Elephant In The Room: America's Violent Culture

Whenever there's a mass shooting (or "going postal" in American slang), Republican politicians and the NRA always seem to insist that these are all isolated incidents and that they'll never happen again.
Photo: Stephanie Cornfield

America has a serious problem with gun violence.  There is no simple, magic bullet solution. We need a comprehensive solution, addressing gun safety, mental health, and America's violent culture, says Scott Benowitz.

I was born in 1972, so I don't have any personal memories of incidents which occurred in the 1960's. It is my understanding that the August 1966 shooting at the University of Texas at Austin (Charles Whitman) is largely considered to have been the first modern "mass shooting incident."

This was not the first mass shooting in American history, but prior to that incident, these mass shooting incidents really were extremely rare- so mass shootings really were "isolated" incidents back then.  Since then, these have not really been "isolated" incidents at all.  They've become increasingly commonplace. And it is now only a matter of time until the next ones occur.

So here's my take on these "isolated" incidents of random shootings, which are quite obviously not "isolated incidents" at all if they occur with the frequency that they do here.

There are three (3) elements that need to be looked at- those are gun laws, reforming our mental health care system and the much more complicated third issue which is actually looking at the sources of violence within American society.

1. Easy access to guns is a part of the problem, but that is only a small part of the problem.

Yes, easy access to guns is a part of the problem, but that is only a small part of the problem.

Federal legislation which would ban high caliber assault rifles, and banning high capacity magazine clips is probably not only necessary, but blatantly obviously long overdue.

Assault rifles are not used for hunting deer, rather they are a recipe for future disasters. 

Firstly, in some parts of the U.S., such as the most rural parts of Alaska, people need to own guns to protect themselves against dangerous wildlife.

Secondly, if guns really are outlawed, people will simply begin to make home-made guns.  There was a time when this would have been very difficult to do, but it is now actually not difficult at all.

All that anyone needs to do is to acquire a used industrial grade smelter, read the instructions manuals, and then they can manufacture home-made guns by using a template or a mold which can be made from a real gun.  This practice has actually become relatively commonplace throughout many of the countries in South America as well as in Central America where there are stringent gun ownership laws, and their law enforcement agencies actually at least attempt to enforce those laws.

There was an episode of "Underworld Inc." on the National Geographic Channel last year which was entitled "Ghost Guns," which showed people in South America using home-made smelting equipment to manufacture home-made guns from templates which were modeled from real guns.

Homemade guns will be even more dangerous. These weapons will have no serial numbers which can identify them, the rifling patterns in their barrels will not be on file in the ATF's databases, and because they're made with nothing more than used industrial grade smelters, rather than in professional munitions factories, their range will be far less accurate.  That means that in addition to shooting the intended victims, shooters will also be inadvertently shooting at even more people who are simply standing in close proximity to their intended victims.

Therefore, for those two aforementioned reasons, an outright ban on all new guns is a notably pointless idea.  If guns are banned, we'd still have just as many incidents of random shootings.  People would simply be using home-made guns instead of guns that were manufactured in professional arms factories.

2. Reforming our mental healthcare system is long overdue

The article that our staff writer Nika Gottlieb wrote for our May 1st issue about mental healthcare actually does a very nice job addressing some of the serious problems that I've also observed with mental health care in the 21st century.

Right now our psychiatric hospitals are filled with quite a few people who don't need to be in them at all, while the next people who will "go postal" in these "isolated random incidents" are walking around free, having never received a single day of psychiatric care in their lives.  (If you're not familiar with the phrase, "to go postal" is an American slang term for a workplace shooting incident.)

While many American psychiatrists are very well trained to recognize who does and does not have health insurance plans which will cover an inpatient stay, and they are trained to pump people full of medications whether they need them or not, many of them are extremely poorly trained in how to distinguish small minor problems which can be dealt effectively with on an outpatient basis from very serious problems, to recognize the small handful of people who really are unstable and dangerous.  This needs to come from some very serious changes in medical schools, how people are taught to distinguish between the minor problems and the most serious ones.

3. How acceptable violence is within American society?

And then there's the third issue which is much more complex than the other two issues that I've just mentioned, which is how acceptable violence is within our society. This is one of those "elephant in the room" issues which has largely been ignored since the 19th century.

Different societies throughout the world have different views on how much violence is acceptable.  In parts of the Caribbean, Central America and South America, the situation is seemingly even worse than it is here, while in other parts of the world, levels of incidents of violence are far lower.  People tend to try to blame everything except for the real source of the problem- and the source of the problem largely IS that people aren't sitting down with pre-schoolers, children, youth groups, elementary school students, right on up through adults and having serious discussions about violence in American society, and whether or not violence is an acceptable behavior at all.

People love to try to blame television shows, video games, comic books, movies, song lyrics, etc. as glorifying violent behavior- however none of those actually have anything whatsoever to do with any real problems.

In the movie "Bowling For Columbine" (2002), Michael Moore actually does a very impressive job examining precisely this issue.  He points out that in quite a few other countries throughout the world, people have the exact same television shows, video games, comic books and movies that we do here, people in other countries enjoy listening to the same music that Americans do, and in many of those countries, incidents of violent behavior and random shootings are very rare.

It's not the television shows, the video games, the comic books, the movies, or the song lyrics that make people act violently; it's the fact that no one is actually discussing another issue that's been ignored for close to 200 years, which is why people are so eager to act out violently, to begin with.  This issue is even more complex than the first two which I've mentioned (gun laws and modernizing our archaic mental healthcare system.)

And again until we have politicians at the federal and state level who are willing to closely and realistically examine all three of those issues that I've just mentioned, we will solve nothing.  If only one or two of those issues are examined and addressed, then, unfortunately, it will only be a matter of time before we're reading about the next "isolated incident" of a tragic random shooting or bombing.  And then the next one, and then the ones after those...


Film director Gus Van Sant directed a movie entitled "Elephant," which was released in 2003.  "Elephant" is a fictional story about a mass shooting at a high school in Oregon, though if you pay very close attention to the details of the plot, you can see that the incident in the movie is a composite (plus some embellishment from the scriptwriters) based on elements from some of the high school shootings which had occurred during the 1990's- including the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado.



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