Confronting Our Violent Culture: If Not Now, When?

Another gunman, another mass shooting. Almost 30 dead, most children. And already the politicians are deciding now is “not the right time” to talk about gun violence.

When is the right time? How many people – how many children – have to die until it becomes “the right time” to discuss guns and violence in America?

I cannot pretend to understand America’s fascination with guns. I’m grateful to have grown up in a country where, in my lifetime, I can remember the police rarely carried guns. I quite distinctly remember the first time I saw police officers with guns on their belts, and it terrified me. I grew up in a school where the teachers would reprimand you for pretending to shoot at classmates with your fingers. The idea that someone might choose to buy an actual gun and want to walk around with it in public makes me physically sick.

There’s one thing I do understand, though: our culture is sick with violence, glutted with it. Any discussion about the role of guns in American life will have to be about much more than guns themselves. We’ll have to discuss the violence in our films and TV shows and games (I say this as an avid gamer who has, over the past few years, increasingly withdrawn from the gun and violence fetishism they often display), reconsider how we rate cultural products and protect children from examples which might harm them, talk about our shameful response to mental illness, and the social breakdown which allows people to descend into misery and rage unnoticed and uncared for.

To be clear: I’m far from a prude. I have hardly any censorial impulse within me. But we have to recognize that we have generated a culture which revolves significantly around images of people killing other people. This is how many of us get our entertainment: we go to see re-enactments of things and people destroyed, sometimes we sit in front of a TV or computer screen and manipulate digital images of war and murder and violence. And, generally, the more “realistic” the portrayals become, the more we laud them. We use similar games to train actual soldiers to kill real people and, with the increasing use of drones, the conduct of war itself comes to resemble more closely our digital recreations of it.

I don’t know whether this sort of culture contributes to the extraordinary levels of violence in US society. I don’t even know how you would begin to address that hypothesis, in all its knotty complexity. But it seems unlikely that it helps. Any discussion of violence after the recent shootings should confront, honestly and without defensiveness, the obvious fact of our profoundly violent culture. And that discussion must start now.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • smrnda

    Though I often find cinematic or video game violence disgusting and childishly voyeuristic, I don’t think that by itself it’s much of an explanation. Japanese entertainment is pretty violent, but they have a pretty peaceful society with very low rates of crime.

    Perhaps a problem is the fact that, at least among many people in the States, indifferent to the suffering or welfare of others is paraded around as a virtue. I mean, people in other nations might find violent entertainment acceptable, but would probably find the idea that people might die for lack of health insurance to be inhumane; in the US, people are proud to say that people dying from a lack of insurance is not just acceptable, but more moral than say, raising taxes on millionaires.

  • TJ

    You are correct in your assessment of the culture of violence here. Of course this country would be safer if there wasn’t a single firearm anywhere. But that cat’s been out of the bag for WAY too long. What are we going to do, search through every home in America to confiscate every single gun? It might make you “physically sick” if a person (let’s call him Mr. Law-Abiding Citizen) decides to arm himself, but maybe he’s scared sh*tless. Maybe he knows that there are psychopathic a**holes (as witnessed yet again today) who don’t have any problem making him deader than a door nail at the least provocation. Maybe he has kids whose physical and emotional well-being depend on daddy making it home alive every night. I want MLAC to stand a chance against his friendly neighborhood psychopath should that occasion, god forbid, arise. I’m not saying he SHOULD carry a gun (many people probably do who aren’t mature/sane enough to do so), just that he should have the right to decide for himself. I’ll very occasionally carry a gun (driving late at night outside of my home town), for the exact same reason that I wear a seat belt: Tragedy probably won’t happen, but I’d HATE to need it and not have it. I mean, isn’t my life worth defending?

    • James Croft

      I find the plight of MLAC touching but not morally compelling. In his situation I hope I would recognize that the chance of my carrying a firearm making any conceivable situation better (rather than worse) is very small. And I think I’d want my children to grow up with the clear conviction that to leave the house prepared for violence (or, in the case of those toting legally-obtained rifles, warfare) is, in most cases, a morally objectionable way to live one’s life.

      • Vision_From_Afar

        So the MLACs should just have the decency to look surprised when someone else decides not to follow your moral high-ground example and starts doing what madmen do? I find your rebuttal morally satisfying but not realistic in modern America. Make your case for automatic rifles, and I might concede some points. Make your case about firearms of every type, and I’ll sigh at your naivete.
        Those with murder in their hearts and minds will not stop simply because they might not have access to a weapon of choice.

        • James Croft

          “Those with murder in their hearts and minds will not stop simply because they might not have access to a weapon of choice.”

          Indeed. And nor are they likely to stop because a poorly-trained civilian brandishes a firearm at them.

        • J. J. Ramsey

          “Those with murder in their hearts and minds will not stop simply because they might not have access to a weapon of choice”

          The weapon of choice, though, makes a huge difference in the level of damage that they can do.

    • Don Gwinn

      Maybe he simply doesn’t accept that owning a tool makes him responsible for the choices others make with their tools . . . .
      Possibly he refuses to be made the scapegoat for someone else’s violence . . . .
      Or perhaps he has observed over the years that his firearms have never been used to harm anyone . . . . and concluded that the firearms aren’t causing the violence.

      That’s all a bit over-simplified, but my time is short at the moment. I think the original post was thoughtful and helpful, but you’re not going to get anywhere arguing with straw men.
      Mr. Croft, the FBI’s crime data suggests that the chance of your (carried) firearm making a difference in any given situation is small, but that in the case of criminal attack, fighting back using effective weapons, primarily firearms, is less likely to result in injury or death than any other course of action they studied.

      Bottom line: I have the right to choose for myself. You have the right to try to persuade me that your choice is better than mine. I’m a school teacher and a father and don’t take the deaths of children in their school lightly, but I also refuse to be the scapegoat.

      • James Croft

        There is a deadly equivocation here – the term “tool” is used to disguise the enormous differences between tools of different types. A hammer, a kitchen knife, and a broadsword are not all the same simply because they might come under the heading “tool”. The reason why we make distinctions between different classes of object is because the distinctions matter. They are intellectually and morally salient.

        And, to me, a gun is not really a “tool” – it is a weapon, designed specifically to harm people. In the case of the rifle apparently used in this case, it is designed to kill lots of people in an extremely short amount of time. And I simply do not agree that anyone has the “right” to legally purchase an assault rifle for their personal use. To give a very short sketch of an argument, I would say that you have no right to impose upon me the more dangerous society which results from your purchase of that weapon.

  • TJ

    I’m glad this debate is happening, it’s so important; but my question, “Isn’t my life worth defending?” hasn’t been addressed. If the answer (I think an obvious answer) is “Yes” then the only remaining question is how best to do so. Most times it probably IS best to not be carrying a weapon around, but I do think people should leave their homes with the understanding that, like it or not, violence could come their way. That doesn’t mean you hope it happens (again, the seat belt example), nor does it mean that you SHOULD carry a weapon, only that good people have the RIGHT to decide for themselves how best to defend themselves. And if anyone thinks they’ll be able to remain unarmed and defend themselves adequately against someone who is using a deadly weapon against them, then they’re just deluding themselves. I totally agree that with Mr. Croft that carrying a weapon could make a situation worse, sometimes tragically worse, but that wasn’t the point of my original MLAC comments.

    • James Croft

      I didn’t answer the question because I view it, with the greatest respect, as a rather obvious attempt at emotional blackmail. I might well turn round and ask “Weren’t the lives of those killed today worth preserving?”, and then assume that my case against guns is made. Of course human life is of value – it is of supreme value. The question is whether A) allowing people to carry around machines designed to kill other people can be considered a moral “right”, and B) whether such a policy leads to the public good. And to both A and B I answer “No.”

    • Curious

      Why can’t you defend your life with a non-lethal weapon like a taser or mace? Does it have to be a gun?

      and how do we know if someone wanting to buy a gun is a good person and not a psychopath?

  • TJ

    Side note- Why are you assuming that any civilian carrying a firearm is “poorly trained”?

    • James Croft

      Short answer – because the training requirements are so notoriously lax in most states.

      • TJ

        James, we’re really not that far apart. In response to your point A), look at it this way: If the police had been able to arrive at this school in time to stop this lunatic, would you be hoping that they would arrive without guns? Of course you wouldn’t. At least in this particular situation you would acknowledge the moral responsibilty of the police to use their weapons to stop this guy. As a parent, I’ll take it one step further- If it were your child still in the building, you would be hoping more than anything you’ve ever hoped for in your life that the police would arrive with weapons. In this situation deadly force would be morally correct. If you agree with me on this point, then you do believe in the justifiable use of guns, you would just be using the police as your deadly weapon rather than taking on that responsibiliy yourself. If you’re honest,I believe you can think of many different scenarios where protecting the innocent might require using deadly (tragic nonetheless) force. If our only point of disagreement is about who then is qualified to be carrying a gun, well, that’s a different argument

        • James Croft

          Yes – I make a very large distinction by sanctioned officers of a democratically-elected government being able to resort to force and private citizens.

      • TJ

        We agree!! Well, at least somewhat… I can’t speak for other states, but when I went through my training to received my permit (Oklahoma), the training was pretty weak. They discussed the laws as they relate to the appropriate carry/use of firearms, and we did go to the gun range once, but that was about it; at least as far as I remember. Better than nothing, but could’ve been better. My biggest problem was the guy conducting the class. Unfortunately, he was the stereotypical redneck, even managing to squeeze in a gay joke. The background-check process was a different matter. The questionnaire was lengthy and detailed, and I can only hope that the OSBI’s criminal-history check was just as thorough. But many people, including myself, already have varying degrees of familiarity with firearms. Many have served in the military or law enforcement; many grew up hunting; many grew up shooting with Grandpa at the range; etc… If someone takes upon themselves the awesome responsibility to be armed in public, then they owe it to themselves (and everybody else) to know what in the h*ll they’re doing. So, yes, I agree with you that SOME people may be poorly trained, but many people sporting guns could take the tits off of a mouse at a hundred yards. My biggest concern though isn’t the training process, it’s the mindset. Anyone who is more likely to NOT walk away from a potentially violent encounter simply because they are carrying a weapon, has NO BUSINESS CARRYING A WEAPON. You need to remember though- it’s not the legal permit holders who are gunning people down. Look at the cesspool of violence called Chicago. You think those kids get their guns legally? Most already have criminal records and would never be allowed to buy a gun legally. It’s those types of scary a**holes who motivate the law-abiding gun owners to carry weapons.

  • BarkingMad

    Mr Croft, I take it from from your statement that you came to us from the UK.
    “I’m grateful to have grown up in a country where, in my lifetime, I can remember the police rarely carried guns. ”
    I would like to offer a different perspective on the lack of guns in the UK. I was born in the US, and I am grateful to have grown up in a nation that did not have face imminent threat of invasion in the last world war. That threat was very real to the people in the UK. In that dark hour the lack of guns in the UK created a situation where not only the citizens of the UK, but their leadership were asking the US to send any available gun to help defend the nation.
    I would also like to take issue with your assertion that civilians who own guns in the US are not competent to use them. That is a generalization without basis in fact or even evidence to support it. I am happy to have a debate about gun control in the US, but lets keep to the facts.
    I will not disagree that something needs to be done to stem these mass assaults. But I disagree that stricter gun control will have the desired effect.

    • James Croft

      Thank you for the different perspective. Perhaps, were the US under imminent threat of invasion by an aggressive, genocidal foreign power, I would revise my position. But how disingenuous to draw this obviously fallacious parallel in this instance! People buying large assault rifles in 21st Century America are not arming themselves against the Nazis.

      As for the question of adequate training, it is a fact that training requirements vary wildly from state to state, and that in many instances one can buy a gun without having to go through any training in its use whatsoever. Virginia even offers concealed carry permits obtainable through online classes, and once you have the permit it will be valid in one’s home state (source). Furthermore, the requirements upon gun sellers to keep records on who buys guns, and for what purpose, are notoriously lax. Given this murky situation I’m not sure how anyone could claim that the majority of gun owners are well-trained.

      Even so, my hypothetical scenario was not intended to apply to all or even the majority of gun owners, so the point misses its target even if it is true.

      • BarkingMad

        I don’t think it is disingenuous or fallacious to state that historically, a disarmed population is a problem for national security. In 1937, when England was enacting strong gun control laws, the threat that was posed by the Nazi’s was not fully understood. By the time the threat was fully understood, it was too late for the UK to defend itself without help. In 2001 the threat that was posed by AL-Qaeda was not fully understood. Historically, we have not had a lot of success predicting where the next major threat might come from. My point is that armed civilians do play a role in national security, even in a time where no immediate threat is perceived.
        As you have said, we can make no valid statements about the skill or training levels of the majority of firearm owners in the US, so any argument or hypothetical scenario based on the skill of the gun owner is invalid and does not have a place in a factual argument.

        • James Croft

          “My point is that armed civilians do play a role in national security, even in a time where no immediate threat is perceived.”

          And my point is that armed civilians actively threaten national security when they shoot each other in schools and universities and city streets. Again, your analogy is ridiculous: Al-Qaeda was never in a position to be the sort of threat to the USA which Germany was to the UK in the second world war. And, logically speaking, if we were concerned by the potential threat of invasion, the correct response would be to maintain a well-trained national guard or home militia, with stockpiles of weapons in secure locations ready to be distributed if necessary. Allowing any old fellow to wander into a gun show and buy an assault rifle is about the worst way possible to achieve the outcome you seem to desire.

          “As you have said, we can make no valid statements about the skill or training levels of the majority of firearm owners in the US”

          I did not say this. I gave a number of reasons why we might reasonably believe that most people who own a gun have wildly inadequate training.

          • TJ

            You’re both wrong and right. Technically “any old fellow” CAN’T wander into a gun show and buy an “assault rifle.” From my limited experience (perhaps five gun shows in the past fifteen years), anyone buying from a booth at a gun show has to pass a background check. I’ve been through that process more than once. It’s been reported than the Connecticut gunman tried to buy a weapon in the week prior to the shooting. In that case the system worked correctly and he was denied the right to purchase a gun. The glitch, often referred to as the “gun show loophole” occurs when gun show attendees bypass the booths and sell their weapons directly to each other. Though I’ve never noticed AR-15 type rifles being sold or traded in this way, I’m sure it does happen. I’ve also never seen any gang-bangers types at gun shows buying weapons, although that’s probably happened as well. Please tell me if I’m wrong, but it seems as if you’re wanting to paint all gun owners with the same broad brush. That’s like lumping in skilled surgeons with Jack the Ripper. If guns were really the cause of the violence then we’d have most to fear from law enforcement personnel and military members. The conundrum, of course, is trying to keep guns out of the WRONG hands. With nearly as many guns in the U.S. as there are people, I don’t know how you’d recommend solving the problem. As long as hardened criminals have no problem obtaining and using guns, I’ll have no problem stating that good people have a right to protect themselves.

    • Random Brit.

      The strict UK laws againsts guns came in after WW2. The Firearms Act 1968 meant you had to obtain licences for guns. Handguns were banned in 1997, by a conservative government, after a man killed 16 school children.

      There were shortages of all kinds of weapons in WW2. That’s because in a war, things tend to get destroyed.

      • BarkingMad

        Check your facts please. There were in fact strict gun control laws in place in the UK long before 1968.
        Beginning with the Pistols Act of 1903, which was largely regarded as ineffective, but was replaced by the 1920 Firearms act which regulated guns except smoothbore (shotguns) in the UK to the point that the majority of UK citizens could no longer purchase them. The exemption of shotguns from this act was eliminated in the Firearms act of 1937.

  • Atheistmorons

    we really enjoy your atheist blog

    do a search on youtube for skepticality

    a little souvenir

    it is the video about the PIGS

    • Baal

      Stop spamming this BS. Noone is interested in your overlooked poorly done youtube videos. I’ve seen you post it on FA and now here.

  • Baal

    I comment frequently against violence but this time around I think TJ brings our attention to another related issue. Fear. The faux news and releated are constantly and consistently asserting that we need to fear everything. Fear often short cuts reason but also induces people to mis-value potential harms. Rationally, you should fear a harm that is less severe but going to happen to you (say air pollution) rather than rare events that are more severe. Faux News pushes the latter to distract from the former.

    • TJ

      Though I’m a proponent of gun rights, I agree with Baal about FEAR, and how much of it is misplaced; planted in our conciousness by those who have an agenda. Unless you’re living in a terrible neighborhood, the chance of you ever having to use a gun in self defense is extremely low, although it cerainly does happen. The same goes with school shootings, child abductions, plane crashes, and on and on. Your chance of dying in a car crash is exponentially higher than any of the others I’ve mentioned, yet most of us don’t hesitate for a moment to climb into our car and drive down the interstate at high speeds. Those who, on moral grounds, don’t believe people should ever be armed will probably go to their graves feeling justifed because, simply put, the stats are in their favor. It’s an odds game. No person can’t possibly defend themselves from every potential danger. As my wife astutely asked me one time, “What, are you going to take a gun into the shower with you?” In the wake of this latest tragedy, I’m reevaluating priorities. We’re getting rid of our kids’ video games that involve people shooting other people. I’m going to cancel cable TV. It should be a time for introspection. After all, if nothing changes, nothing changes.

      • TJ

        Meant to say “No person CAN possibly defend themselves from every potential danger.”

  • smrnda

    Let’s say that some Citizen X wants to tote around a gun because it makes him feel safer, and tells me that it’s wrong for me to tell him he cannot protect himself. The problem is I see no reason to trust Citizen X with a gun – as far as I’m concerned, everybody is a law abiding citizen until they get caught, and anybody with a gun puts me in danger. Law abiding Citizen X, without a gun, is no threat to me, but with a gun, he’s just one trigger-pull away from shooting me. So when someone decides they want a gun for their own safety, I’d say that I’ve got an equal right to feel that their ownership of a gun decreases my safety.

    I don’t mean to stereotype, but many gun owners I meet are bordering on delusional levels of paranoia about the possibility they’ll need to use a gun, along with their own internalized fantasies of being the heroic gunslinger who saves the day. If a person wants to make a case that they need a gun for protection, it’s like anything else you might demand – show evidence that you’re really likely to be in danger. Every Zimmerman makes me think that the type of person who is scared of *THEM!* (whoever they are) and feels he needs a gun is disconnected enough from reality and from sensible risk-assessment to be a danger himself. Some people own guns to hunt, some admit they bought it for protection but know that, statistically, it isn’t going to help (a lot like how some people talk about being nervous about flying even though they know it’s irrational) but it seems like some people are a bit too gun obsessed.

    Perhaps in order to get a gun, you should go in front of a panel that evaluates whether or not you can be trusted with one. Maybe your neighbors should have a say – if I wanted to build a fence around my own yard, if it’s over a certain height I need to get it okayed by the neighbors. The panel may be inefficient or it might be a lot of trouble, but it might be a way to at least add a level of screening. I don’t think banning guns is going to be effective since there’s so many already and it isn’t like they decay and rot that easily, and I’m willing to accept that some people view gun ownership as an intrinsic good, but a panel might do some good.

    • TJ

      “Anybody with a gun puts (you) in danger”? Really? Police officers? FBI agents? Armored car drivers? Corrections officers? The all put you in danger? Don’t you get this? It’s not Law-Abiding Citizen X with a gun who is a threat to you; it’s NON-Law-Abiding Citizen X with a gun who puts you in danger. If there were no creeps with guns, then good people would have no need/desire to protect themselves.

      Smrnda, I fear you’ve fallen prey to a cultural dogma (dare I say it borders on religious belief?) that many good people have succomed to. It is this: As long as I play nice, everyone else will play nice. Fortunately, most of the time it is true- most people ARE good enough to leave you alone as long as you don’t cross them. The problem, of course, is that die-hard criminals/sociopaths DON’T CARE how peaceful you are. In fact, they’re counting on you being peaceful, it makes their job easier. The reason conceal-carry laws have, by and large, been so succesful is that now criminals can no longer count on their victim of choice being unarmed. It may give some criminals pause. For those who still don’t pause, at least their victim now has a fighting chance. This is especially true for women. For women, guns are the great equalizer, instantly leveling the playing field in what would otherwise be a tragically deadly mismatch.

      All this being said, I do agree that many people carry around macho gun fantasies. Toting a gun demands a level of maturity that many people simply don’t possess. But, remember, the gunslingers you need to be most fearful of are the ones who have already demonstrated that they are violent and can’t be trusted: criminals. The good man who decides to carry a gun may just end up saving your life someday. I hope you find yourself seated next to him or her in that movie theater or restaurant should the sh*t ever hit the fan.

  • Adam

    I agree with the article. Sort of sick of violence in American culture. Especially in movies, I notice how utterly dumb it is. I like a good monster or scary movie, so I am no cinema snob. I feel that action movies in particular glorify and rise to hero status, rather trigger happy brutes. This moronic outlook is reflected in our gung ho attitutde about the military, and the military style police which are common in the USA.