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Our Affinity For Arguing About Gun Violence — While Avoiding Why

The gun violence problem people have been talking about — when did ours begin? I’ve asked this out loud and to myself in the wake of the recent mass-shooting in Maine. There have been others that preceded it. This is just the most recent. If I had to look back (in both my journalistic and law enforcement capacities), I’d say Columbine in 1999. That rings most resounding to me of when “gun violence” took the main stage.

I was in J-school then, working on my masters before becoming a news reporter, and I found myself paying close attention to how that event was covered as it unfolded, live on TV. It’s an odd word, calling that an “event,” as though the shooting was the Super Bowl or something. But the word “tragedy” doesn’t quite do Columbine justice either. Because it wasn’t an accident or natural disaster.

Instead, twisted minds took steps to take lives. Their plan meant to cause maximal harm to classmates at school. Two teenage friends set bombs both in their school’s cafeteria — and out in the school parking lot to kill and maim both fleeing victims and responding police. Those malfunctioned. So that relegated the carnage to their guns.

The knee jerk afterward — and it seems nowadays that’s immediately afterward, or while shots are still going off — is to blame guns. And off we go, launching headlong into debates on gun restrictions vs gun rights. But no one really digs into why. Why did they do what they did? Why at Pulse nightclub? Why at a school in Parkland, Florida? Why at a movie theatre in Aurora? Why at Sandy Hook in Newtown or The Covenant School in Nashville? The conversation with each one stops short of why, then summarily devolves into politics.

To be more accurate and sidestep politics (at least momentarily), why don’t we reclassify these events from “gun violence“ to “mass casualty events” or “mass casualty attacks.” That way, it includes someone who drives a car into a crowd on purpose (like at a Waukesha Christmas Parade in 2021), or someone who uses explosives (which they did in Columbine), and knives (including 10 deaths and 15 hospitalized in a 2022 stabbing spree in Saskatchewan, Canada).

Put politics aside. Start asking why. I return to Columbine. Looking back, Columbine was the culmination of participation trophies, helicopter parenting, and the over-medicating of American kids (aka Prozac Nation) — for depression, anxiety, ADHD, and everything in between. What that yielded was a generation of teens who never were allowed to learn to cope or face personal adversity. News alert: They are now adults and parents.

To add to that, Columbine marked a time for live cable news coverage 24/7, which highlighted "it bleeds, it leads" incidents — what previously had been relegated to localized and regional coverage. Which both amplified the perception of a prevalence of mass casualty attacks, while in something of a self-fulfilling prophesy inspiring other malcontents to copycat the carnage. The Sandy Hook shooter studied mass casualty attacks, Columbine among them, and as though he was competing in Fortnight or Call of Duty, he set out for a higher kill count than the teens in Columbine did.

What this adds up to (so far), is a combination of teens and young adults who never faced reality, who are bombarded by violence virtually as a way to gain attention for their unwieldy emotions. But guns are the instrument of harm — not the cause, and not the reason why. And in absence of those instruments, as evidenced in Europe and Canada, unhinged people will turn to other means (vehicles, knives, sucker punches, pushes onto subway tracks).

Isn’t it clear to see this roots back to mental health — and mental illness? Are the active ingredients our over-insulating culture and parenting, and using meds as bandaids? And is it all left to play out for us from all corners of the world, right to the palms of our hands… updated every minute on Facebook, X / Twitter, Instagram, and elsewhere on social media?

The October street stabbing in Brooklyn, New York indeed only led to one person killed that night. It was almost two if you see the footage. A mass murderer kills multiple people in one event or spree, but numbers aren’t specified. A serial killer you will be interested to know is 3 or more in separate events. I bring this up because it was recent and involved a violent, unprovoked killing … without a gun. It was sudden and quick and devastating. And it was clear the murderer was having and has had mental problems. There’s relevance to all this. Why does that kind of assessment stop when it comes to a shooting at a bar or a mall or a theater or at a school?

It’s mental health. And I postulate, it’s too often the ones who never learned to face adversity and cope. The Columbine generation — if those kids were teens in 1999 and now it’s 2023, that generation of teens are now all adults in their late 30s and mid-40s. Kind of like that shooter in Maine, whose 40. He was institutionalized and medicated, just as an aside. Trace back the mental health of the generation of kids who were helicoptered by parents, who received participation trophies to spare their feelings, and were over-prescribed meds to deal with it all.

Those teens are now the adults blowing gaskets and overreacting to whatever it is that they can’t deal with in life. Guns are a mechanism for harm, but the cause is the person. And mental illness is showing itself often at the root. Why isn’t this in the national dialogue when mass casualty attacks happen? Politics. It seems we’ve collectively become more eager to take high ground and dual in ideals, rather than face down the cause of real problems.

The Longview Essays by Jason James Barry explore current events and topics for social commentary. Jason is an award-winning author and journalist. He previously served as a police officer and as a DEA special agent. Follow his work on and elsewhere in syndication. Recently, Jason published his police life memoir, “The Midnight Coffee Club: A Memoir of Grit, Glimmers, and the Pull of Police Life,” available on Amazon.


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