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.