Like most Americans, I’m shocked and saddened by the Newtown tragedy.
In the wake of mass killings such as this, we are often provided with three proposed solutions—new legislation, increased attention to mental health, and a reduction in Hollywood-style violence. But how viable are these solutions?
First, it’s not immediately clear how federal legislation could have prevented the Newtown killer, Adam Lanza, from murdering his mother and taking her assault weapons.
Congress can pass a law banning such weapons from being sold to U.S. citizens going forward (in fact, according to this Wall Street Journal article, Senator Dianne Feinstein is considering federal legislation), but there are still so many of these weapons out there in American homes that nothing short of physically seizing them would prevent another Adam Lanza from following a similar playbook.
Second, the notion of recognizing and taking steps to fix mental illness is another broad discussion that has been taking place in the public media.
Adam Lanza was apparently mentally disturbed, and in the wake of Newtown a much-shared article entitled “I Am Adam’s Lanza’s Mother” has given folks a harrowing portrayal of what it’s like to raise a mentally ill child. Yet the solution offered in this article is vague, relating to a need for expanded mental health services to identify and treat disturbed people. The writer is obviously not Adam Lanza’s mother, and it seems somewhat premature to claim that anyone knows what exactly set Lanza off. Do we need more and better medications, suggesting that the pharmaceutical industry could be our savior? Do we ask already broke state and federal governments to prioritize what will surely amount to expensive mental health evaluation and care? Suggesting broad changes to the nation’s mental-health system seems both premature and ill-conceived.
The third major solution relates to reducing Hollywood and video-game violence. If this sounds familiar, it’s exactly what people were talking about back in August when James Holmes shot up the Batman Rises premiere in Aurora, Colorado.
Like a predictable script, the same argument that “Hollywood is too violent” has come back for the umpteenth time. Aside from a few scheduling changes as recorded here, Hollywood is unlikely to make any measurable changes as a result of Newtown. This is the chicken-and-egg “art versus life” debate (i.e., does art imitate life or does life imitate art). In a capitalist society which puts a value on things like sex, drugs, and violence, this debate is mostly over; the genie is long since out of the bottle, and any movement in this direction would suggest a return to the days of censorship.
I hate to be so cynical and troll-like, but the unfortunate truth is that no one agency or organization or piece of legislation can stop another Newtown… another Aurora… another Columbine… from happening again. These mass killings are the product of an American culture which our ancestors established and which contemporary society continues to reflect. Everybody’s right in identifying causes related to gun control, mental health, and Hollywood violence; indeed, these causes continually converge and overlap like individual components of a storm system, occasionally producing the conditions for a mass killing in the same way that a combination of temperature, pressure, and the direction of the Gulfstream might create a blizzard.
The flaw with these proposed solutions is that they represent wide-ranging attempts to manage individual behavior from the top down. It makes a good talking point for pundits to single out a particular process or organization for change, but as I think I’ve shown above these are little more than feel-good of-the-moment suggestions that will have little impact on the underlying culture. They are inefficient solutions subject to political manipulation and budgetary constraints. And the fact that nobody has been able to implement any one of them after years of debate shows that they are not particularly viable.
I believe that instead of waiting for others to shape culture through these top-down approaches, individual Americans need to make more mindful choices, to be more aware of themselves and their interaction with these broad cultural forces. Instead of waiting for someone else to make a change, communities and families and individuals need to take a moment to reflect on their relationship to Newtown.
Do your friends or relatives own guns? Lobby them to safely dispose of them, reduce their stockpile, or at the very least make sure they are secured from theft.
Does your workplace, school, county, or state have the appropriate mental health support for employees, students, and/or citizens? If not, work at the grassroots to have something put into place.
Do you think Hollywood is too violent? Don’t watch violent films or television shows, and don’t play violent video games. Don’t let your children do it either.
And so on.
According to this list, there have been 15 mass killings so far this year at the cost of at least 88 lives—more than one mass-killing per month on average, with the August shooting in Aurora and the recent Newtown killing standing out as the highest profile.
The mass-killing problem is too deeply rooted in American culture to eliminate it through top-down regulation or industry-wide changes.
Only individual Americans, acting mindfully en masse to change their own and others’ patterns of consciousness and consumption, can reduce the likelihood that mass killings will continue to hit like clockwork every month or so.