Mental Health Reform as Important as Gun Reform

by Ira Chernus

The national outcry for new gun laws is great. Terrific. I’m all for it.

But may I humbly suggest that the opponents of gun control are half right. Guns, all by themselves, don’t kill people. The other half of the truth -- the half that we are not hearing nearly enough about -- is this: Mentally or emotionally disturbed people with guns kill people.

I’ve been working with a community organizing group trying to promote public support for mental health treatment. It has made me very aware of the profound reluctance we see all around us (even in a very liberal and wealthy county like mine) to treat mental/emotional disturbance as a communal problem.

When we talk about mentally or emotionally disturbed individuals, our society puts the emphasis on “individuals.” Without really thinking about it, most of us assume that we’re dealing with peculiar cases, each one caused by some unique set of problems encased in one individual’s brain.

We just don’t have many cultural resources at all to think about mental/emotional disturbance as a societal problem. Oh, there’s shelves full of books in university libraries which can teach us to see it that way. But that academic perspective has not percolated through to our shared public myths. We still tend, as a society, rather reflexively to see troubled people as individual “weirdos,” unique outliers from the norm.

And our natural inclination, most of the time, is to stay as far away from them as we can -- unless they are family members or otherwise connected to us in ways we couldn’t escape even if we wanted to. Then we try our best to get help for them. And we usually discover that the resources our society provides are far too meager to give them the help they really need -- precisely because, as a society, we don’t think of such disturbances as a collective problem. So we don’t even think about, much less provide the resources for, collective solutions.

I suspect this pattern has its deepest roots in a tradition that was pervasive through the late 19th century and still affects us deeply: viewing mental/emotional disturbance through the lens of religious and spiritual language. I’ve spoken with ministers who are trying hard to bring their fellow clergy into fruitful conversation with mental health professionals. It’s an uphill struggle, they say, in part because there are still many clergy who assume that personal prayer and spiritual renewal is the only appropriate treatment.

What we have here, to some degree that’s impossible to quantify, is a living legacy of the days when mental and emotional disturbance were interpreted as signs of sin. (“Evil visited this community today,” said Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy, as if the the tragedy were caused by some distant, utterly alien metaphysical force.) Just as sin was seen to be the responsibility of the individual, so mental/emotional disturbance is still seen to be, if not the individual’s responsibility, at least an individual problem.

The proud American tradition of individualism is also, I suspect, at the root of the popular resistance to gun control. The Washington Post's wonk Ezra Klein points out that, while support for the idea of gun control has dropped, the number of American households with guns has dropped even faster in the last 40 years.

So the objection to gun control laws doesn’t come only from people who have guns and want to hold on to them (though they are the largest portion of the naysayers). It also comes from people who imagine that they might some day feel the need for a gun to defend themselves, their families, and their homes. They fear giving up that individual right. They don’t want their individual freedom abridged.

It’s too bad that we are so individualistic. We don’t have the cultural traditions that would let us see both gun ownership and mental/emotional disturbance as societal facts, as manifestations of what the community as a whole is doing.

So we go on letting individuals arm themselves to protect their individual rights and freedom, or so our national myth tells us. (Illinois just became the 50th state to allow citizens to carry concealed guns.) But we tragically underfund and ignore societal programs to help the mentally/emotionally disturbed, because we simply don’t see any relationship between them and the rest of us, or so our national myth tells us.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Mythic America: Essays and American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea. He blogs at

Thinking the Unthinkable: On Mental Health, My Son & Gun Violenc

In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.
by Liza Long

Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.

“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.

“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”

“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”

“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.

We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael. Autism spectrum, ADHD, Oppositional Defiant or Intermittent Explosive Disorder have all been tossed around at various meetings with probation officers and social workers and counselors and teachers and school administrators. He’s been on a slew of antipsychotic and mood altering pharmaceuticals, a Russian novel of behavioral plans. Nothing seems to work.

At the start of seventh grade, Michael was accepted to an accelerated program for highly gifted math and science students. His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.

Several weeks into his new junior high school, Michael began exhibiting increasingly odd and threatening behaviors at school. We decided to transfer him to the district’s most restrictive behavioral program, a contained school environment where children who can’t function in normal classrooms can access their right to free public babysitting from 7:30-1:50 Monday through Friday until they turn 18.

The morning of the pants incident, Michael continued to argue with me on the drive. He would occasionally apologize and seem remorseful. Right before we turned into his school parking lot, he said, “Look, Mom, I’m really sorry. Can I have video games back today?”

“No way,” I told him. “You cannot act the way you acted this morning and think you can get your electronic privileges back that quickly.”

His face turned cold, and his eyes were full of calculated rage. “Then I’m going to kill myself,” he said. “I’m going to jump out of this car right now and kill myself.”

That was it. After the knife incident, I told him that if he ever said those words again, I would take him straight to the mental hospital, no ifs, ands, or buts. I did not respond, except to pull the car into the opposite lane, turning left instead of right.

“Where are you taking me?” he said, suddenly worried. “Where are we going?”

“You know where we are going,” I replied.

“No! You can’t do that to me! You’re sending me to hell! You’re sending me straight to hell!”

I pulled up in front of the hospital, frantically waiving for one of the clinicians who happened to be standing outside. “Call the police,” I said. “Hurry.”

Michael was in a full-blown fit by then, screaming and hitting. I hugged him close so he couldn’t escape from the car. He bit me several times and repeatedly jabbed his elbows into my rib cage. I’m still stronger than he is, but I won’t be for much longer.

The police came quickly and carried my son screaming and kicking into the bowels of the hospital. I started to shake, and tears filled my eyes as I filled out the paperwork—“Were there any difficulties what age did your child....were there any problems with...has your child ever experienced...does your child have....”

At least we have health insurance now. I recently accepted a position with a local college, giving up my freelance career because when you have a kid like this, you need benefits. You’ll do anything for benefits. No individual insurance plan will cover this kind of thing.

For days, my son insisted that I was lying—that I made the whole thing up so that I could get rid of him. The first day, when I called to check up on him, he said, “I hate you. And I’m going to get my revenge as soon as I get out of here.”

By day three, he was my calm, sweet boy again, all apologies and promises to get better. I’ve heard those promises for years. I don’t believe them anymore.

On the intake form, under the question, “What are your expectations for treatment?” I wrote, “I need help.”

And I do. This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am Jason Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. ( Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise—in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population. (

With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill—Rikers Island, the LA County Jail, and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011 (

No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”

I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.

God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.

© 2012 Liza Long

Liza Long is an author, musician, and erstwhile classicist. She is also a single mother of four bright, loved children, one of whom has special needs.

Guns and the Decline of the Young Man

by Christy Wampole

Adam Lanza was a young man. Jacob Roberts was a young man. James Holmes is a young man. Seung-Hui Cho was a young man. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were young men.

We can all name a dozen or so hypotheses about why they kill: their parents’ unlocked gun cabinet, easy access to weapons on the Internet, over- or under-medication, violent video games and TV programs, undiagnosed or misdiagnosed mental disorders, abusive or indifferent parents, no stable social network, bullying. However, young women are equally exposed to many of the same conditions yet rarely turn a weapon on others. This leaves us wondering about the young men.

There is something about life in the United States, it seems, that is conducive to young men planning and executing large-scale massacres. But the reasons elude us.

The first reaction to the horror and bloodshed of a mass killing like the one in Newtown, Conn., is a rekindling of the gun control debate. I happen to believe, along with many others, that the repeated mandate we give to the National Rifle Association and its lobby, and the complacency with which we allow our politicians to be subject to the will of gun manufacturers is odious.

Limiting access to weapons is certainly a pragmatic albeit incomplete solution to the United States’ propensity for murder. However, were the guns to vanish instantaneously, the specter that haunts our young men would still hover in silence, darkly.

What is it that touches them?

I come from a small town near Fort Worth, Texas. In this region, like many others across the United States, young men are having a very hard time of it. When I consider how all of the people I knew there are faring, including my own family members, the women have come out considerably better than the men. While many of the women were pregnant in high school and have struggled with abusive relationships, financial hardships and addictions, they’ve often found ways to make their lives work, at least provisionally, and to live with their children if not provide for them in more substantial ways.

The same cannot be said for many young men in the region, who are often absent fathers of multiple children by multiple women, unemployed or underemployed, sullen and full of rage. While every woman in my family has done O.K. in the end, every man on one side of my family except for my grandfather has spent time in jail, abused drugs or alcohol, suffered from acute depression, or all of the above. Furthermore, pervasive methamphetamine use, alcoholism, physical and psychological abuse and severe depression have swept not only my hometown and my region but large segments of the United States. If this pattern is not familiar to you personally, I am certain it is the lived experience of someone you know.

This is merely anecdotal evidence, not social science, but I believe that it is indicative of a sort of infection spreading in our collective brain, one that whispers to the American subconscious: “The young men are in decline.” They were once our heroes, our young and shining fathers, our sweet brothers, our tireless athletes, our fearless warriors, the brains of our institutions, the makers of our wares, the movers of our world. In the Western imagination, the valiance of symbolically charged figures like Homer’s Ulysses or the Knights of the Round Table remained unquestioned since their conception. However, as centuries progressed and stable categories faltered, the hero figure faces increasing precarity. Even if we consider the 20th century alone, we see this shift from World War II, when the categories of good and evil were firm, to later conflicts like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, involving a disparity between what the government believed to be right and what much of the civilian population did.

Does the heroic young man still make sense today, or has his value already been depleted?

Certainly, there are young men who are paragons of success: the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, the sharply dressed bankers, the swarms of brilliant graduates who receive their diplomas each year. And there are heroes who fight our fires, soldiers who fight our wars and the first-responders who are the first to set eyes on the dead children’s bodies at the scenes of mass shootings. But more young men these days are avatars of soldiers rather than soldiers themselves.

If the soldier has largely been replaced by the video game character and the drone, if the mothers have proven that they can raise the children alone, if the corporations are less able or willing to guarantee the possibility of upward mobility and some level of respect that comes with title, if someone else can bring home the bacon, what is left for young men?

All this, and they still are not allowed to cry.

There is also the issue of race. Not all of the men I listed in the beginning of this piece are Caucasian. However, take a moment and imagine what the archetypical image of a mass murderer in the United States looks like. Is he white in your mind? This image can only be attributed to the truth of those patterns that have established themselves, from Charles Whitman’s 1966 shooting spree at the University of Texas, to Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, to the 1999 Columbine massacre, to Wade Michael Page’s 2012 attack on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. The mass murderer is a type. And his race is white.

Young, African-American men are often imagined to be violent on the street, killing one another in gang-related violence or murdering convenience store clerks while trying to empty the cash register. The stereotypical image, even in its wrongheaded reduction of the black man to an inherently violent being, does not leave room for that other kind of murderer, the one who plans and executes a calculated, non-spontaneous large-scale death spree.

The angry white man has usurped the angry black man.

I would argue that maleness and whiteness are commodities in decline. And while those of us who are not male or white have enjoyed some benefits from their decline, the sort of violence and murder that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary will continue to occur if we do not find a way to carry them along with us in our successes rather than leaving them behind.

For women, things are looking up. We can vote, we can make more choices about our bodies than in decades past, we’ve made significant progress regarding fair pay, and more women are involved in American politics than ever before. The same can be said for minorities. However, because resources are limited, gains for women and minorities necessarily equal losses for white males. Even if this feels intuitively fair to many, including those white males who are happy to share resources for the greater benefit of the nation as a whole, it must feel absolutely distressing for those who are uncomfortable with change and who have a difficult time adjusting to the inevitable reordering of society.

From the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and onward, young men – and young white men in particular – have increasingly been asked to yield what they’d believed was securely theirs. This underlying fact, compounded by the backdrop of violent entertainment and easy access to weapons, creates the conditions for thousands of young men to consider their future prospects and decide they would rather destroy than create.

Can you imagine being in the shoes of the one who feels his power slipping away? Who can find nothing stable to believe in? Who feels himself becoming unnecessary? That powerlessness and fear ties a dark knot in his stomach. As this knot thickens, a centripetal hatred moves inward toward the self as a centrifugal hatred is cast outward at others: his parents, his girlfriend, his boss, his classmates, society, life.

A partial solution to these toxic circumstances could be a coordinated cultivation of what might be called an empathic habit. Most people surely felt an impulsive empathy for the parents and survivors involved in the Sandy Hook massacre, as shown by the countless memorial services and candlelight vigils that took place after the murders. But empathy could help best if exercised before rather than after such tragedies.

Empathy could serve many of us: those who have not yet put themselves in the position of a person who is losing their power and those who can aim a gun at someone without imagining themselves on the other end of the barrel. For those of us who belong to a demographic that is doing increasingly better, a trained empathic reflex toward those we know to be losing for our gains could lead to a more deferential attitude on our part and could constitute an invitation for them to stay with us. To delight in their losses and aim at them the question, “How does it feel?” will only trigger a cycle of resentment and plant the seeds for vengeance. It is crucial to accommodate the pain of others.

For a start, feeling needed is undoubtedly essential to each individual. This fact must be addressed at home, at school, in the workplace, and in politics. For example, one could envision the development of a school curriculum that centers around an empathic practice, particularly in courses such as history, social studies, literature, and political science. If students have no access to an empathic model at home, they would at least be exposed to it in the classroom. In the workplace, the C.E.O. must be able to put herself in the position of the lowest ranked employee and vice versa. Victims and victors must engage in the hypothetical practice that forces each to acknowledge the others’ fortunes and misfortunes.

Empathy is difficult because it forces us to feel the suffering of others. It is destabilizing to imagine that if we are lucky or blessed, it just as easily could have gone some other way. For the young men, whose position is in some ways more difficult than that of their fathers and grandfathers, life seems at times to have stacked the cards against them. It is for everyone to realize the capricious nature of history, which never bets consistently on one group over another. We should learn to cast ourselves simultaneously in the role of winner and loser, aggressor and victim.

We have a choice whether our national refrain of “No more mass murders” will be meaningful or meaningless. We cannot neglect the young men. By becoming empathic stewards of civic and personal life, there is a chance we could make someone think twice before targeting another human being.

Christy Wampole is an assistant professor of French at Princeton University. Her research focuses primarily on 20th- and 21st-century French and Italian literature and thought.

Copyright 2012 The New York Times

What If Children Mattered No Matter Where They Lived–and Died?

by Peter Hart

We do not live in a world that treats all life equally. Not even close. Human beings inevitably feel certain tragedies more deeply, based on proximity to the victims, national identity, the circumstances of death and so on.

It is not surprising that there has been so much media attention paid to the horrible massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. The thought of small children being gunned down in a classroom is shocking and tragic. And the usual suggestions to avoid "politicizing" a tragedy by talking about public policy decisions that might prevent future tragedies seem to have less resonance this time around.

When we draw comparisons between a particular event and other similar tragedies, it is not to say that they all matter equally, but to remind ourselves that we're conditioned to feel that some matter quite a bit more than others.

When I heard the news about Newtown, I thought of previous mass shootings in this country. That is perhaps a natural reaction.

But then I also thought about the case of Sgt. Robert Bales. He is accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians earlier this year, nine of them children. It is not the only atrocity of the Afghan War, but the accounts of the attack are particularly horrifying ( Bales allegedly left his base and entered the villages of Balandi and Alkozai, near Kandahar. He proceeded to kill the victims as they slept, and then burned some of their bodies.

It is not that U.S. media failed to cover the atrocity. But the tone of the coverage placed considerable weight on the damage these deaths would do to the war effort (FAIR Media Advisory, 3/12/12 - Questions were posed like, "Could this reignite a new anti-American backlash in the unstable region?" One headline stated, "Killings Threaten Afghan Mission." USA Today actually had on its front page, "Patriot Now Stands Accused in Massacre."

Seeing the atrocity this way prioritizes issues like national security–and obscures the fact that children were killed in their sleep, and that the person alleged to have killed them was a member of our military. This particular incident is, in some ways, just a more horrifying version of many other U.S. attacks ( that killed children in Afghanistan, or the drone attacks that have killed hundreds in Pakistan (

It is understandable, on some level, that these deaths will not affect most Americans the same way as the deaths in Newtown. They are deaths in a poor, violent country most of us will never see.

But that should not prevent us from asking ourselves–and our media–why that is, and wondering what our politics and our culture might look like if media decision-makers felt that that stories like this deserved more attention.

One has to imagine that our world would be different if we treated every tragic death as if it mattered. U.S. media shy away from imagery that could be considered too explicit or graphic–especially ( when it calls attention to suffering caused or endured by U.S. forces. As journalist Amy Goodman has said on countless occasions, if our media showed the brutal consequences of U.S. warmaking, those policies would change.

Sometimes these discussions can be quite explicit. Time's Joe Klein's comment ( that four-year-olds in Pakistan might have to die from drone attacks so that four-year-old Americans do not die in terrorist attacks was a reminder that, for some people, some lives are practically expendable.

So what would a healthier media look like? It wouldn't tell us not to grieve over Newtown. It would tell us that violence against children is deplorable no matter where it happens, or who inflicts it–and that there are things we can do to stop it, both close to home and many miles away.

© 2012 Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting

Peter Hart is the activism director at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra, and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly" (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

In Gun Debate, a Misguided Focus on Mental Illness

by Richard A. Friedman, MD

In the wake of the terrible shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., national attention has turned again to the complex links between violence, mental illness and gun control.

The gunman, Adam Lanza, 20, has been described as a loner who was intelligent and socially awkward. And while no official diagnosis has been made public, armchair diagnosticians have been quick to assert that keeping guns from getting into the hands of people with mental illness would help solve the problem of gun homicides.

Arguing against stricter gun-control measures, Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan and a former F.B.I. agent, said, “What the more realistic discussion is, ‘How do we target people with mental illness who use firearms?’ ”

Robert A. Levy, chairman of the Cato Institute, told The New York Times: “To reduce the risk of multivictim violence, we would be better advised to focus on early detection and treatment of mental illness.”

But there is overwhelming epidemiological evidence that the vast majority of people with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts. Only about 4 percent of violence in the United States can be attributed to people with mental illness.

This does not mean that mental illness is not a risk factor for violence. It is, but the risk is actually small. Only certain serious psychiatric illnesses are linked to an increased risk of violence.

One of the largest studies, the National Institute of Mental Health’s Epidemiologic Catchment Area study, which followed nearly 18,000 subjects, found that the lifetime prevalence of violence among people with serious mental illness — like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — was 16 percent, compared with 7 percent among people without any mental disorder. Anxiety disorders, in contrast, do not seem to increase the risk at all.

Alcohol and drug abuse are far more likely to result in violent behavior than mental illness by itself. In the National Institute of Mental Health’s E.C.A. study, for example, people with no mental disorder who abused alcohol or drugs were nearly seven times as likely as those without substance abuse to commit violent acts.

It’s possible that preventing people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other serious mental illnesses from getting guns might decrease the risk of mass killings. Even the Supreme Court, which in 2008 strongly affirmed a broad right to bear arms, at the same time endorsed prohibitions on gun ownership “by felons and the mentally ill.”

But mass killings are very rare events, and because people with mental illness contribute so little to overall violence, these measures would have little impact on everyday firearm-related killings. Consider that between 2001 and 2010, there were nearly 120,000 gun-related homicides, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Few were perpetrated by people with mental illness.

Perhaps more significant, we are not very good at predicting who is likely to be dangerous in the future. According to Dr. Michael Stone, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia and an expert on mass murderers, “Most of these killers are young men who are not floridly psychotic. They tend to be paranoid loners who hold a grudge and are full of rage.”

Even though we know from large-scale epidemiologic studies like the E.C.A. study that a young psychotic male who is intoxicated with alcohol and has a history of involuntary commitment is at a high risk of violence, most individuals who fit this profile are harmless.

Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University and a leading expert in the epidemiology of violence, said in an e-mail, “Can we reliably predict violence? ‘No’ is the short answer. Psychiatrists, using clinical judgment, are not much better than chance at predicting which individual patients will do something violent and which will not.”

It would be even harder to predict a mass shooting, Dr. Swanson said, “You can profile the perpetrators after the fact and you’ll get a description of troubled young men, which also matches the description of thousands of other troubled young men who would never do something like this.”

Even if clinicians could predict violence perfectly, keeping guns from people with mental illness is easier said than done. Nearly five years after Congress enacted the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, only about half of the states have submitted more than a tiny proportion of their mental health records.

How effective are laws that prohibit people with mental illness from obtaining guns? According to Dr. Swanson’s recent research, these measures may prevent some violent crime. But, he added, “there are a lot of people who are undeterred by these laws.”

Adam Lanza was prohibited from purchasing a gun, because he was too young. Yet he managed to get his hands on guns — his mother’s — anyway. If we really want to stop young men like him from becoming mass murderers, and prevent the small amount of violence attributable to mental illness, we should invest our resources in better screening for, and treatment of, psychiatric illness in young people.

All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group. But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.

Copyright 2012 The New York Times

The Ultimate Logic of a Society Built on Mass Murder

It’s not a sudden madness, but a long history of mass murder come full circle.
by Glen Ford

As a native-born American, I grew up watching cowboy and Indian shoot-em-ups in which the highlight of the movie was when the white guys in the circled wagon train shot the Indians off their horses until all the red men were dead, and very silent. Indians didn’t do a lot of screaming in pain when they were shot; they just expired. Same thing with buck-toothed Japanese, line after line of them, charging into U.S. machine guns, falling instantly silent and dead. It was somehow quite clean, almost antiseptic, these cinematic rituals of death, all staged for the broadest popular consumption to demonstrate the inevitability – and cosmic justice – of ultimate white victory over the darker races.

This was mother’s milk to the white American nation – which is why Richard Pryor and kids like me rooted for the Indians. Mass murder is at the core of the American national religion, which is a celebration of a genocidal march across a continent filled with other, doomed human beings. America’s contribution to European culture was to invite “all the nations of Europe” to come to these shores and become fellow “white” citizens, whose status was defined by the enforced inferiority of Blacks and the remnants of the Indians. Ritual burnings of Blacks were organized as great public festivals, attended by thousands, staged in order to affirm whites’ collective right to commit murder. This monopoly on violence was what made them white Americans.

U.S. foreign policy reflects the nation’s origins and ghastly evolution into a globe-strutting mob, that empowers itself to kill at will. A million dead Filipinos at the turn of the 20th century; aerial bombing of Haitian villages less than a generation later; the totally unwarranted nuclear annihilation of two cities at the very end of World War Two; two million dead Koreans shortly thereafter; three million dead Vietnamese in the next decade,; and, since 1996, six million Congolese – all, and many, many more, slaughtered in the name of U.S. civilizational superiority – the ghastly opiate of the white American masses.

What kind of human beings does such a culture produce? To paraphrase the Bible, “By their massacres, ye shall know them.” The modern mass American murder is overwhelmingly a white phenomenon. Yet few whites ask the question, “What’s wrong with white America?” It is seems that white America lacks the capacity for self-examination. It cannot grasp the simple truth, that a culture that celebrates the annihilation of whole peoples, casually and without guilt or introspection, is devoid of human values at its very core. In the end, it turns against itself. That is the simple lesson of Newtown, and Columbine, and Aurora. The same cultural deformity creates a huge market for games like the very popular Assassin’s Creed, whose latest version integrates individual and group murder with events of the American Revolutionary War. American kids can simulate mass murder all day long, and feel patriotic and smart while doing it. Assassin’s Creed features an inter-racial cast of killers – possibly in deference to the brown guy in the White House who owns the ultimate Kill List. It’s the modern equivalent of the cowboys and Indians movies of my youth. The same sickness.

© 2012 Black Agenda Report

Black Agenda Report executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford at

Tec-9’s for Teachers? Arming Educators Gets a Failing Grade

by Jesse Hagopian

Chalk in one hand and a handgun in the other.

As a high school history teacher with a Masters in Education, I never imagined some politicians and other cultural “leaders” would be urging me to add “special forces” to my title.

And yet in response to the tragic mass shooting last week at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) put forward a bill to the Virginian legislature that would require some teachers or other school staff to carry concealed weapons in schools. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said that teachers with licenses to carry concealed handguns should have "access to weapons in their school." At least seven states—Florida, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee—have lawmakers who have outlined plans to introduce legislation to allow teachers to carry guns into schools or require several teachers to be armed in school buildings.

Expectations and extra duties for teachers have piled up in recent years—and as budget cuts mount we have increasingly been asked to serve as therapists, career councilors, janitors, secretaries—but now are they really asking us teachers to take on yet another role: member of a SWAT team? What’s next? Merit pay for the crack shot on the faculty?

The first thing people should know before they propose that Mr. Rambo teach geometry is that teachers don’t get enough sleep to carry loaded weapons to school. With my 150 students a day, 90 essays to grade per week, dozens of e-mails from parents to answer, college letters of recommendation to write, permission slips to sign, curricula to plan, and afterschool tutoring to help with, sometimes little details can slip through the cracks—like, maybe, putting the safety on the firearm?

Joining the right-wing bugle call for the militarization of our schools, on Friday the NRA broke their week-long silence on the Newtown massacre by calling for a program to arm and train guards in schools as the solution to gun violence. Invoking a popular storyline from Marvel Comics, the NRA's top lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre, said, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Yet as many have pointed out, there were armed guards at Columbine High School during the massacre in 1999 and they couldn’t stop the two determined gunmen. Moreover, the calls for more armed security at schools only reinforces the school-to-prison pipeline pattern of pushing students out of school and into the criminal justice system. As Rethinking Schools magazine editorialized,

“As police have set up shop in schools across the country, the definition of what is a crime as opposed to a teachable moment has changed in extraordinary ways…. Early contact with police in schools often sets students on a path of alienation, suspension, expulsion, and arrests. George Galvis, an Oakland, Calif., prison activist and youth organizer, described his first experience with police at his school: ‘I was 11. There was a fight and I got called to the office. The cop punched me in the face. I looked at my principal and he was just standing there, not saying anything. That totally broke my trust in school as a place that was safe for me.’

How deep into the Rabbit Hole of Violence has America managed to burrow? Deep enough so that media as well as multiple governing bodies would allow gun-lobby shills mainstream platforms that make their dangerous ravings seem respectable. Maybe even “reasonable.” Deep enough so that ideas like getting weapons into the hands of those tasked with nurturing our youth—a strategy so Mad Hatter it would be laughed off the stage or vigorously challenged by the responsible media in any other civilized country—is pondered seriously by pundits and politicians alike.

And yet the recent calls from politicians for gun control, while refusing to address the underlying causes of violence in our society, have been appalling in their own right.

President Obama’s plea for a national dialogue about gun violence was disfigured by cruel irony. At a press conference in the wake of the Newtown shooting a tearful President Obama said, “As a country, we have been through this too many times.... And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” Obama’s grief was real, and yet so too is the grief of the families of the at least 176 children who have been killed by U.S. drones in the name of the “War on Terror.” As journalist Glen Greenwald wrote, “Consider this irony: Monday was the three-year anniversary of President Obama's cruise missile and cluster-bomb attack on al-Majala in Southern Yemen that ended the lives of 14 women and 21 children: one more child than was killed by the Newtown gunman.”

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s call for gun control was full of self-righteousness: “Words alone cannot heal our nation. Only action can do that. Gun violence is a national epidemic. I demand a plan. The time for talk is over.”

Yet Mayor Bloomberg oversees a police force, larger than many country’s standing armies, which has a brutal history of gun violence perpetrated against African Americans and people of color.

One of the latest examples was unarmed 18-year-old African-American Ramarley Graham who was shot dead in his own bathroom in front of his grandmother and 6-year-old brother on February 2 by New York police officer, Richard Haste.

Nationally, a recent study revealed that a Black person is killed by police somewhere in the United States every 36 hours. This unchecked police terror is robbing families of their children, and yet you won’t hear a politician with the bravery to talk about gun control for trigger-happy officers.

The United States is currently engaged in the longest war in our nation’s history—now having devastated Afghanistan for over 11 years, leaving many thousands of Afghanis dead as well as over 2,000 U.S. soldiers. The nation has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to occupy Afghanistan, yet every single elementary school councilor in Seattle last year was laid off for lack of funds.

Any society that is so completely organized around the idea of killing “the enemy” should not be surprised when some alienated individual redefines the enemy and commits the kinds of horrendous atrocities that our government boasts about committing around the world.

The idea of arming my son’s preschool teacher as a safety measure is unspeakably senseless. So, too, is spending more to bomb schools in the Middle East than to build them at home. If we truly want to work to end killing sprees, rather than just express outrage over the next one, we must address underlying causes of violence in our society. This would require reorganizing our education system and our society away from its focus dedication to mass incarceration and endless war, and instead toward collaboration, empathy, and solidarity. A society that marshaled its resources and rallied its people, not to “kill the enemy”, but to provide healthcare, housing, and education, would produce a very different kind of citizen.

We could start by rehiring the elementary school councilors and supporting kids from a young age who need someone to talk with. By investing in social programs and education we could prove, indeed, that the stick of chalk is mightier than the gun.

Jesse Hagopian is a public high school teacher in Seattle and a founding member of Social Equality Educators (SEE). He is a contributing author to Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation and 101 Changemakers: Rebels and Radicals Who Changed US History (Haymarket Books). Hagopian serves on the Board of Directors of Maha-Lilo—“Many Hands, Light Load”—a Haiti solidarity organization. He can be reached at: or you can follow him on Twitter.

Newtown: How We Can Heed The Warnings

by Michael Nagler

The wisest man I had the privilege of knowing in my life once said, “There is no nation, no matter how powerful, that cannot be destroyed by hate.”

The latest tragedy – and I sincerely hope it will still be the latest when you read this – has been unparalleled in its violence. Because the true measure of violence is not in the body count but in the violation of the sacred life that we hold most dear, for example in our innocent children. It has also been unusual in the confusion that still surrounds what exactly happened. Like most of us, I at first found myself poring over the sketchy reports, trying to understand how it happened, to piece together the story. But then I stopped. These details are at best a distraction, at a time that we can ill afford one. At worst they are more than a distraction; they are a seduction. They lure us into the narrative, tempting us to indulge in the vicarious violence, our private reality show. The police will deal with details as best they can; we have a different job. We have to train our eyes on the underlying cause of not just this catastrophe but all of them (which the mainstream media will never probe), and firmly dedicate our minds and hearts to solving it.

Psychologist Mitchell Hall, echoing the wisdom I just referred to, writes, “my guess is that this young man hated his mother, himself, humanity, and life itself.” Hate in the guise of political commentary is being fed to us 24/7 by a skein of radio and television talk show hosts, and certain “news” channels are not far behind: the man who tried to burn down the Toledo mosque in September explained to the judge, without a trace of remorse, that he was incited to do it by Fox news, which told him that “Muslims (are) killing us and are in control of the Department of Homeland Security and the White House.” And this is just one example.

Hate is a force. Even Hitler could not control it, and it ended up destroying himself and everything he tried to build. Playing games with a force like hate is riding a whirlwind. Fortunately, hate has an antidote, which is love. By “love” I mean, again, an underlying force and not merely an emotion. It expresses itself on the political level as compassion, for the weak, the mentally ill, the homeless; right now it comes to the fore in those who have the courage to demand that we rid ourselves of weapons, and have the wisdom to warn us about mindset that created those weapons in the first place and in some extreme cases, as we’ve just endured in Connecticut, drives individuals to use them to such deadly effect. If we want these tragedies to stop we must open our eyes to the connection, not always obvious but not that obscure once you know what you’re looking for, between our cultural disposition to choose hate over love and the actions resulting from such an unwise choice.

You see it sometimes in strange juxtapositions where the press seems to hint at connections they dare not express. On the front page of my local paper, alongside grieving parents and traumatized children, was the smiling picture of a local woman in full combat gear, going off to kill “enemies” in Afghanistan – knowing that the killing is often indiscriminate, and includes children. There have been 333 drone strikes on Afghanistan in the past year, according to Wired news service, many killing just one “bad guy” and many others, including many children. Can we kill other people’s children and expect our own to be safe? Really?

Recently it’s come to light that even drone operators, sitting in comfortable chairs twelve thousand miles away from their targets, are prone to PTSD, or what a psychologist colleague of mine, Rachel MacNair, calls PITS: Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress. One such operator and sufferer reported after leaving the army that after killing a child, "I felt disconnected from humanity." Sit with that phrase for a moment, because as violence expert psychiatrist James Gilligan reminds us, this disconnection, this “lack of remorse or empathy [is a] distinctive quality of the psychopath.” Like poor Adam Lanza.

In other words, we are in various ways creating the psychological conditions for violence and providing the enabling conditions, namely the belief in and ready availability of weapons. One day before the Newtown massacre a deranged man in China attacked a roomful of schoolchildren with a knife. Many were injured (and all no doubt traumatized), but none died. The example shows clearly what we must do: have strict gun control to limit the damage to life that can be caused by the most deranged among us. That will buy us some time, as well as sending a message that we have in fact realized something fundamental about violence. And with the time thus bought let us do something even more important: let us look for ways to neutralize hate and violence wherever they are to be found, and yes, some of it is to be found in us.

In a notorious interview on Sixty Minutes that took place in 1996, the then Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, was confronted with the fact that half a million children – half a million – had died as a result of sanctions we had imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. She replied, as you no doubt recall, “We think it was worth the price.” Maybe we’re starting to see now how steep that price really was.

Michael Nagler is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, and the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence.

Morning Line: Alex Jones & Chris Matthews control

by Sam Smith

Sam Smith - Before we do anything about guns, we have to get Alex Jones and Chris Matthews under control. They neatly typify the absurd over-simplicity to which the issue of violence has been lowered: either you're a nut or a Nazi.

In fact, the more you delve into this topic the more complex it becomes. Let's say, for example, that one could successfully ban not just assault weapons but all rifles and shotguns. If half the people who used them to kill others would be restrained from doing so, then the murder rate would drop about 3%. Hardly enough to divide a whole nation about.

On the other side of the ledger, consider this study reported by the New Scientist in 1999:

People who carry guns are far likelier to get shot – and killed – than those who are unarmed, a study of shooting victims in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has found.

Charles Branas's team at the University of Pennsylvania analysed 677 shootings over two-and-a-half years to discover whether victims were carrying at the time, and compared them to other Philly residents of similar age, sex and ethnicity. The team also accounted for other potentially confounding differences, such as the socioeconomic status of their neighbourhood.

Overall, Branas's study found that people who carried guns were 4.5 times as likely to be shot and 4.2 times as likely to get killed compared with unarmed citizens. When the team looked at shootings in which victims had a chance to defend themselves, their odds of getting shot were even higher.

Now let's consider some of the things that neither Jones nor Matthews have any interest in discussing:

- Despite an overwhelming media enthusiasm for violence, our children are seldom given any training at all in mediation and dispute resolution.

- CNN repeatedly features military experts but hardly ever has a peace expert on.

- Here's another New Scientist report from 1999 that you probably never heard about:

Shootings and killings in deprived areas of Chicago and Baltimore have plummeted by between 41 and 73 per cent thanks to a program that treats violence as if it is an infectious disease.

Pioneers of the program, called CeaseFire (, say it relies on simultaneously changing attitudes and behavior and will work anywhere.
The key is to change social norms so that violence is seen as "uncool" both by potential perpetrators and their communities, instead of being the automatic way to settle a dispute.

"Violence gets transmitted the same way as other communicable diseases, so we train 'violence interruptors' to prevent escalation," says Gary Slutkin, founder and executive director of CeaseFire.
"They change the norm from 'violence is what's expected of me' to 'violence will make me look stupid'," says Slutkin.
While violence interruptors work on the streets to intercept and defuse disputes before anyone gets hurt, outreach workers work in parallel to get the same message to the community, through schools and key members such as clergy.

The net effect is that the "default" norm of instant violence rapidly changes to one in which shooting is seen as unacceptable and unfashionable. "1800 of these types of events have been successfully mediated in the past 4 years," says Slutkin.

This doesn't surprise me. I edited a center city newspaper in DC during some of the worst years, including the 1968 riots, and remember how programs that worked - such as having a squad of Recreation Department officials working the streets instead of just staying on the playgrounds - got ignored by the media and the public and eventually killed.

I argued futilely against the DC police's transfer of street cops into cars. The increased isolation would parallel a rise in violence. I later proposed things such as EMT training in high schools to create alternative role models to the druggies.

What struck me was how such corrective policies attracted virtually no attention or appreciation. It was, then as now, all about more stringent laws.

And I wasn't exactly naive. At one point half my circulation department was in jail. I found needles hidden behind stacks of newspapers in our office. And once I had to get my wife and kid out of town after receiving a threat serious enough that a cop stayed with me overnight.

But then, on the bright side, I think of a friend who taught mediation in the DC public schools and to cops. One of her students - a teen aged girl - was sitting in a bus when a woman rider and the driver got into a shouting match. This young student walked to the front of the bus and said, "Excuse me, but I've been trained in mediation. Can I help?" And did.

And then there were the cold facts. Here's what happened in DC after strict gun laws were passed.

In the 1970s DC passed the strict laws and nothing happened.Then Reagan hyped the drug war and murders soared. Finally the drug market matured, policing got better, and the number of youths declined along with the murder rate.

Which is why I shake my head when people insist that banning assault weapons is going to have a significant impact.

Sure, there are improvements that can be made, but leave Alex Jones and Chris Matthews out of it. Discuss the issue rationally with rational people. For example, Joe Biden talks of background checks, but does he mean checks that can be challenged legally or TSA no-fly list style enforcement? That's the sort of thing we should be talking about. Handling laws are like handling guns; it should be done calmly and sensibly.

And beyond that is the liberal response to this issue - describing much of America as violent nutcases. They couldn't have done themselves less of a favor than if they had elected a Republican president and Congress. Their reaction to the gun issue has solidified the wall between the 21% who call themselves liberal and much of the rest of the country.

As Dan Baum put it in the Huffington Post in 2011, "Gun control not only does no practical good, it actively causes harm. It may be hard to show that it saves lives, but it's easy to demonstrate that we've sacrificed a generation of progress on things like health care, women's rights, immigration reform, income fairness, and climate change because we keep messing with people's guns. I am researching a book on Americans' relationship to their guns, and keep meeting working-stiff gun guys -- people whose wages haven't risen since 1978 and should be natural Democrats -- who won't even listen to the blue team because they're convinced Democrats want to take away their guns. Misguided? Maybe. But that's democracy for you. It's helpful to think of gun control as akin to marijuana prohibition -- useless for almost everything except turning otherwise law-abiding people into criminals and fomenting cynicism and resentment."

Baum's book, published by Knopf, will be out in March: "Gun Guys: A Road Trip."

Obama: Good Steps on Guns, What About the War on Drugs?

by Matthew Rothschild

Pres. Obama came out with some sensible proposals on gun violence Wednesday.

By advocating reinstituting a ban on semi-automatic weapons and establishing a ban on high-capacity magazines, he would at least make it more difficult for mass killers such as we saw in Aurora or at Sandy Hook.

Some of his other ideas are welcome, as well, like getting armored-piercing bullets off the street, and increasing mental health services.

But not only do we need to increase mental health services; we also need a national public awareness campaign on suicide warning signs.

Let’s be real here: Of the 31,000 people killed by guns in the United States in 2010, 19,000 of them were suicides. So let’s work seriously on suicide prevention.

I also doubt this assertion by the White House: “The single most important thing we can do to prevent gun violence and mass shootings, like the one in Newtown, is to make sure those who would commit acts of violence cannot get access to guns.”

First of all, it’s unclear whether the shooters in Newtown and Aurora wouldn’t have been able to get access to some kind of guns even under Obama’s new regulations.

And secondly, is that “the single most important thing”?

I’d hazard a guess that, other than bolstering suicide prevention efforts, the single most important thing we can do is to end the war on drugs.

By legalizing or decriminalizing drugs, the rampant gun violence that is plaguing places like Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Oakland would go way down. (And those involved in the violent gun trade will manage to get a hold of firearms somehow, even with bans and increased registration efforts in place.)

While we’re at it, we also might try solving the problem of poverty, which is closely associated with the problem of gun violence.

“Poverty is a substantial factor in gun deaths” in metro areas, according to a recent report by the Atlantic Cities (

Yes, it’s easier to place more cops in schools, which Obama now advocates, than it is to end the war on drugs or tackle poverty. (And Obama’s willingness to place more cops in school puts the lie to the hideous NRA ad about Obama carrying more about his kids, who have armed guards at their school, then everyone else’s kids.)

But we’re kidding ourselves if we think Obama’s efforts are going to make a big dent in gun violence.

© 2012 The Progressive

Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine.

Why Our Gun Debate Is Off Target

America's gun owners have every right to object to sweeping controls, but until they take responsibility for their own role in accidents and violence, they're setting themselves up for more regulation.

by Dan Baum

Believe it or not, what's missing from the current shout-fest over guns and gun control is the voice of gun owners.

Yes, the National Rifle Association has been screaming its head off since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, but the NRA doesn't speak for the country's 100 million gun owners. If it did, it wouldn't have just four million members. Some "gun guys" (as I like to call them) probably support the NRA without joining, but if only 4% are signing up, it's safe to say a large majority of them want nothing to do with the NRA's angry extremism.

As for those on the gun-control side, they often go beyond calling for policy changes, about which reasonable people can disagree, and issue broad-brush insults that aren't acceptable in other contexts. When sportscaster Bob Costas blames "gun culture" for the murder-suicide of an NFL linebacker, gun owners say, "Wait a minute. I'm gun culture. And my guns haven't hurt anybody."

A lot of assumptions are made about gun owners, by the NRA and gun-control proponents alike. What nobody ever seems to do, though, is listen to them.

I recently drove 15,000 miles around the country doing just that, talking to gun guys in their homes and garages, at gun shows and ranges, at gun stores and in the woods, trying to figure out why they are so deeply attracted to firearms and why guns inspire such passion on all sides. In part, it was a voyage of self-discovery. I'm a weirdo hybrid: a lifelong gun guy who is also a lifelong liberal Democrat. I often feel like the child of a bitter divorce who has allegiance to both parents.

I obtained a concealed-carry permit and wore a gun every place I went. I'd flash it like a Masonic pin, and gun guys poured out their stories. They seemed very glad finally to be asked about their gun lives by someone who was both sympathetic and not trying to manipulate them.

The fondness for firearms is complex. At their simplest, guns are beautifully made things, richly satisfying to handle. The one with which I hunt was made in 1900, for the Spanish-American War. At a gun store in Minnesota, a big man put his credit card on the counter to buy a Glock, and as he waited for his receipt he turned to me with a sigh of satisfaction. "Tell me another thing I can buy for $400 that my grandchildren will be using," he said. (This, by the way, is one of the problems with gun bans; unless we're willing to go house to house rounding them up, the country's 300 million privately owned guns are going to last forever.)

Then there's the Zen pleasure of marksmanship. One competitor at a match in Kentucky called it "a martial art," but even less serious shooting is a hoot. At a machine-gun shoot in the Arizona desert—yes, machine guns are legal with the right permit—I rented a Thompson submachine gun and fired it into an arroyo strewed with junked cars and sticks of dynamite. Choose the most antigun peacenik you know, let her shoot a Tommy gun at a stick of dynamite, then ask if it was fun.

During a break in the shooting, I got a lesson in how guns connect us to our past. Men lovingly discussed the industrial-era designs of their 1896 Argentine Maxims and 1916 Vickers. As much as they were gun guys, they were history buffs and patent freaks.

Gun guys also talked of the welcome discipline that living with guns imposed on their lives, of their patriotic pride in the unique trust that America places in its people. They also get a charge from their proximity to the grim reaper. They stand apart from those who fear firearms, saying, essentially, "I am master of this death-dealing device, and you are not. I am prepared for the kind of situation you can't even bring yourself to think about." To live intimately with such lethal devices, to be able to handle them safely, is a powerful self-esteem builder.

Although I did my best to avoid gun politics, the subject came up constantly. What came through loudest of all was that gun guys feel insulted. The caustic and routine dismissal of "gun culture" is only part of it. Gun guys look at the most strident advocates of gun control and say, "You know nothing about what it means to handle guns, but you presume to make judgments about my ability to do so."

From Arizona to Michigan, I found America full of working people who won't listen to Democrats about anything because of the party's identification with gun control. A parks-and-recreation worker in Wisconsin told me he was offended by the Democrats' view "that guns are for the unwashed, the yokels." It's hard to think of a better organizing tool for the right than the left's tribal antipathy to guns.

But my fellow gun guys have plenty to answer for, too. We don't live in a vacuum. Our guns affect everybody, and the non-gun-owning public has a right to expect things to improve. More than ever, after the transformative horror of Sandy Hook, the old defensive crouch is inadequate. If gun culture is to survive, gun guys need to get in the game. If we want to hold on to our guns, we need to be part of the solution.

Lacking a national church, Americans have few ways of expressing public morality except by saying, "There oughta be a law." So both sides of our "gun debate" can think no further than what government might do. Gun controllers call for more restrictive laws, gun guys gnash their teeth over same. Meanwhile, the single step that I believe would save the most lives wouldn't involve government at all.

As individuals, the majority of gun guys are achingly responsible with their guns. As a community, though, they are lethal—so focused on criminals and government as the villains that they have failed to examine how they themselves might help to reduce the number of gun fatalities.

The wrongest of wrong hands for guns aren't necessarily those of criminals but of curious children and depressed teenagers. Accidental child death is one of the few gun statistics that has grown worse since 1999. Teenage gun suicide is a lot lower than it was in 1999, but it's still heartbreakingly high. Almost half the teenagers who kill themselves do it with a gun, and, unlike those who try it with pills, car exhaust, razorblades, or a rope, they almost always succeed.

Where are those children and teenagers getting the guns? Not from gun stores, thanks to age minimums. Not from gun shows, either, unless they're getting an adult to buy them. And not from some murky "illegal gun market." They're getting them, by and large, from adults who leave them around, where immature hands can find them.

The same goes for career criminals. In the mid-1980s, the sociologists James Wright and Peter Rossi asked some 2,000 violent felons in prison about their gun lives. Almost half the guns that the felons described were stolen. Add to that the ones they thought were "probably" stolen, and the figure jumped to 70%. Most were stolen from households. An estimated half-million guns a year go missing in the U.S. and end up in criminal hands.

And then there are the tens of thousands of shootings every year by people who aren't criminals until they pick up a gun. Tempers flare, a gun is at hand, and tragedy ensues.

To the legislatures of 27 states and the District of Columbia, the solution to both problems seems obvious: Require guns to be locked up, trigger-locked, stored separately from their ammunition, or some combination of the three. A lot of gun guys hate these laws. They argue that a gun separated from its ammunition, disabled or locked away is useless in an emergency.

Not true. I keep my handgun loaded in the bedroom, in a metal safe the size of a toaster that pops open the second I punch in a three-digit code. I bought it on eBay EBAY -0.23% for $25. The gun is secure but instantly available—to me only. Many gun guys use such safes. They just don't want to be told to use them.

Neither do they want to be ordered to report a stolen gun to the police. Lots of gun guys consider it tyranny to have to tell the police anything about their guns, and they have kept most jurisdictions from passing stolen-gun laws. Only seven states and the District of Columbia make reporting a stolen gun mandatory.

But if we gun guys are the paragons of civic virtue that we claim to be, why do we have to be ordered to lock up our guns or report a gun theft? Wouldn't a responsible citizen do that anyway?

We gun guys are operating under a double standard. We want to be left alone to buy, use and carry guns because, we say, we understand firearms better than any bureaucrat. But at the same time, enough of us behave so carelessly that thousands of people are needlessly killed, injured or victimized every year by guns left lying around.

Is a gun guy who keeps his guns properly secured responsible for some knucklehead who doesn't? If the NRA is consistent in its logic, the answer is yes. Solidarity is a constant theme of the NRA, which exhorts its members to lobby and vote in support of the wider community of gun owners.

But that is where the NRA's vision of service to the community ends. For the NRA to suggest that law-abiding gun owners are responsible in any way for gun violence would shatter the notion that only criminals are to blame. So while the NRA trains people in gun safety and publishes books about gun care, it avoids drawing a connection between the carelessness of law-abiding gun owners and America's still-high rate of needless gun death.

What could the NRA and the community of responsible gun owners do to reduce gun deaths without government intervention? They could make unsafe gun behavior socially unacceptable, just as it has become unthinkable, among most Americans, to smoke inside another person's house or to make lascivious comments about underage girls.

Some are trying. Robert Farago, who writes a popular gun blog called The Truth About Guns, runs a regular feature called "Irresponsible Gun Owner of the Day"—often a YouTube video of young men acting stupidly or a news item about a needless tragedy. After Arizona instituted "constitutional carry"—allowing any adult to carry a concealed gun with no training or permit—a group called organized to urge citizens to get trained and to help them find trainers.

But these are lonely voices. The big dog, the NRA, has for decades run a monthly feature in its magazines called "The Armed Citizen," about people successfully defending themselves with firearms. Were it to call its members to a higher standard of responsibility with a complementary column called, say, "The Armed Bonehead," it would reach millions more people than either Mr. Farago or TrainMeAZ.

Imagine how gun culture could change if gun guys refused to hang out with those who left guns lying around their houses. "Sorry, dude. I'm not shooting with you until you clean up your act." Or if gun guys refused to shop at stores that sold home-defense guns without insisting that buyers also take safes to keep them in. Little by little, shooters and gun stores would get the message, and the problem of unsecured guns—the main source of gun tragedy—would wither away.

Gun guys are right to object to government officials who propose sweeping gun controls without understanding guns. But until they take responsibility for the gun violence that so frightens their fellow citizens, they're setting themselves up for more regulation. Taking collective responsibility for social problems is not the same thing as knuckling under to a tyrannical government. In fact, it's the opposite.

—Mr. Baum is the author of "Gun Guys: A Road Trip," which will be published by Knopf on March 5.

A version of this article appeared February 16, 2013, on page C1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: OFFTARGET.

Copyright ©2013 Dow Jones & Company

Post new comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer