Gun Violence and Mass Culture: Why We Need to Ask the Tough Questions

The tragedy which occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School will live in perpetual infamy, seared into the collective conscience of a nation. Yet as the initial shock of tragedy begins to fade ever so slightly, it is important to reflect back on the events of that fateful day. Could the massacre have been stopped? What are we, as a nation, willing to do to ensure such an event never happens again? How are we going to accomplish that goal?

As college students, we stand on the precipice of having our generation’s influence unleashed in the world. We are able to shape conversations by challenging the stale norms of policy debates and the monotonous nature of unquestioning routine.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, reactionaries have called for brash changes to gun policy. President Obama and many Democrats are now demanding Congress pass a renewed assault weapons ban, similar to the Clinton-era ban. While outlawing assault weapons might seem like a convenient solution, it is not an effective one. Following the passage of the ban, school shootings actually increased. The Columbine tragedy occurred in 1999, right the middle of the assault weapons ban. Attempts to capitalize on the emotional cache of a national tragedy for ineffective policy solutions are not the answer.

Others have called for the implementation of stricter background checks on gun purchasers. Implementing more stringent background checks is less offensive to the Second Amendment than banning many firearms outright; however, the effectiveness of background checks in preventing mass violence deserves consideration. The shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School did not purchase the weapons he used in the attack – he stole them from his mother. Under any proposed deviations in background check requirements, the shooter’s mother still would have been able to purchase the gun. Because the shooter stole his weapons and did not purchase them, any proposed changes in background check requirements could not have prevented this tragedy.

Even the National Rifle Association came out with a “School Shield Program”, which the NRA argues will prevent future tragedies such as Sandy Hook. At the core of this plan is ensuring every school has “armed security.” Yet as is the case with most policy solutions which seem too good to be true, the NRA’s plan cannot guarantee of school safety. In fact, the Columbine massacre took place in a school which did have an armed guard. This is not to say armed security officers will never be able to stop violence or that they’re a negative (I personally believe schools should have security personnel whenever economically practicable). More important, however, is recognizing that there is no easy solution, no one-size-fits-all cure for America’s gun violence malaise.

Now, this is not to say there are no public policy options which might curtail gun violence. Nor is this to say such policies should not be pursued, so long as the Second Amendment is respected. What the shortcomings of these proposals do reveal, however, is a need to consider gun violence in a more circumspect light. Only by examining the core of America’s torrid affair with gun violence will the ultimate problem reveal itself – culture.

School shootings seem all too frequent in contemporary America, but even more common are shootings within America’s cities. Between 2001 and mid-2012, for example, 5,000 individuals were shot dead in Chicago. With the media’s “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” attitude, video games which attempt to realistically portray death, and violent song lyrics, our generation has come of age amidst a culture pervasive with violence.

Such a reality is no excuse for violence, and our fundamentally human capacity for free will is no less present now than in the past. Yet the desensitizing effects of violence are real. According to Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience division at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “[I]n the course of life with repeated exposures to violent media, you are shaping your brain networks to be more accommodating to aggression.”

Many were unsurprised to learn that the Sandy Hook shooter was obsessed with violent video games, and as the Guardian reports, 2011 Norway shooter Anders Breivik claims to have trained for the massacre by playing Call of Duty. While experts are divided on whether or not increasingly violent video games contribute to the mindset of mass shooters, these games certainly do not impact America’s culture of violence in a positive manner.

Beyond the desensitizing effects of violence in media, many mass shooters crave attention, and as a nation, America is all too happy to oblige. When the Sandy Hook tragedy took place, networks raced to be the first to reveal the shooter’s identity. In their rush, many networks misidentified the shooter. By showering the deranged perpetrators of violence with attention, the media creates celebrities. Such a perverse incentive structure, present within contemporary American culture and media, distorts the perceived costs and benefits for mass shooters. A mentally ill teenager recognizes that he can go from anonymity to infamy overnight – this is wrong. Yet more than wrong, this reality is indicative of contemporary American culture, where immediacy, fame, and self-gratification prevail.

In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, gun control advocates have aggressively sought ill-advised public policy solutions instead of asking the harder questions. It is easy to blame guns for violence. It is much more difficult to ask why we have a problem with gun violence. Yet only by asking the hard questions will we ever get real answers. For decades politicians have attempted to impose patchwork regulations to prevent firearms from being utilized to commit evil. These efforts have failed. It is now time for our generation to demand more, to ask the hard question: why. Only by answering this question will we ever find a solution to the problem of gun violence and the role mass culture plays in perpetuating these daily tragedies.

-Sam Adkisson is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at samuel.d.adkisson@vanderbilt.edu. 

 

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