First off, I'd like to say that I have nothing but my sincerest condolences toward the families of recent firearm violence. The crimes are horrific, horrible, and I can't imagine that kind of devastation. I'm writing this to honor the memories of the victims by trying to start a conversation about what we can do to try and curb the kind of recent crimes that have dominated the news. Just give me to the end of the post before deciding if I'm crazy or not.
I started writing this about a week ago, after a mall shooting was all over the news, as a pure opinion piece on the Second Amendment. Then came the school shooting only days later and I realized that if I was going to write this than I wanted to do something better. I didn't want to be another talking head, spouting my opinions as if you should care or my opinions mattered. So, I want to talk about some facts that seem to be desperately missing from most of the conversations and offer some suggestions on things we can do to decrease future crimes.
This morning the news was all about the possibility of reintroducing the assault weapon ban. The politicians and news personalities were all talking about how “something needs to be done” and now might be the time to start a “real conversation about fire arm rights”.
I agree, something needs to be done, but banning or restricting firearms is a knee-jerk reaction that is highly unlikely to make any difference. It's far easier to blame the “assault rifle” than it is to try and and actually find the root causes of mass violence.
First off, if you look at the statistics, the original “Assault Gun Ban” made little to no impact on homicide rates. When the Ban expired in 2004, again it made little to no difference on homicide rates. Homicide rates have been in decline for the past 20 years, whatever the fire arm laws, and is currently as low as it was in the 1960's (FBI's Uniform Crime Review).
Secondly, if you look at the homicide rates, you're about three times more likely to be killed by a hand gun than an assault rifle. In fact, you're just about as likely to be killed with a knife as with an assault rifle (Wikipedia, Gun Violence in the United States). Are the politicians and news personalities talking about banning hand guns or knives?
Thirdly, mass killings account for about 1/10th of 1% of all homicides in the United States (Criminologist James Alan Fox on Discovery News). Yet, look at the time spent on them in the news. Obviously, these crimes are horrific, but if you look at the news coverage you'd think that they were far more frequent than they actually are. The average murders doesn't make national news, but several at once, in an especially violent manner... that's headlines for weeks.
Fourth, Why aren't any of the above facts a factor in the conversation? Because the average situations don't make national news, they don't sell news papers or commercial time. For it to be picked up by the national news the story needs victims, lots of violence, and a bad guy, thus the focus on the “assault rifle” (it even sounds bad, perfect for TV). All of that media time means more people calling their politicians. The politicians want to be seen as doing something, so they go ahead and make some rapid policy decision, namely blame the "bad guy". The media is happy, the politicians are happy, and the general populace is satisfied that something has been done. But does any of that actually change anything?
There are already good, mostly rational laws on fire arms. Look at Connecticut, one of the recent states victimized by fire arm violence, it has some of the most restrictive laws on fire arms, and the violence still happened. Criminals and psychos are not limited by the law.
Let's look at it another way, will suicides drop if you ban pistols? Or will those people just find another way to commit suicide? It's the same with homicidal people. Will banning assault rifles stop them, or will they just find another way to commit homicide? In Japan, where fire arms are severely restricted, there is a history of mass violence with bladed weapons (I'm not going to go into the details, the crimes are horrific. If you're that morbidly curious you can look them up yourself). The mental issues that drive these people to do horrible things will not be shrugged off just because they can't find an AR-15.
Banning or restricting fire arms will not affect violent crime or mass killings. So what can we do? What are the answers? Well, isn't that the conversation we should be having? We should be finding out the roots behind the crimes, warning signs to look for, better mental health screening, better education, better security in public spaces, quicker response time from law enforcement officers... there are literally dozens of topics that should be examined right now. By limiting the discussion to fire arms we are missing everything else.
My opinion? I think the media is largely to blame for mass killings. Sounds stupid? I've got a couple reasons.
Have you ever heard of “Suicide Contagion”? It's been studied by psychologists for years, where one suicide is covered in the media and it leads to others committing suicide. Now, the follow on suicides are often people that already have mental issues and are encouraged by the media coverage of the first to go ahead and do it themselves. The bigger the news, the more the coverage, the more it influences follow on suicides (NPR, Media Should Tread Carefully in Covering Suicide). How big a leap is it to think that a mass killing getting major coverage might influence some other mentally disturbed person to do the same? I bet there are psychologists studying this right now.
Also, if someone who already has mental issues has decided to go out in a big way, to be remembered, to make history... they see all the coverage of other grisly murders as a way to do that. That might sounds stupid but do you know who James Wilkes Booth is? Or Hitler? Or Charles Manson? Or O.J. Simpson (even without being convicted)? Or the Unabomber? Or Ted Bundy?
Our society, and especially our media, makes a really big deal out of murderers. There's books, hours and hours of news stories, TV movies, big budget movies, and dozens of websites. The underlying message to the mentally ill is “I'll be a big deal if I'm a murderer, the bigger, the messier, the more disturbing, the bigger I'll be and the longer I'll be remembered”.
So, my suggestion for curbing the mass killing rate is to ban or severely limit media coverage. Ban anyone mentioning the killer's name. Erase the killer from the public record, make sure no one will ever remember them. Send the message that criminals like that don't deserve to be remembered by anyone. No movies about them, no biographies, or true crime books. Nothing. Be extremely respectful of the victim's families, funerals, and their personal space. Don't release victim information, photos, or videos without express consent of the families (ban the media from paying for those things). If a family member wants to talk, that's up to them, but absolutely nothing without permission. Don't glorify the event, keep the coverage short, to the point, and move on.
In that spirit, I'm not listing any of the names or specifics on this site. Notice, I've referenced several of these events in this post without going into any detail (the only ones I mentioned were to make a point and are already infamous). I'll be the first, I don't mind.
Failing media restrictions, at the very least I want us to have a very honest, open, and thorough discussion on the topic. Maybe we can come up with some real solutions.