Opinion: Rethinking Our Massacre Problem

An image taken from a Parkland shooting vigil
"Tam High Vigil for Parkland School Shooting" by Fabrice Florin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (via Flickr)

Another day, another massacre. By now, the sequence of events is all too familiar. First, the initial reports of a mass shooting in some locale where people are accustomed to feeling safe. A high school (the latest one in Parkland, Florida), a church, an outdoor concert, a movie theater, a dance club, an elementary school, a mall, a Christmas party. Then the horror stories—eyewitness reports, audio and video from phones. Then the number of victims. A brief information blackout, and then the facts about the man (always a man) who rained terror and ended lives with an arsenal of guns.

Then profiles of the victims, the anguish of the survivors, and the public’s expression of sympathy and outrage. Some of us call for gun control but our Republican leaders call for thoughts and prayers. They say the problem is mental health and then do nothing about mental health. And then it happens all over again.

Massacres have become a part of our American way of life. I have never been personally touched by one, but after Columbine in 1999, and for all the years my children went to school, I feared for them. I could never get it out of my head that the teenagers called out for their mothers as they ran through the halls of Columbine High School getting hit by the bullets of the two teenage murderers. Their mothers couldn’t protect them. Nor could the parents of the little kids slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Or the parents watching their kids being killed this fall at that church in Texas before they were killed too.

Every few weeks there’s another appalling set of images. The concertgoers running from bullets in Las Vegas. The victims lying in pools of blood at that nightclub in Florida. The students at Virginia Tech getting trapped in a classroom. . . .

Surely this is a national emergency. Any day now, we’ll have bipartisan blue-ribbon panels thinking it out and making recommendations. Our leaders will be ready to act on all fronts: gun control, free counseling, hotlines. Whatever it takes, we’ll be doing it. Right? No. The truth is that our leaders accept massacres as an inevitable part of American life. Sandy Hook was the turning point. If they weren’t willing to respond after kindergarteners and their teachers were mowed down, why think they’ll respond now?

I can see two ways of coping with the apparent fact that massacres will keep happening and our leaders will keep acquiescing. One is to take some of the advice of the ancient Stoics. Even the worst things can be reframed: if it distresses you that your child is dead, think of it as “a child” instead of as “my child,” advises Epictetus. But what if the child is my child? No matter. We’re not limited to the truth when it comes to soothing reconceptualizations. Your wife is dead? Well, your favorite vase is also broken. It’s to be expected.

Considering the inevitability of more massacres, the sage reframing might be to think of them as we think of tornadoes and hurricanes. The mass murderers are like chunks of houses flying into people. Of course, we do fear extreme weather and do feel sympathy for tornado victims and survivors, but it’s much more disturbing to contemplate a deliberate assault. Or there’s this: You could try to think of the latest massacre, death toll 17, on analogy with the 17 (actually more) highway deaths that will inevitably take place in the US today. We are not angry and outraged in the face of fatalities that we take to be inevitable. So we can reduce our anger and outrage by thinking of massacres in this way too.

My second response is very different. Throw the bastards out. Stoic self-help aside, massacres aren’t actually weather events or car accidents, and we can take steps to prevent them. We can, but the Republican politicians we now have in Congress and in the White House won’t. Democrats, on the other hand, will. They will fund the mental health care that Republicans like President Trump merely talk about. They will enact the gun control legislation that most Republicans can’t even consider, for fear of losing the support of their NRA backers and the most gun-obsessed voters.

The question is how to get people to prioritize massacre-prevention the next time they go to the ballot box, how to get gun control and mental health funding to have a place in a conservative mindset. If we really want to stop the next massacre, it may take serious political realignments. For example, it may take pro-life voters asking themselves whether they can really be pro-life if they’re concerned to protect fetuses from women who want abortions, but not concerned to protect already-born kids and adults from guns.

Consider what absurdities must be employed, to say abortion-control is necessary to protect life, but gun control is not. It must be said that gun control undermines liberties that are sacrosanct. Like . . . . the liberty to use guns recreationally or in a (futile) preparation for self-defense. It must then be said that (astonishingly) we can limit the liberties of women in the most profound ways that can be imagined, forcing them to endure pregnancy and childbirth, drop out of school, raise a larger-than-desired family, give up a child, and so on. This evasion won’t work, and neither will the many others that defenders of gun rights have devised.

If abortion control is a necessity, then so is gun control. But should liberals contemplate the reverse: if gun control is a necessity, then so is abortion control? I personally don’t subscribe to this, because I believe the victims of massacres are persons entitled to protection, but I don’t think fetuses—especially very early ones—have the same status. So I can’t be talked into being pro-life on abortion by the fact that I’m pro-life when it comes to protecting people from being killed and maimed by guns.

However, some people will think it goes both ways. They do think fetuses must be protected, and they think it’s worth limiting the liberties of women and limiting the liberties of gun enthusiasts, to save lives. Democrats are inclined to reject candidates for office who think this way, even if they are otherwise true-blue Democrats. That’s unfortunate if massacre prevention is an important priority. We’ll be closer to passing effective gun control if pro-life voters have pro-life, pro-gun-control Democrats to vote for, instead of being forced into the do-nothing-about-guns camp by the fact that they care about preventing abortion.

Are we willing to contemplate new alignments, strategies, and alliances? If not, we may just have to fall back on the first type of reframing. Another hurricane, another massacre. Too bad. We just can’t do anything about the weather.

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Jean Kazez teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She is the author of The Philosophical Parent: Asking the Hard Questions about Having and Raising Children (Oxford University Press) and two previous books. Find out more at kazez.blogspot.com.