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When Mental Illness Meets US Gun Culture | The Nation

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Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Thoughts on arts, culture, medicine, politics—to name just a few.

When Mental Illness Meets US Gun Culture


The National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

After a shooting that injured thirteen people—including a toddler—in a park in Chicago last week, my friend complained it didn’t make the national news. Likely, there are just too many mass shootings competing for our attention: a few days earlier, Aaron Alexis had slaughtered thirteen people in a Washington, DC, naval office building.

The National Rifle Association exploits an easy tautology whenever we have a mass shooting: if anyone is so awful to do this, they must be mentally ill. If the person was a video gamer or a violent movie watcher, even better. This kind of reverse engineering creates a reliable narrative of an “other” that gives false reassurance that we would never have neighbors, friends, spouses who would do such a thing.

In a fascinating piece in The New York Times, Stanford professor of anthropology T.M. Luhrmann explores cultural differences in schizophrenia, specifically the commanding inner “voices.” I always assumed the voices were always dark, along the lines of “Must…kill…” However, the dark auditory hallucinations that mass shooters such as Adam Lanza and Aaron Alexis were said to have experienced may actually reflect a peculiarly American violence-and-gun-saturated culture. In a surprise twist, Professor Luhrmann and her colleagues at the Schizophrenia Research Foundation in Chennai, India, found that in Chennai, the commanding voices could be dark, but most often said a version of “Must…do…chores”; an example cited from one patient: “Go to the kitchen, prepare food.”

It is easy to square away mass gun violence by blaming violent video games, movies, and/or mental illness, but then we fail to understand the connection between it and the ubiquity of and easy access to guns in our society, as well as guns’ roles in our culture and self-image. It probably isn’t a coincidence that so many mass shooters spring not just from the ranks of the mentally ill but directly from gun culture, like Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood. Or Christopher Dorner, the Los Angeles shooter, an honorably discharged Navy Reservist and former policeman. These mass murderers were, also, at a different time, one of NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre’s oft-cited “good guys with guns.”

In a gun culture world, more guns equal more safety. But most other industrialized countries seem to feel the opposite, and interestingly, their gun homicide rates are a fraction of ours.

For that year I lived in Korea as a Fulbright scholar, only thirty-five miles from one of the most militarized borders in the world, the lack of guns was noticeable to me. Among my young adult Korean cohort, there was much talk about the two years of military service all the men were going to have to do, and that unlike in the United States, every Korean man over a certain age has handled a gun. In the civilian world, however, guns are illegal, police and security guards are unarmed and even directors shooting Korean War or gangster movies need go through a laborious process to obtain permits for each fake gun. The crime roundup in the nightly news showed police running after perps, the occasional taekwondo kick, but never dramatic shootouts.

And yet, Korea is even more wired than America: it has a video gaming culture that is (given the number of “Internet rooms” devoted solely to game playing) likely even more involved than the US’s. While LaPierre blames mass shootings on “blood-soaked films out there, like American Psycho,” (psst, Mr. LaPierre—get Netflix and update yourself a little), Korean directors such as Park Chan-wook pioneered über-violent gangster films that inspire American directors like Quentin Tarantino. But even if the mentally ill in Korea want to go more like Park Chan-wook’s killers in Oldboy than doing the dishes, in Korea there is not the means to fulfill their mass shooting fantasies. We can’t forget that Cho Seung-Hui, the shooter who killed thirty-two students and faculty and injured seventeen at Virginia Tech, was a Korean immigrant. Cho appears to have suffered from various forms of mental illness since he was a child. He was obsessed with guns and took pictures of himself posing on Oldboy-type stances. But the difference here was that he was able to purchase his Glock and his Walther semiautomatic pistols (with the requisite background checks) legally and go on to commit mass murder.

The United States is a gun culture. We see a cop, we see a gun. We are proud of it. Putting aside obvious Freudian references to guns = manliness, gun culture is part of an American myth that makes us feel good about ourselves: we protected ourselves, we “conquered” the frontier, we remember the Alamo. Don’t forget that John Hinckley shot and almost killed President Reagan because he believed that was the only way to “impress” the actress Jodie Foster.

Writing for The Guardian, Henry Porter points out that in the last forty-five years, more Americans lost their lives from firearms than in all wars involving the United States (which, on its own, is a lot). A raw look at the numbers, he says, suggests that a world-governing body, such as the UN, should get involved, just as it would in any other country mired in a bloody civil conflict.

Where does this culture get us, ultimately, especially when it intersects so dangerously with mental illness? With no medical credentials, I cannot comment on possible mental health issues George Zimmerman may have, but a Korean George Zimmerman (or a GZ of any other industrialized country, all of which have stricter gun laws than the US) would have had to live out his vigilante/hero fantasies by confronting his putative perp mano a mano. Had this been so, in a matchup between the vigilante and the teen, Trayvon Martin might have had a chance to finish the many years likely left to him.

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Further, we have a shining example of “give peace a chance” staring us in the face. A school bookkeeper named Antoinette Tuff averted a second Newtown school shooting with a deliberate rejection of gun culture. While face-to-face with a gun-wielding intruder who had broken into her school stating his intention to shoot (he had already shot at the police), instead of pulling a Calamity Jane and pulling out her own gun (Clarksville, Alabama, has opted to arm its teachers and staff), Ms. Tuff used compassion, empathy and emotional skills to engage the shooter. Mr. LaPierre has stated as a mantra after each successive mass shooting that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But here, there were no guys. And no guns. Only a courageous woman willing to face a semi-automatic weapon and 500 rounds, as well as the person holding them; the shooter was confused, paranoid, agitated, possibly mentally ill. But because of the unarmed Ms. Tuff—who ordered the police to stay back during this entire interval—the shooter gave himself up peacefully, no children died—and neither did he.

The NRA’s other favorite mantra is that guns don’t actually kill people, people do. But the intrinsic illogic of this is clear. Even the NRA itself, for its annual meeting this weekend, notified the attendees that there will be no guns. People will willingly, peacefully do what they are always accusing President Obama of theoretically scheming to do: give up their guns, of any sort, open or concealed carry, military-style, etc.—in order to enter the auditorium where the conference is being held, probably making this venue one of the safest places to be in America this weekend.

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