So, ‘broader societal problems’ in Newtown, or not?

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It goes without saying that the GetReligion crew has been closely watching the coverage of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., waiting for religion shoes to drop. So far, other than coverage of the vigil services, the emphasis — especially at CNN — has been gun control, gun control, gun control.

Since I know readers will bring this up, let me stress that, personally, I am in favor of much stricter gun control laws than we currently have in America. However, the fact that this horror took place in Connecticut, a state with rather strict laws, has made the media coverage even more poignant. The guns were legal.

As Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher said, in complete frustration:

Absent a total and draconian ban on weapons, how do you write a gun control law that can prevent a middle-aged suburban Connecticut woman who enjoys target shooting from buying guns?

The question of why this woman felt that she needed an assault weapon will be discussed, for sure. The mind boggles.

But back to the purpose of this blog, which is the discussion of religion-news coverage in the mainstream press.

In most cases, debates about massacres of this kind often devolve into discussions between gun-control liberals, gun-freedom libertarians and various kinds of cultural conservatives who see evidence of various forms of social decay — from violence in our movies, to splintered homes, to increasingly value-neutral schools, to first-person-shooter video games that resemble the programs our military leaders use to make soldiers more willing to pull triggers in combat. Then there are people like me whose beliefs fall in more than one of these camps.

However, The Washington Post has run a short story based on Pew Research Center data that claims to offer evidence of a shocking, and apparently growing, two-way split in the American population:

In the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, one of the central questions being asked is what this horrible incident tells us about who we are as a country.

Not much, if you look at the polling conducted on this matter since the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. Since that time, the tendency for people to call these sorts of mass murderers isolated incidents without any broader meaning has soared just as those saying the events are indicative of broader societal problems has ebbed.

Here’s a chart from Pew Research Center detailing polling in the aftermath of the three previous high profile incidents of violence committed with a gun.

Following the Aurora movie theater murders, two-thirds of people said it was an isolated act committed by a troubled individual. That’s a significant increase from the 47 percent who said the same following the Virginia Tech incident.

“Isolated incidents” is supposed to be the conservative, pro-guns option. The assumption, then, is that the “broader societal problems” option is the politically and culturally liberal option in this survey.

That’s interesting, in light of the fact that so many cultural and religious conservatives have, for years, seen these tragic evidence of broader, frightening cultural trends in American life. The Post story, and perhaps the Pew data, does not seem to take this into account. Instead, we read:

Among those who said that Aurora represented a broader societal problem, roughly six in ten believed the priority should be controlling gun ownership rather than protecting gun rights. Among those who viewed it as an isolated incident, just more than 40 percent prioritized controlling the ownership of firearms.

The simple truth, at least according to this poll data, is that the increasing tendency in the wake of shootings like the one in Connecticut is to chalk it up to a troubled person and move on.

In short, I think this story organizes America’s frustration and pain on these issues into TWO CAMPS, when there are at least three.

Where are the religion ghosts in that equation? That would be among the cultural conservatives who see the horrors of Newtown and similar visions of hell as evidence of, well,”broader societal problems” that are moral and spiritual, as well as cultural and political.

Ghosts? I would say.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Roberto

    If the Newtown perpetrator turns out to have been mentally ill, then I’m not certain what the point of invoking “broader societal problems” would be, unless by this one means to examine the libertarian view of guns that accepts the occasional slaughter of innocents as the price we pay for second amendment freedom.
    TMatt knows that I spent many years trying to see the connection between cultural trends and terrible events like this one. The problem is that when we are dealing with the mentally-ill this search collapses because it assumes a level of reason in a setting defined by the absence of reason. For every Columbine where the perpetrators seemed to be acting out of a malevolent worldview, there are three or more incidents where the perp is, to put it bluntly, nuts. You can question why he wasn’t institutionalized and I can question why we don’t spend more on these kinds of facilities — more to the point, more humane facilities — and services and why in the heck they have access to weapons of, if not mass destruction, then mass carnage.
    As a Christian, the last thing I want is people invoking God in the wake of this horrible event because bitter experience teaches me that they will in all likelihood do more harm than good.

    • yan

      “If the Newtown perpetrator turns out to have been mentally ill, then I’m not certain what the point of invoking “broader societal problems” would be.”

      The topic of broader societal problems bears investigation because it wasn’t all that long ago, when we had just as many guns as we do now, when individuals, however crazy they were, didn’t go around massacring large numbers of people in one fell swoop.

  • Harris

    To the extent that religious conservatives simply side with the libertarian gun crowd, that might be evidence of a different sort of moral decay. A syncretism that has defined much of Evangelical political engagement. In the wake of tragedy cooler, more spiritually atuned heads are needed; say like that of Ross Douthat.

  • Jerry

    Many on the religious left see serious societal problems as well. To be sure these are different ones than conservatives see. For example, the left might see the relatively successful attempt to destroy the social safety net rather than raise taxes as part of the problem. Because without a robust health system that all are part of, people don’t get treatment for problems. I don’t know if this was the case here, but in general it’s an issue.

    This gets down to the question of what is causing the extremely high level of shootings and killings in the USA versus other western nations? Obviously religious people from all sides will have answers to this question.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I was surprised (because rarely mentioned in the media)) how many similar massacres have occurred in other countries with very strong anti-gun laws–like Scotland. One news channel presented news clips from a number of them–once. I have not seen the list anywhere else. Also, I have only heard once in all the viewing I’ve done in the past few days that Conn. has some of the strictest gun laws in the country.
    I do not own a gun and have never even touched one. But it bothers me that before anyone has been buried that the anti-gun, anti- Second Amendment lobby is all over the airways and other media exploiting the tragedy on Conn.
    I am convinced that the real problem is not guns, but our blood-drenched popular culture combined with the break up of the family structure creating a moral anarchy that can act as a trigger for unspeakable horrors.
    But who in the media will talk of bedrock morality of any kind these days–the only “mortal sin” is to not be politically correct.
    And who will bring up the interconnectedness of the various media outlets which produce bloody video games to “splatter” movies and grisly TV dramas. Is Bill O’Reilly going to take on Fox??? Is David Gregory going to run a crusade against NBC??? Of course not. Better to look away, protect the hand that feeds you, and attack the Second Amendment while hiding behind the First Amendment.
    How about Congress fabricating one of those “Christmas Tree” bills?? One that puts a bunch of issues together. One that attacks the violence problem from both the gun and the media angles???

    • northcoast

      This Huffington Post article may not be what you had in mind, but it shows that the US is not the only country where people with guns commit these senseless crimes. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/20/deadliest-mass-shootings_n_1688820.html

    • Alan

      Here’s your list: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0777958.html

      The overwhelming number of mass killings have happened in the U.S.

      And it isn’t like Huckabee didn’t get his deluded say in too.

    • Darren Blair

      I live next to Ft. Hood.

      When Hassan came through, I actually encountered someone who was screaming for gun control *before the bodies were even cold*.

      Here I am trying to find out whether or not some people I know are still alive or not (they were, thank God), and this guy’s spouting off.

      It took him a while to finally figure out why so many people were mad at him…

    • Mary S.

      Yes, Have you heard of the new “Christmas Tree” bill. Lots of unrelated, wasteful spending. An assault weapon was not used in this incident as I understand it. As for hoepitalizing or institutionnalizing the mentally ill, it is true that they are released as soon as the drugs begin to work…. and then many times the patient will discontinue the drugs.

      Societal problems? Moral? Spiritual? Cultural? Political?
      All of the above. Let us pray.

  • tmatt

    Roberto:

    I would certainly consider America’s crisis in mental-health care to be part of a larger spectrum of social and cultural issues. I should have mentioned that.

  • Julia

    A commenter mentions institutionalizing people with mental problems – that’ no longer an easy thing to do in the US. It takes a court hearing to get somebody institutionalized and they get out as soon as the drugs kick in.
    This is from first-hand experience.

  • http://lauraleeauthor.wordpress.com/ Laura Lee

    On most issues there are many possible ways of looking at things. Yet our discourse tends to devolve into “one side says” and “the other side says” and then people are perceived to be aligned with one side or another and the debate tends to devolve into “you liberals” and “you conservatives…” Once the argument turns into “people like you would say that” then you’ve come to a completely unproductive place. I would like to see more evidence based information. What has been tried? What do studies show? Not what organization do I belong to or which pundit do I watch in the evening.

  • Alan

    “Absent a total and draconian ban on weapons, how do you write a gun control law that can prevent a middle-aged suburban Connecticut woman who enjoys target shooting from buying guns?”

    Well, you could start with something based on Israeli gun regulations – would have kept her from having so many, and kept the amount of ammunition down at the very least. And, given what is coming out now about her attitude, its likely in Israel she wouldn’t have gotten a license to buy them in the first place.

    As for the religion angle – why don’t you comment on what Huckabee had to say about that? Maybe you could give some analysis to the supposed connection between removal of God from schools and this massacre – or is that not the type of misguided religious reporting you like to bring attention to?

  • sari

    Instead of worrying about and catering to its constituents’ opinions, the press would be more effective if it presented the news as news without commentary. I’ve been happy that most of the major news organizations have been careful when reporting on Newtown, and that there’s been less speculation than usual and lots of overt correction as the police provide new information. Danbury’s local paper has provided more in the way of local coverage, including interviews with clergy, parishioners, and religious services (memorial and Sabbath), and taken care to include non-Christians in the mix.

    In the days to come, information released by the police will shape the debate. Maybe, unlike Colorado and Arizona, the media and its reader/viewership will come to reserve judgment until the facts have been presented.

  • John M.

    Tmatt,

    I’m not sure this is what you meant, but you imply that your mind boggles at why this woman would “need an assault weapon”. Many Americans find so-called “assault weapons” lots of fun to shoot and enjoyable to own for a variety of reasons. My experience tells me that many of the culturally sheltered urban Americans who make up newsrooms don’t get religion or firearms.

    If newsrooms dont seek to understand the people they cover, then their insularity will cost them their credibility. This harms not only the business model of the American media, it harms our body politic.

    -John

  • tmatt

    ALAN:

    GetReligion focuses on news coverage, as did this post. We rarely comment on commentary material, unless it is directly related to the subject of religion news and or coverage.
    Meanwhile, my mind still boggles at the need for recreational assault weapons and I say that as someone raised in Texas with a father who was a brilliant marksman. I am not an urban American, in terms of background.

  • tmatt

    SARI:
    I, too, am not interested in opinions. I thought the viewpoint in the WPost/Pew piece was interesting in terms of what it told us about the views of some of the elite journalists covering this event.

    • sari

      Maybe, tmatt, though the need to add a third group, one defined by a particular religious worldview, eludes me. “Religious” people sit on both sides of the fence.

      Political rhetoric seems to be the driving force behind the WaPo article. The shooting provided a golden opportunity for gun control proponents to step up onto their soapboxes; that it involved 20 young children effectively muzzled the anti-gun control contingent. To their credit, much of the press has a adopted a more wait and see attitude. I would’ve expected the NYT to salivate over the prospect of addressing more stringent gun control, but the early articles centered on the event and the victims. Hopefully, as data about the shooter and his situation emerges, discourse will shift to the bigger and more intractable problem of adequate mental health care and the rights of the mentally ill vis-a-vis those of the larger community.

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  • Howard

    Since this is a blog about accuracy in reporting, let’s start with this line, “The question of why this woman felt that she needed an assault weapon will be discussed, for sure. The mind boggles.”

    She did not own an assault weapon. She owned what is called an “assault-styled” rifle. Cosmetically it looks just like a real assault rifle — which is selective fire, meaning it can be operated in fully automatic mode — but functionally it is just another semiautomatic rifle. Calling it a semiautmatic rifle, however, does not so fully achieve the boggling of the mind. This inevitably leads to the question: Is this inaccuracy due to ignorance, or is it deliberate? Is it a lack of research, just parroting “what everyone else is saying”, or is it something short of full honesty?

  • Meggie

    I’ve been very impressed with the compassion and maturity shown by so many, including some of the grieving parents. People seem willing to put political hysteria aside and to take a good, hard, objective look at what needs to be done to help avoid “next time.” People who have previously supported very liberal gun laws (such as Joe Scarborough) are calling for better gun control, and many people are pointing out the need for better mental health care. The solution will almost certainly need to be multi-faceted. There are over 300,000,000 of us in this country, and we all want to keep our children safe. I am confident that we can do something to address this problem and to reduce the incidence of future tragedies.

  • Bryan

    The fact that a 6 year-old kid can be diagnosed with and medicated for a “psychological disorder” for not wanting/being able to pay attention in a school classroom, but there is even the slightest question from anybody whether a grown man who guns down twenty children in cold blood had a “mental illness” or not speaks volumes about the absolutely perverse cultural climate in this country.

    If that man did not have a mental illness then “mental illness” has no meaning. And let’s recall that the Aurora “Batman” shooter was an honors graduate student in neuroscience.

    Think of all the things that have not just increased or emerged in the span of less than one human lifetime, but have absolutely flooded our society: Graphic violence and casual sex in TV, movies, and video games, divorce, broken homes, absent parents, legalized abortion, public and un-punished political corruption, institutionalization of everything, an overmedicated populace, and a cultural climate that mocks and derides any notion of the sacred or transcendental, including the intrinsic value of human life itself. To act like these are not factors seems like a supreme act of willful ignorance in my opinion.

    “It is no measure of sanity to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” -Krishnamurti


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