Random thoughts about the Newtown Shootings

Like many people I am still attempting to make sense of the Newtown shootings. The biggest arguments seem to be over the need for gun control. But there is so much more to this tragedy and our condition of violence that needs to be considered. I wish that I had the time to think more about this issue and put together a better organized post, but right now I just have some random thoughts about this situation.

The suicide of the mass murderers is extremely frightening – I may be incorrect about this, but I think we are seeing a new type of violence in our society. Innocent people have been gunned down in the past but usually they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Another person or institution was the target of our historical killers. I do not remember reading about people going into schools, theaters or churches and just indiscriminately gunning people down.

What I believe has changed is the willingness of the killers to commit suicide. That releases the killer from any concerns of worldly punishment. The killer is going to die anyway. Without the fear of trying to escape punishment, it seems that these killers are capable of doing horror that is more unspeakable than killers in the past. Why this propensity to commit suicide has developed is a mystery to me. But given my belief in human depravity, it is frightening as it increases the damage a person will do before dying by his (I will use male pronouns to describe mass murders until I see a female one) own hands.

There is no single solution – Any solution we create has to deal with multiple problems. The problem is not just that assault weapons are available. It is also problematic that we have a dysfunctional mental health system. It is also problematic that we have video games and media that encourage violence. There are issues of school security and moral values. Anyone who only wants to deal with only one of these issues is not a serious thinker about how to curb shootings in our society.

In fact I am suspicious of those who only talk of gun control or media violence or school security. In our politically polarized society it becomes easy to find a group to scapegoat, be they the NRA or Hollywood, and place all of the blame on them. For this reason, I would suggest comprehensive measures that incorporate all of the above issues so that the “blame game” can be spread around.

I see the biggest problem as violent video games – I am not going to violate the random thought above and claim that violent video games is the only problem. But it seems to me that the biggest sociological difference between crime now and in the past is violent video games. We have had automatic weapons, mentally ill individuals and violent movies for quite some time. But the level of violence in these video games is something that is quite new and quite scary.

Have you seen some of the first-person shooter games kids are playing with? The kid gets to pretend that he/she is the killer. He/she gets to point guns at people, pull the trigger and watch blood spurt out. This is what sociologists call “anticipatory socialization.” It prepares people for future acts. We do the same with a flight simulator. We are training pilots for future events. With video games we are essentially training future killers and socializing them to kill. We may have to rethink some of the license we give to having such violence glorified.

These killings will not end – Trust me, I do not want to acknowledge this. But reality forces me to admit that we can take all of the measures we want, and we will still have mass murders in our society. In the Newtown situation I am not sure what could have been done to stop it. The killer would not have shown up on any mental health screens. He probably would have been able to eventually procure a weapon. The school security was not incompetent, yet he still got into the school. Unfortunately, we are going to have these tragedies for the foreseeable future.

This does not mean that we should do nothing. We can hopefully reduce the number of tragedies with some common sense measures. Nevertheless, our goal cannot be the elimination of all future shootings. We are setting ourselves up for disappointment if we have the total elimination of mass murders as a goal. Rather we must realistically know that some shootings are still going to occur no matter what new laws and rules we establish.

We have to stop playing politics with this problem – I suspect that those who only want to deal with one element of this problem are playing political games. They seem more concerned about stigmatizing their political enemies than finding a comprehensive solution. But there are other ways we allow our political desires to interfere with our need to find a solution.

For example, like many people I was disappointed by the unwillingness of the NRA president to consider new gun laws in his press conference. Clearly, there is a vested interest in gun ownership that prevented him from honestly tackling the issue of gun violence. But his argument for the need of upgraded school security is on point. Why not have trained, armed security officers in schools if we can afford it? But this was heavily criticized by progressives who simply do not like the NRA. It is one thing to critique the NRA for not considering gun regulation. It is quite another to reject solutions because they are offered by the NRA. I suspect that many of these progressives rejected school security solutions out of spite against the NRA than out of the merits of that suggestion. I want all solutions on the table so that we can protect our most valuable asset – our children.

These are some of my “random thoughts”. We have to think about these issues if we are going to find a comprehensive answer to the problem of mass murders. I am not an expert in criminology and so I am not in the best position to consider answers for this problem. But I like to think that I can still offer some thoughtful contributions to confronting this issue. It is my hope that all of us will take a deep breath, step back and look at this problem with honesty and insight. It is then that we as a nation will develop the answers we need to confront this evil social problem.

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  • Andre

    Allow me to ask kindly that you change your use of the male pronoun to a gender neutral pronoun by presenting the following website as evidence: http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/mass/female_mass_murderer/1.html

    Though they certainly are far outnumbered by male mass murderers, female mass murderers do exist and it should be recognized. I love what you guys do here and I read most of the posts, even if I do not often comment.


  • George Yancey

    Now that I know of this particular mass murderer I will follow your advice. I have prefered accuracy rather than custom and so if I talked about Catholic Priests I will use the masculine pronoun since female Catholic Priests do not exists. To the best of my knowledge I did not think that female mass murderers did not exists either (although I know that female serial killers exists) but now I know that one does. So I will use gender neutral pronouns from this point forward.

  • buddyglass

    It’s my understanding (though I’m willing to be corrected) that said violent video games are nearly as prevalent in other high-income nations as they are in the United States, and yet we don’t see the same rate of “random mass killings”, even after adjusting for population differences. That’s a knock on video games as a possible driver of these shootings.

  • mike88

    Presumably there were many random mass killings in the past, although I would guess that most/all of these occurred in the context of battle or its aftermath (e.g. the sack of cities).

    What does seem ‘new’ is the eruption of random/mass killing in conditions of apparent peace/tranquility

    It does make you wonder what it is about modern society that can create that sense of bloodlust in some people that is so similar to battle or its aftermath

    • George Yancey

      That’s a good clarification. Historically, there have been a lot of ugly massacres in war. We probably are a little de-sensitized to it. The mass killings in institutions like schools and theaters when there is no war is what we are reacting to.

  • Jerry Park

    I agree with buddyglass, “violent video games” has been an argument in the past and it doesn’t stick very well. Admittedly some of the current batch of games tries to be more “realistic” but I have difficulty believing that such realism provokes some to action. More importantly, these games are sold in thousands, how can it be an explanation for the actions of a few?

  • George Yancey

    But Jerry the same argument can be said about guns. There are hundred of thousands sold but only a few mass murderers. On all of the factors it is the push of a few people over the edge that can create atrosities such as NewTown. I do think it is a combination of factors but video games is an important part of what is happening. It is not all of it, but it has to be taken into account. I accept the argument of video games in other countries but why mass murders now. What has changed. I think it is violent video games and movies that has been an important factor.

    • Jerry Park

      I hear you George, I guess I want something systematic and clearly in evidence that resembles a correlation. Did every shooter have the same kind of violent video game we’re talking about? I recall that Seung Hui Cho was into such games, and in that case I think that seems plausible, but I am not so sure that this was the case for the others. One idea that comes to mind which is probably too far-fetched, I wonder if it’s not so much the violence of the games but the narration and realism of the games. One new development in video games is creating a sense of realism by having the player identify with the protagonist. In the absence of other more compelling narratives, I wonder if some young men relate to these characters and the narratives they are created in. Many of the darker characters are loners, sullen and find themselves in near un-winable situations. Again it’s a stretch, but such games are quite different from Space Invaders and even Mortal Kombat which lack narrative depth. Those games convey a scenario without much embellishment.

  • George Yancey

    Yeah Jerry. I think this is one area where we are not going to have a systematic source since there are so few mass murderers (thankfully). I think that different factors are going to have a contrasting impacts in different murderers. That is way I want a multi-faceted apporach. Although I think that video games are the most important aspect by no means would I advocate an apporach that only addressed video games. For me a comprehensive apporach seems the best. But I am still working out my thoughts on this issue.