by Lora-Ellen McKinney, Ph.D.
On May 14, 2022, 10 people went grocery shopping in Buffalo, New York. They were murdered and yet more were injured by an 18-year-old white supremacist who drove four hours to a Black neighborhood with a legally purchased AR-15 automatic weapon. Less than a week later, 19 elementary school children were killed in Uvalde, Texas, targeted by an 18-year-old from their community in possession of legally acquired AR-15 rifles. Less than a week later, over the Memorial Day weekend, there were 17 mass shootings. As I write, police are managing the aftermath of a shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
On a painfully regular basis, Americans experience gun trauma in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities. The deaths are senseless, if singular. The tragedy of the loss of human life is traumatic. The pain is felt locally. Americans surpass all other countries in gun ownership, with approximately 120 guns per 100 people. Three percent of the population (7.5 million people) became new gun owners between 2019 and 2021. I don’t know anyone who owns a gun, which means that someone has far more than 1.2 guns. Most gun deaths are suicides.
From those on the political right we hear:
- The only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
Wrong. In the Top’s Grocery Store in Buffalo, New York, the good guy with a standard weapon shot five times at an 18-year-old who wielded an AR-15 and wore body armor that the standard bullets could not pierce. In Uvalde, Texas, groups of police officers, border patrol, and SWAT teams stayed outside the Robb Elementary School for 78 minutes while children called 911 multiple times for assistance. Police officers were afraid to face guns that they could hear killing children.
- The gun is not the problem; the shooter is.
Most people who own AR-15 and similar firearms are law-abiding. Why should they have to give up their guns?
The gun and the shooters are problematic. Owners should relinquish military rifles to protect the common good. No governmental agency is planning to confiscate guns from those with legally registered firearms. Guns used to procure food or for sport are fine. But no citizen should own military weapons that make impossible the identification of those they kill except through DNA.
- The Second Amendment is sacrosanct.
Any additional regulation can be a slippery slope. The outcome could be the taking of all guns (which has never been recommended). Additionally, people would use the online announcement of gun purchases to harass people who own guns legally, as evidence in domestic violence cases, and to facilitate divorces.
Ours is the world’s longest-surviving written constitution. Written by the country’s founders in 1787 and ratified by nine of the 13 original states in 1788, the Constitution of the United States has, in many ways, stood the test of time. However, neither the Constitution nor any amendment is sacrosanct. The Founding Fathers designed a document that was flexible and could be adapted to reflect changes in our country. Consequently, the Constitution has been changed 27 times.
As to the slippery-slope concern, there is valid research evidence that women and other intimate partners are protected against violence and homicide by increased gun regulation.
- We should use federal funds to establish one-door entrances for school buildings.
One-door entrances are an idea that can complicate emergency exit procedures required to escape a shooter or a fire.
- Schools must be hardened — hiring armed safety officers, arming teachers, using bullet-deflecting wall blankets and bulletproof backpacks as shields.
These strategies assume that nothing can be done to address school safety that will keep people from killing our children and our elders. School safety officers have not proved useful. Teachers would not have time to unlock guns in time to use them to protect their students. A student adept at lock-picking (I was) will be able to gain access to that firearm.
Bulletproof backpacks, which became popular after the mass shooting at Parkland High in Florida, are in their current form ineffective against high-velocity rounds. They do nothing to protect the exposed portions of the student’s body from the devastating damage caused by AR-15s and similar weapons. Bulletproof wall blankets are a ludicrous idea. School walls should be covered with learning materials. Are adult learning and work spaces set up this way? How would we feel if they were?
- Violent media is the problem.
Every nation has violent television content, often imported from the U.S.
Every nation has violent video games and problematic social media. We are the only country with a mass shooting problem.
- Mass shootings are carried out by people who are mentally ill.
Some shooters are mentally ill, sociopathic, or suffer from other mental disorders, but the American Psychological Association has stated that most mentally ill persons are not likely to commit violence.
Some attributes are held in common by many mass shooters — they are often suicidal, expecting to die in prison, in a blaze of police fire, or by their own hand during their planned event. Eighty percent of mass shooters tell someone what they plan or announce their plans on social media. Anyone who hears or sees such information has an obligation to report it.
From those on the political left we hear a different and more cogent narrative:
- Gun safety is essential.
This is an idea held in nonpartisan agreement by 90% of the country and a majority of NRA members.
- The Second Amendment is not sacrosanct.
The Second Amendment was written when we had no national militia and imagined not automatic weapons but one-shot muskets for use by those who may need to take up arms against the tyranny of the government (England, not America). Private paramilitary organizations view themselves as legitimate but are illegal in every state because we have federal armed forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard). Even famously conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008): “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited … [T]he right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
Importantly, not everyone is protected by Second Amendment rights; African Americans have been killed while open-carrying registered weapons. Importantly, the Second Amendment has racist roots, having been crafted at least in part to ensure that slave owners could stop rebellions of the enslaved and formerly enslaved.
- We have had sensible federal and state gun laws before.
Though the concern from the right is that such laws impose significantly upon their rights as guaranteed by the Constitution, this is not true. For decades, there have been state and federal laws to protect citizens against firearms and ammunition deemed unnecessary for self-protection or hunting.
Signed into law on October 22, 1968, by President Lyndon B. Johnson and managed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Gun Control Act of 1968 followed the assassination by rifle of President John F. Kennedy. This law prohibited the interstate transport of weapons, except by licensed manufacturers, and importers.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Uniform Crime Reporting System for the period between 1998 and 2015, Massachusetts had the most restrictive and Vermont the most relaxed gun laws; during this period Vermont had 344 mass shootings.
For the first time in decades, a new federal gun safety law was passed by Congress on June 24, 2022. It provides millions of dollars for mental health, school safety, and crisis intervention programs. States receive incentives to include juvenile records in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a hopeful change, as most mass shooters are teens and young men, many with juvenile records that would otherwise be sealed. The new law changes the age and the process for purchasing guns and closes a loophole that has previously allowed gun purchases by domestic abusers. By this article’s publication, this law will likely have been signed by President Joe Biden.
- Most people who own automatic weapons are law-abiding.
This is true. However, as these guns cannot be used for hunting and their only purpose is to be weapons of war, ridding the country of them works for the public good. Neither the majority of people on the right nor on the left want our citizens slaughtered.
- Our current gun problems are not the result of mental illness.
America and other Western countries have similar rates of mental illness. Those countries do not have our gun culture, however, and as a result, have rates of gun violence far below ours. In addition, when they have a mass shooting, or in response to our most recent spate, those countries have designed federal gun safety legislation. The left makes the statement about mental illness not being the issue because that makes a shooting the sole responsibility of the shooter, rather than recognizing the problem as systemic.
In the week since the slaughter of 19 elementary school children and two of their teachers in Uvalde, Texas, there have been 2.4 mass shootings daily, with a total of 228 mass shootings in the United States since the beginning of the calendar year. A mass shooting event is defined as one in which a minimum of four people are killed. It won’t end unless – and until – we make it. Until we value our neighbors more than our guns.
Here’s what we can do:
- Parents should keep their children out of school in the fall, until such time as the schools are made safe, not by hardening but by gun safety legislation.
- Use what I’m calling the Mamie Till Strategy. Show the mangled bodies of those who die through mass violence to the public. Emmett Till’s mother showed the world his abducted, tortured, lynched, garroted body, weighted, and tossed in the river. He was unrecognizable, swollen, grotesque. That is the point. It is all too pretty if all we see are flowers, balloons, stuffed animals, candles, and coffins. It is always traumatic, but we need to understand the grotesque nature of what we are allowing by our inaction
- Highlight the lives of the murdered. Highlight each day on news, at the White House podium, and through social media, the life of a person killed in this manner until the laws change.
- Enhance health care to include mental health services. Annual physical and mental health checkups should be required, with therapeutic services provided for those with emotional challenges.
- Pass laws on a federal level. The patchwork of current state laws don’t work. Guns are illegal in Chicago, so people drive a short distance to Indiana and purchase what they want.
- Pass common-sense gun laws.
- Reduce easy access to dangerous weapons.
- Make weapons of war illegal.
- Use required training to create a culture of gun safety.
- Reduce gun access to people under the age of (at least) 21. People with developing brains do not need weapons with which they can easily take their own life or the lives of others.
I am a psychologist. We do have a mental health crisis in the United States; however, I will make this statement about mental illness and guns: People now feel unsafe in the places that should be the most safe. School. Church. Hospitals. Nightclubs. County fairs. Concerts. Grocery stores. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain dedicated to rational thought. Teens think with the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain. Mass shooters are typically young white men between the ages of 18 and 24; the rational portion of their brain is actively developing; their brains won’t be fully developed until they are between the ages of 25 and 27. Rapidly firing weapons are a dangerous option for those whose thoughts are based on emotion and who have limited capacity to predict the consequences of their behaviors. Eighteen is the legal age at which these young men can purchase deadly AK-15s and other automatic rifles.
As a consequence of our gun laws, gun culture, and increasingly fractured and fractious society, no place is safe. While statistically mass shootings are relatively rare, they are less rare in the United States than anywhere else in the world. When they happen, the shooting events are so spectacular, the places so unexpected, the losses so painful, that they don’t feel rare. And on a personal level, the statistics are irrelevant. If your child, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, coworker, neighbor, or friend is felled by a gun, the statistics are meaningless. You only care that your loved one died in fear. You only care that their bodies are unrecognizable, damaged by bullets meant to do what these have done – pierce metal; devastate the human body; blow heads up, just like in video games.
States with more gun laws have fewer mass shootings. Them’s the facts. According to the British Medical Journal, using data compiled from states, federal sources, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting System, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states with lax gun laws and high rates of gun ownership have higher rates of suicide, murder, and mass shootings. Them’s the dangerous facts. One concerning fact is this: A 10% increase in gun purchases leads to a 35% increase in mass shootings.
“Our analyses show that US state gun laws have become more permissive in recent decades and that a growing divide in rates of mass shootings appears to be emerging between restrictive and permissive states.”
The left and right have very different views, but neither side wants people slaughtered. My best ideas are presented here, with a recommendation that we meet in a place of agreement. There are other ideas, of course, but what I can tell you from years of treating children traumatized by guns in their homes and schools is that while mental illness is not necessarily what pulls the trigger in mass shooting events, these shootings are creating a mental health crisis in our communities. Traumatized children and adults. People whose trauma will remain with them for life, impacting their ability to learn, to trust, to love, to work, to live.
Improving community mental health means enacting sensible gun safety laws. It means understanding that no individual, no matter how law-abiding, requires implements of war. When I took civics, in the Before Times, we were taught the concept of the collective good, of doing for others what may be inconvenient for you. Wearing a mask and getting a vaccine to protect your neighbors. Offering your seat on the bus or subway to an elderly person, a pregnant woman, or a person with disabilities. And giving up military-grade weapons so that babies and elders can’t be slaughtered in large numbers in a few seconds anywhere at any time.
Imagine, if you can, the face of your child or loved one anytime you see a photo of someone killed in this manner. It will humanize this terror, placing it in your home and in your heart. Then do something. Because if you don’t, this could become a life-changing reality instead of a heart-rending thought exercise.
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Dr. Lora-Ellen McKinney is a clinical child psychologist, author, and poet. She lives in Renton, Washington, with her dancing dog, Scout.
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