How Both the Left and the Right are Kidding Themselves About Gun Violence

Our time’s epidemic of gun violence is truly horrendous. This is particularly so when the targets are schools and young children as can so often be the case today. But explanations and solutions put forward by both the Left and the Right offer few answers that will really make a difference. And rather than looking squarely at how proposed answers fall short, in response to the carnage, we see each side only doubling down on its limited conclusions.  

The Left makes the problem the availability of guns. I support the larger portion of proposals that would make it harder to obtain guns, particularly those that limit availability of assault rifles and the like that have no justifiable place in a sane society. And the data shows that gun control efforts can make a difference. But I don’t have the illusion that such proposals would eliminate the problem. If those intent on harm really want a gun, they will find a way to get it. As a psychiatrist, I think there is one way that gun control efforts could make a big difference—by reducing suicide. When guns are not in people’s everyday proximity, they are much less likely to be used impulsively in moments of despondency. But when it comes to mass shootings and domestic terrorism—where planning is almost always involved—even the most stringent of restrictions can have at best limited effect. 

The Right makes the problem more the people who commit the acts. If it is interested in responding to recent events at all, it would be through red-flag laws that attempt to identify people who might commit such acts or by hardening schools through their design or through a more direct law enforcement presence. Red-flag laws similarly have a place. But as any at all experienced mental health professional knows, identifying and stopping people whose instability might make them vulnerable to committing such acts is extremely difficult. The greater portion of people who commit such crimes have no obvious psychiatric symptoms. Attention to the hardening of schools—at the least to being sure that schools can be physically secured and that people know needed procedures—again has value. But turning schools into fortresses is the last thing we need when kids are already feeling unsafe (and too often already finding school feeling like prisons).  

So what do we do? To start, we need to be humble to the fact that the solutions commonly put forward by both the Left and the Right are partial at best. And we need to look more big-picture both for explanations and for solutions. When I do, I don’t find what I see comforting. Certainly, I don’t see easy answers. But I think the effort at least offers that we might make a start toward real solutions.

As a start, with regard to explanation, most immediately I look around and see violence rewarded and romanticized. The “if it bleeds it leads” dictum drives even the most supposedly responsible of news reporting, a reality that  normalizes violence. And it creates a situation where if one wants to be on the news, committing a mass killing provides a very reliable way to succeed. Movies and television programs commonly include shootings—often many. Indeed, the excitement and apparent significance created by such carnage is often how such “entertainment” most keeps us glued to the screen. And the fact that video games are often about little else is a main reason they can be so addictive. Addictive drugs work by providing artificial substitutes for real fulfillment. The jolts of stimulation created by the repeated shootings and explosions common in video games make them a particularly effective electronic drug.      

When I look around, I also recognize that school shootings are not alone in the kind of phenomena they represent. They reflect a kind of desperation, anger, and hopelessness increasingly prevalent in society. Creative Systems Theory, the body of work on which much of my contribution is based, speaks of a modern “Crisis of Purpose.” We recognize this fundamental kind of disconnect in increasing rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, and addiction of all sort. I think of today’s growing social and political polarization as both a product of this crisis and an amplifier contributing to it. I put today’s growing prevalence of gun violence in that larger context. 

Do such recognitions provide a way forward?  At least perhaps they help us better ask the important questions. Creative Systems Theory proposes that our times are demanding a new, more grown up chapter in the human narrative, a new “Cultural Maturity.” It also describes how we don’t have to create such changes from whole cloth, how at least their potential is built into how we are. Cultural Maturity is not something we can just will. It involves necessary changes not just in what we think, but how we think. And there is no way to have changes happen magically and quickly. But we can at least begin to ally ourselves with them. 

With regard to gun violence, what happens when we do? At the least we find ourselves more aware of when we are rewarding and romanticizing violence and much less willing to tolerate such self-destructiveness. In addition, and of particular importance, Culture Maturity’s changes—in providing a new kind of guiding story—work as a direct antidote to today’s Crisis of Purpose. Specifically with regard to gun violence, by helping to better connect us with real significance in our lives, they make pseudo-significance of all kinds, including that provided by violent acts—much less attractive. 

Such big-picture interpretations can be legitimately debated. And for the short-term, the assistance they provide is limited. For now, larger perspective can at least help us get beyond polarized debate and draw on the best of what is being advocated from both the Left and Right. And it can help us find the courage needed to recognize just how encompassing and demanding the important larger questions ultimately are. Just the fact that there may indeed be a way forward for me provides an important kind of hope.