Empty Prayers: Is there a Cure for the American Epidemic of Gun Violence?
It’s a demented game of Mad-Libs:
A ______ (man or boy) _______ walks into a __ (school, church, club, concert, theater) ___ and kills _ (1-58)_____ ___ (bystanders, students, teachers, parents, children) ____ with a (semi-automatic weapon) .
The story doesn’t seem to have much variation. This fact was noted by Nestor Ramos for the Boston Globe, who said of mass shootings, “There are only three things we don’t know about the next time: WHO, WHERE, AND HOW MANY?” According to CNN, the worst mass shootings in American history date all the way back to 1949, when World War II veteran walked down a street in New Jersey with a pistol, killing 13. Since then, America has spent one year after confronting attacks that have only increased in their violence and fatalities. The worst shooting in America’s history at the Pulse nightclub in Miami was quickly overtaken less than a year later by a more than ten minute assault on concertgoers in Las Vegas. All of these come right on the heels of shootings in Aurora, Charleston, Oregon, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino. After Las Vegas, less than two months pass before a gunman kills 25 people and an unborn baby in Sutherland Springs.
Insanity has sometimes been defined as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” By that measure, America’s response to the rampant gun violence in our country is absolutely insane. America seems to be moving in an endless circle: a mass shootings takes the lives of innocent people, photos are revealed of victims and their families, the life story is told of the newly famous murderer, many Americans beg desperately for gun control, and are instead met with thoughts and prayers.
By now, the victims have had enough of empty prayers and broken promises for change. Rex Santus for Vice News reported on the dozens of tweets that have been hurled at right-wing lawmakers and pundits. One student, Daniel Hogg tweeted:
“My message to lawmakers and Congress is: Please, take action […] We can say, ‘We’re gonna do all these things. Thoughts and prayers.’ What we need more than that is action […] We’re children. You guys are the adults.”
He was echoed by other classmates whose responses ranged from anguish to outrage. One tweet addressed Donald Trump directly:
“I don’t want your condolences. Multiple of my fellow classmates are dead. Do something instead of sending prayers. Prayers won’t fix this. But gun control will prevent it from happening again.”
“I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there, you don’t know how it felt. Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns and this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.”
The gun control debate has raged on for years, always flaring up in the days after a shooting, only to fade away as months pass and inaction becomes the inescapable norm. Ella Nilsen, who covers Congress and the Democrats for Vox, interviewed Congressional Republicans about the inaction revolving gun control. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, who sponsored a Senate background check bill seemed motivated. He said, “I personally am unwilling to face another family member who’s lost a loved one as a result of these mass shootings.”
Other Republicans were not so urgent. When asked if there was anything Congress can do to tighten gun laws, Senator Roy Blunt responded, “I don’t think we would know yet; it appears that the gun laws that you would assume should be in place were in place and complied with…I don’t know enough about it yet.” Instead of discussing the calls for gun control, other Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senator Lisa Murkowski, and even the President have decided to instead focus on mental health.
A go-to solution after mass shootings, improving mental health care has been lauded as a way to stop these acts of violence. Former Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine noted that “We put a very difficult burden on law enforcement when we don’t provide enough mental health.” President Trump also noted that there were signs the shooter was “mentally disturbed.” But as lawmakers talk about improving care for those with mental issues, it must be noted that there is no clear evidence it has the power to stop mass shootings. Studies have shown that mass murderers often are not mentally ill, or at the least do not recognize themselves as such. Take for example Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock: investigators and reporters have so far uncovered no psychiatric diagnoses, and his brother, Eric Paddock, has said that Stephen had no history of mental-illness.
A study by the American Public Health Association titled “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms” found that though “a history of childhood abuse, binge drinking, and male gender” are all linked to serious violence, mental illness was not. In the journal Homicide Studies, James Alan Fox wrote that instead of mental issues being the driver of a mass murderer, “revenge motivation is, by far, the most commonplace. Mass murderers often see themselves as victims—victims of injustice.” He concluded that the killers have more mundane motivations: revenge, money, power, a sense of loyalty, and a desire to foment terror. It is important to acknowledge that some mass murderers are mentally ill, but Fox reemphasized that many of the killers don’t realize it or seek treatment. Because shooters also share qualities like depression, resentment, and social isolation with other young people, it can be difficult for outsiders to discern between an angsty teenager and a potential mass shooter.
If mental health reform won’t help, will gun control? Some say that no matter what is mandated by law, those who intend to kill do not care about regulation, and will do whatever it takes to get a hold of weapons. Republicans often point to cities like Chicago and Baltimore as examples: both have rigorous gun laws, but with a thriving black market and gang activity, both also have two of the highest murder rates in the country. But this is not the whole story. Data analysis from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence shows that states with the strictest gun-control measures, such as California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, have the lowest rates of gun deaths. Meanwhile those with the lax laws, like Alabama and Louisiana, have the highest.
The phenomena of stricter gun laws decreasing deaths from gun violence is not isolated to the United States: in Australia, their National Agreement on Firearms prohibited automatic and semiautomatic assault rifles, mandated licensing, registration, and for licensees to demonstrate a “genuine need” for a particular type of gun. They instituted a gun buyback program that took 650,000 assault weapons out of public circulation and require gun-owners to take a firearm safety course. Since 1996, the country has seen declining gun death rates. In the United Kingdom, after the deaths of more than a dozen people in the Hungerford Massacre, Britain introduced the Firearms Act, which expanded a list of banned weapons to include certain semiautomatic rifles and increased registration requirements for other weapons. Then, after the worst mass shooting in the country’s history took the lives of sixteen school children, legislation was passed banning most handguns and the government instituted a temporary buyback program that took thousands of guns out of the public realm.
While other countries are taking action to protect their citizens, a recent study published in the American Journal of Medicine found that, among high-income nations, “91% of children younger than 15 who were killed by bullets lived in the United
States.”Other data is even more condemning; on average, two dozen children are shot every day in the United States. Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, Slate reports that 150,000 American students have experienced a school shooting. This number is abysmal, unacceptable, and it doesn’t even count the nearly 300,000 parents or any teachers and adults there too. When will the madness end?
On Crooked Media podcast Lovett or Leave It, author and commentator Roxanne Gay observed, “As long as the NRA can continue to buy votes we’re going to continue to see these massacres happen.” She addressed the unbridled polarization in Congress, where gun-rights groups buy off representatives to peddle talking points. Senators, Representatives, and Presidents say the problem is not actual guns, but the individuals using them, or that addressing social issues like mental illness and unemployment will help curb gun violence more than the common sense gun control legislation that so many Americans are callings for. Gay’s outlook was dark. She continued to say of American mass shootings, “[They’re] mind-numbing. After Sandy Hook, when children, like babies, were murdered… I knew nothing was ever going to change in my lifetime. When white children in a rich community are murdered and nobody does anything, then Republicans truly do not have a single [expletive] to give.”
Sarah Tofte, of the non-profit Everytown for Gun Safety, declared that “every time gunfire breaks out on school grounds, it can shatter a child’s sense that they are safe in their school and in their community.” When a school is affected by gun violence, children at best lose their innocence and worst lose their life; where most victims are chosen not for what they have done but simply for where they are, To truly stop these terrible acts, political leaders must stop bending to the voices of pro-gun lobbyists and organizations. They must bend to the voice of the people. When speaking to the families of the most recently slain children, President Trump stated “We are here for you, whatever you need, whatever we can do, to ease your pain.” One can only hope the President and his party realize that what families need aren’t their prayers, but their political action.