Sandy Hook vs Chenpeng Village Primary School

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun
Wayne LaPierre, Vice-President, NRA, December, 2012

As facile as you think this statement is, I think it is worth taking a close look at it – unpack it – and consider the semiotics and implications of it, because for all the media derision, it caused a massive spike in NRA membership and it presents an example of a type of narrative the vast majority of Americans consume with enthusiasm.

Bad Guys and Good Guys

This stark binary is an interesting one. It depends on false assumptions: that there is absolute bad and absolute good. Of course, this requires an identification of what bad and good is. And, it requires that it be done in a split second. It also requires that the bad guys acknowledge that they’re bad. And good guys acknowledge that they’re good. The one thing we know is that most people believe themselves to be good. Even bad guys think they’re good. Just ask them. Most people who do bad things can list the mitigating reasons why they’ve done them. They don’t believe themselves to be BAD. They believe they’re good people surviving in an ambivalent world. Of course, we know that Adam Lanza knew he was bad. That’s why, after shooting his mother in the face and murdering 26 people, he executed himself.

But most of all, it poses the sort of scenario which thoughtful people find almost impossible to navigate.

In the case of Jeffrey Johnson, who shot a co-worker and turned his gun towards NYPD officers at the Empire State Building, the ‘good guys’ did manage to kill him, but they shot 9 bystanders in the process. Out of the 16 rounds fired by police, the majority hit innocents. So, in fact, from a perspective of damage done, Mr. Johnson did less harm that the ‘good guys’ who came to stop him.

During the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, one security guard hesitated to shoot because he said he could not tell the good guys from the bad guy. Does this make him a bad guy?  Joseph Zamudio, one of the bystanders who finally subdued Loughner, possessed a license to carry a concealed weapon, but didn’t use it.

People who carry arms and use them professionally are all too well aware of the fact that bullets don’t care who they hit, and that split second reactions often have horrific consequences.  There are far too many unintended killings. One shocking example of this was the mistaken shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in the UK, where armed officers mistakenly identified him as a terror suspect.

The ‘good guy / bad guy’ paradigm is very attractive because it is so simple and easy to comprehend. It is entirely ironic that Wayne LaPierre pointed to violent movies and video games as bearing responsibility for tragedies like Sandy Hook. Because it is simplistic narrative that perpetuates the myth of the ‘good guy/bad guy” paradigm.  He is using the narrative language of the very fiction on which he lays blame.

Simplistic Narratives

I’m going to shock you by saying that I partially agree with LaPierre. I don’t agree that violent movies or video games cause more deaths. In fact, we know they don’t. Japan is a huge consumer of violent media, and has the lowest rate of murder in the world.  But I do believe that the rejection of more complex narratives in favour of simplistic and binary ones does, over the long run, contribute to the culture of violence we find ourselves in.

Here is what we really know about mass shootings: in the 62 mass shootings that have taken place since 1982, only one of the shooters was female. [1. ]. More recently, the vast majority of shooters have been young men.

The almost universal promotion of simplistic, black and white narratives of how to be good, and how to be a real man, how to be an ‘All American Boy’, are pretty well impossible to live up to. And although many mass shooters commit suicide in the process of their crimes, we know that the majority of them have average or higher than average IQs. In fact, it may be that the very ability to recognize the schism between these simplistic role-models of successful masculinity and their own statuses plays a part in their decision to kill others and then themselves.

Apres moi, le deluge

It is entirely understandable that when these sorts of shootings occur, we focus on the victims and not the perpetrator. But doing so often obscures a very important element. These shootings are, essentially, spectacular acts of suicide. Either they turn the gun on themselves, or there is a suicide-by-cop end game to their plan. [2. ].

So although it is easy to see them as ‘bad guys’, it’s not helpful. A far better approach is to ask why these young men want to die so badly. Because once we’ve accepted that these boys have clearly envisioned their own deaths, it stops being so hard to understand why they are willing to take so many other people with them. After me – the flood.

Although somewhat dated, this 1999 paper explores a very persuasive theory: that a certain type of person, bent on suicide but unable to carry out the act quietly and in the privacy of their own home, will commit themselves to a course of action in consequence of which they will then be irrevocably compelled to commit suicide (after the intentional slaughter of innocents) or they will put others in a position of having to kill them (suicide by cop). In essence, these people engineer a situation in which they force their own hand or the hand of another.

It sounds like a callous thing to say, but at the end of the day, both the killer and his victims are out of it. The lasting damage is to the survivors – the injured, the relatives of both the victims and the perpetrator, the community, the police, the emergency workers, the coroners. It a much larger group of individuals who ultimately suffer untold amounts of anguish for years following events like this one.

We cannot know whether these mass shooters think that far down the line, but if they are intent on punishing society for their personal pain, they succeed.

So what’s this got to do with guns?

Americans believe they live in a very violent society. But the truth is that there are more violent crimes per capita in the UK than in the US.  And before you lay the blame for this at the door of mediated violence, remember that Germany (which has very strict censorship laws on violence in films, video games and television) ranks third.

What differentiates the US from other, almost equally violent societies, is the ubiquity of firearms.  And this explains the huge gap between the US and other industrialized nations in terms of how fatal those violent crimes turn out to be. Guns are simply the most efficient killing implements.

China just suffered another mass stabbing. Min Yingjun, armed with a knife, wounded 22 students at a primary school in Henan Province. There were only two differences between Sandy Hook and Chenpeng Village Primary School –  no guns and no fatalities.

As a society, we have two challenges. One is to identify why it is that a percentage of young men are so bent on suicide. The other is on how to mitigate the damage they can do in their attempts.

Serious psychological research on how we model ‘men’ in our societies and how we make room for those who cannot or will not fit the culturally constructed model is needed.  We are not offering enough believable, livable, sustainable alternative possibilities for how to be a ‘man’. That, I suspect, is a project that will be very hard to sell to an angry and grieving nation, but it is work that needs to be done if we don’t want to see a continuing rise in the number of these sorts of tragedies.

In the meantime, there is a second and more immediately implementable stop-gap solution.  It would be unrealistic to believe that the US – with its right to bear arms enshrined into its constitution – is going to be able to institute the kind of sweeping bans on firearms seen in countries like the UK and Japan. However, the constitution does not specify what kind of arms people are permitted to carry. So, banning weapons that self-load and are easy to repeat-fire is a very good, very doable stop-gap measure that will effectively cut down on the number of victims any given suicidally bent young man can create in any given situation.

Slow-loading, slow firing weapons will give the ‘good guys’ the time they need to intervene. It will also ensure that they too need to pause before shooting over and over. It will ensure that ‘good guys’ don’t turn into ‘bad guys’ by mistake.

There is a bitter irony in the fact that one of the NRA’s most oft-quoted phrases (“guns don’t kill people, people kill people”) happens to be true. But the logical extension of that statement is also true: People with guns kill more people faster.