fitting in. They played the video game “Doom” excessively (a game where you get to shoot various demonic creatures). It was an opportunity to feel a sense of power that they couldn’t experience in reality. Just like in American culture since the forming of the very first colonies, Harris and Klebold saw guns as a way to express superiority. In no aspect of their life did they have any power, except for the day where they were yielding a gun.
It’s a catalyst for violence. Would Harris and Klebold have been able to carry out 15 murders in a matter of minutes if they hadn’t had guns? Would they have done the killing at all? Like I mentioned with Adam Lanza, it is much more difficult to use a knife to carry out murder, especially mass murder. Mass murder in schools can only occur with guns. Sure, there has been knife attacks in schools, but most often with no deaths, and at most two or three.
There is a strong, well-established gun culture. As previously mentioned, America is obsessed with guns. They have more guns per capita than any country in the world, nearly doubling that of the next highest country (Ingraham, 2015). If every gun owner was violent, America would be a blood bath, but of course, that’s not the case. The vast majority of gun owners will never shoot anyone, and have no desire to. What does exist, however, is a gun obsessed, violent, and rebellious subculture. We can see evidence of this subculture throughout nearly every school shooting in the 21st century (Larkin, 2009). In the case of Columbine, Harris and Klebold were clearly obsessed with guns and the community around them that fostered their beliefs. They wrote manifestos, made YouTube videos, and played violent video games amongst a community of avid gamers. The boys had been rejected by the predominant culture they lived in, and thus relegated to a subculture of rebellion. They actively sought to destroy and wreak havoc on the values and goals of American high school culture, and found community amongst violent anarchists.
So how does gun obsessed America contribute to the formation of a violent subculture that results in mass murder? I would suggest three main ways. For one, guns are shown as the solution to every problem. When American culture teaches that using guns is the ultimate solution to life’s problems, it is not a far leap for socially ostracized teenagers to do the same. Secondly, the ease of access to guns makes it an incredibly simple task for a teenager to acquire them. Harris and Klebold bought guns and huge amounts of ammunition from friends who acquired them legally (Luzadder, 1999). And third, when ostracized and seeking out community, a teenager easily finds gun culture. And while most teenagers interested in guns simply play violent video games, shoot paintball guns, and possibly buy a gun to shoot at a range, teenagers that don’t fit the traditional mold, but have interest in guns, will grasp on to that prevalent, all-encompassing gun culture, but often do so in a rebellious, illegitimate, and, if severe enough, disturbed and murderous way.
Sane people can do insanely terrible acts when certain social forces are involved. Gun culture is an incredibly powerful social force in America that is contributing to violent behavior. It brought about the birth of the nation, but it is now becoming the death of the nation. Guns offer a solution to many problems, but actually cause way more problems than they solve. Is it a coincidence that the country with the most guns also sees the most mass shootings of any first world country by far? As a self-proclaimed sociologist, I don’t have time for coincidences. In fact, we can clearly see many ways that gun culture directly serves as a catalyst for horrendous deviance. To prevent further gun violence, America needs to carefully consider the role of guns in modern society. Dismissing cultural heritage and biases is difficult, but rational consideration in light of current evidence is the best way to move a culture forward, and ultimately make life better for everyone.
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