Political Animal


December 21, 2012 11:35 AM Is Inequality Behind America’s Plague of Mass Violence?

By Ryan Cooper

My colleague Daniel Luzer has a provocative hypothesis about America’s plague of gun violence:

The reality is that the American mass shooting probably has a lot to do with gun policy, a fair amount to do with mental health programs, and everything to do with the distribution of wealth in America.

He draws a connection between Newtown, Columbine, and the Nat Turner slave rebellion, concluding that:

The workplace and school shootings were motivated by similar things to slave uprisings, a sense of frustration in an essentially dehumanizing situation. Nat Turner’s slave army seemed to be motivated by base evil and ingratitude. Columbine’s murderers (the trench coat mafia) were said to be motivated by base evil and video games.
A culture that breeds revolt is one in which a vast army of ill-paid and largely miserable people toils in service to a soulless corporate institution or a few very wealthy people. The message this sends is that anyone outside of the top tier of American movers and shakers is not experiencing some temporary economic setback but, rather, is in some way fundamentally and irrevocably inferior. (“If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself”) This is a trap from which the eventual perpetrators feel they have no way out. Confined by his lack of power, the “crazed” gunman fixates on exercising what little power he does have.

I think this goes a little too far; inequality is not always correlated with mass violence. Singapore, for example, is even more unequal than the US yet has almost no gun violence—last year saw sixteen homicides total. (Singapore has no right to gun ownership and brutally strict law enforcement.)

There is something to this, though. Daniel brings up the astoundingly violent Central American republics, but I think those countries’ numbers are inflated by being the battleground for drug cartels’ fights over the US drug market. A better example is South Africa, where I once lived. It is nearly the most unequal society on Earth and among the most violent, with nearly 16,000 murders in 2010, a per capita rate more than six times that of the US, itself a very violent country by developed world standards. Living there I did have a strong sense that the stupendous wealth gap—with unemployed slum-dwelling masses and small enclaves where the rich barricade themselves in behind concertina wire, dogs, and electric fences—leads to exactly this kind of alienation and hatred. As Daniel says:

As societies become more inequitable, they become more violent. That’s because gross inequities in wealth make people feel angry and impotent and irrelevant. Their sense of powerlessness is ratified and reinforced by a culture and economic system in which the small group of winners feels morally justified in dismissing the large and growing number of losers (“There are 47 percent who … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”)
Much like slave rebellions, mass shootings aren’t rational acts, but personal mutinies against a society that doesn’t make sense (“Shit is f*cked up and bullsh*t”), a culture in which people feel alienated and alone.

China has had a similar experience in the last two years, with ten mass stabbings at schools in the past three years. Joshua Miller, a psychology professor at Smith College, explained them thus: “The string of school attacks occur when society causes stress on people, like rapid social change, mass migrations, increasing disparities in wealth and weakening of traditions.”


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • Quaker in a Basement on December 21, 2012 1:40 PM:

    Complicating factor in this theory: the shooters are generally from the middle-class or higher, mostly white and male. If there's inequality in the society, these are the people who benefit, not the ones who are disadvantaged.

  • Peter C on December 21, 2012 1:42 PM:

    In this context, Romney's entire quote should be printed:

    "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax."

    WHO BELIEVE THEY ARE ENTITLED ... TO FOOD! Food. In Romney's eyes, we're not entitled to it.

    The best part of going over the fiscal cliff will be the reinstatement of the inheritance tax.

  • Sean Scalkn on December 21, 2012 1:57 PM:

    Boy that Adam Lanza had it tough. That big house with all those video games and guns and never having to work. Man was economic inequality rough on him.

  • jjm on December 21, 2012 2:02 PM:

    This Lanza's dad gave his wife $260,000 a year in alimony. She did nothing for a living. It was slated to rise a year or so from now to $280,000. The father committed, during the divorce, to pay both sons' college tuition.

    So poor Adam Lanza, raging because of income inequality: I mean that he had so much more, by about ten times, than those in poverty.

    Poor blacks learned a big lesson from the 1968 riots. They accomplished NOTHING. So, with the rich people lusting for blood, I guess they inadvertently inculcate their children to providing it.

    This whole argument is beyond ridiculous.

  • Peter C on December 21, 2012 2:03 PM:

    I'm not sure that's a complicating factor, @QuakerIAB. While the gunmen may be 'from the middle-class or higher, mostly white and male', the super-rich overwhelmingly are. The gunmen have feel they have the 'right' skin color and gender, but know they are not super-rich. They feel they QUALIFY, but they have been excluded. That's still a product of the system which enables the super-rich at the expense of the rest of us. People who feel they posess the 'qualifications' but are excluded feel both frustration and hostility toward those who they feel are getting things unfairly.

    Our governmental system enables our society - without our government, our society would collapse.

    Our society enables the obscene concentration of wealth.

    The super-wealthy, who have benefitted disproportionately from the bounty of our society, deserve to pay an equally disproportionate share of the costs of our government. As economic inequality decreases, the progressivity of our taxation can decrease. But, we should increase the tax burden on the rich until the rate of increase in economic inequality flattens out.

    Extreme wealth inequality is corrosive to our society. It is appropriate for government to remedy the situation before the guillotine does. The rich can start by paying more for the military which protects their oil tankers.

  • c u n d gulag on December 21, 2012 2:05 PM:

    Inequality is certainly a large factor in this.

    But so may the age-old problems here of race, and the dualities of rural and urban life, here in America.

    Maybe what I'm about to write is tangential, and I should spare this for another post, but I want to talk about a few thoughts that I have. And they may be OT, but I'll write them down anyway - YOU, certainly don't have to read them, if you feel they don't apply, or are the gibberish coming from a damaged mind.

    Almost all of these mass gun killers are young white males. And many of them, like the CT Kindergarten Killer, grew up around guns.
    And why are so many of the people who own the most guns, and most lethal types of them, white males of all ages? And why are they arming themselves?
    Could it be the growing and spreading "urbanization" of America? More an more people of color are moving to suburbia, and more and more Hispanic people are looking for work in rural areas.

    Almost, if not every, problem this country faces today goes back to our beginning – the the accomodations that politicians in larger, more urban (and growing industrial) areas), were forced into with their more rural agricultural ones, to form a nation.

    The original concession was on slavery, where a black person had to be given some sort of percentage of worth (short of 100% - 3/5ths in the Constitution) as a part of the population, so that the Southern agrarian areas wouldn’t be dominated politically by their more populous Northern neighbors. The Senate has states with disproportionate representation, based on population. WY has as many Senators as CA, RI as TX. This body was designed this way, to protect the states in the rural and agricultural South.
    And, hence, our eternal problem with race, and racism - it all comes from urban v. rural areas, and the struggle for power.

    And so also, today’s gun culture comes from this same urban v. rural argument.
    In rural, and Frontier areas, guns were not only necessary to feed and protect your family and farm/home and any animals, but for survival itself – especially out on the Frontier. The Native-Americans kind of frowned on our plans for “Manifest Destiny,” since their destiny was to manifest itself by being crushed under the wheels of Conestoga Wagons, rifles, and "progress."

    In the ever-growing cities of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, guns were a growing hazard for at least a couple of reasons:
    -Since bullets flying around in crowded streets and buildings tended to injure and/or kill others besides the intended targets, having one wasn't really acceptable, even if you could afford one - which many people could not;
    -And, so, guns became something that only the criminal element really needed or exploited.
    Sure, wealthier urban people tended to have guns in their homes, not only for protection, but because many of them could afford to travel to rural areas, where they or their friends had "summer homes, and enjoyed hunting as a sport, and not as a means to feed their families.

    Urban areas became the first homes for immigrants of many nationalities, ethnicities, and religions.
    While rural and frontier areas remained predominantly white.
    Many of the these people moving from the cities, were not welcomed by the people where they moved to. They were outliers from the predominantly white, Protestant, new "natives" – and were often made into outcasts, or expoited for their labor.

    And then, we had the great Northern migrations of African-Americans, starting after the Civil War, which kept further increasing as the North became more and more industiralized, while the South stuck to agricultural pursuits.
    Both industy and agriculture depend on cheap labor. But only Southern agriculture had had slavery, and then, after Reconstruction, defacto slavery or indentured servitude - also, prison la

  • T2 on December 21, 2012 2:18 PM:

    Gulag points out that fear of being overrun by blacks and Mexicans is a big reason the white man wants his guns....especially Republican white men. Let them have their guns. But outlaw high capacity mags for any weapon and make a choke point with the purchase of ammunitions.
    To buy bullets, you'd have to provide proof your gun is registered, proof of ID, and enter your purchase into a Federal Log of ammo purchases. Oh yeah, and tax the hell out of ammo purchases.
    The gun nuts can have all the guns they want....just not all the ammo they want.

  • boatboy_srq on December 21, 2012 2:20 PM:

    @Peter C: apparently these volk are also in the lucky ducky category of not paying income taxes, also (though how anyone could describe not earning enough to be assessed income taxes as some kind of virtue is beyond me). Very much in the "Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?" vein.

    @QiaB: given the spread between the bottom 90+% and the top, it's hardly a complication: in the last 20-odd years, only the top earners have seen meaningful income growth, and the vast majority have seen real wages fall - including that "middle class" you assume is somehow magically sheltered from insecurity. That sense of powerlessness and futility isn't the exclusive province of the blue-collar and the unemployed, and current GOTea agenda items are guaranteed to only make that worse.


    [A]nyone outside of the top tier of American movers and shakers is not experiencing some temporary economic setback but, rather, is in some way fundamentally and irrevocably inferior.

    This can also be phrased as the current FundiEvangelist interpretation of the Protestant Work Ethic, and the concept of the Elect. It's not a "message" that gets "sent" by the socioeconomic environment: it's the philosophical foundation on which the current Corporatist iteration of Capitalism is built. This is what drives anti-union animus, "right-to-work" legislation, and the systematic disassembly of non-monetary employment benefits over the last few decades. Between that and the Confederatists' lingering resentment at having to pay (for) labor more than once, it's a marvel we haven't had a workers' revolution decades ago.

  • Rick B on December 21, 2012 5:39 PM:


    I very much agree with what you have written. And the racism that the South based its culture around was required for plantation owners to be able to get free labor so they could sell the really high value international products - first sugar and tobacco, and then cotton.

    The plantation owners would pay the fare for an indentured servant and expect him to work it off. But the ones with white skin could make it to the next county and no one knew they were skipping on a "debt." The ones with black skin and unable to speak English were returned. The law was soon changed so that indenture for a black person was for a lifetime and they became slaves.

    And the gun culture? Look at the Haiti slave rebellion. (Remember, slavery was Caribbean, southern North America and northern South America. All one economic process in international trade.)

    When the slaves on Haiti rebelled and killed their masters all the slave cultures panicked. In the South they created militias and every white male was required to belong. The militias enforced a curfew on all blacks, free and slave, throughout the 19th century. Every white male was required to own a gun and carry it with him at all times, even in church. Every white male college student was required to study military science. Ever wonder why at the beginning the South was better at fighting? They were already a totally militarized society and had been for over half a century.

    All of this was to keep the plantation owners in control of the rural agricultural Southern American society. Before the Civil War most of the richest families in America were in the slave south, and slaves were much of their wealth.

    They also enforce what is called the "White Wage." Even among free laborers, whites were paid more, given better jobs and housing, and treated as the superiors to blacks. Also, any collaboration between white and black was considered at the level of treason. This separation kept overall wages low and prevented any kind of unions from forming. The Right to Work Laws of today have the same exact function. It's always divide and keep repressed. After the Civil War the repression of slaves and the separation of the races as a way of holding down wages morphed into rabid anti-unionism even as segregation was being developed.

    The sole purpose of this was to extract the value of the work workers contributed and give the majority of it to the dominant owner class. There is a reason why those people tried to live like British aristocrats. They were living on the exact same kind of exploitation of labor, with the difference that the wealth came largely from international trade and it happened at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

    The exploitation, as you can see from the history, required suppression of the workers. The economic inequality is the marker of that suppression.

    One last point I recently learned is that the upper classes live on the wealth extracted from property. That wealth flows to power. It is also mostly permanents and a reliable source of income. Wage income, however, comes from those who actually themselves create the goods and services in trade through their labor. Wage income is unreliable, but it is what supports over 90% of the population. You cannot inherit wages.

  • Rick B on December 21, 2012 6:04 PM:


    The racial and ethnic groupings that the "white" man uses as an excuse for wanting guns are made up categories of people designed to identify who are the powerful wealth holders and who are the relatively powerless laboring classes. The categories used to "define" those categories tell nothing about the innate character or abilities the people so defined actually have. They are weak attempts to group people by their social networks. Without enforcing such groupings the individuals can relatively easily move to different social groups.

    The fear that motivates the possession of guns is the fear of the oppressors of the rightful anger of the oppressed.

    As long as those who do not have power are separated into different groups with different interests they can be kept from looking around at who the core repressors are. Once they recognize that they are powerless if they do not unify and organize, the powerful will lose much of the power they use to dominate society. The current propaganda spewed out by the holders-of-power make this a difficult recognition to achieve and act on. It's getting closer, though. That's why the governor of Michigan suddenly reversed himself recently and rammed through the so-called Right-to-Work law. Note the propaganda in that label?

    Remember, the social inequality that is so easily recognizable comes entirely from power and wealth that has been extracted from the productive capabilities of the economy.

  • Katherine Calkin on December 21, 2012 6:14 PM:

    Studies since the 1950s have shown that over-population and crowding lead to greatly increased stress and aggression, especially if the means of action are readily available.

  • TCinLA on December 21, 2012 6:22 PM:

    What we need to do is start profiling the white male morons with dead-end lives. Go look at some of the gun nut sites and their "discussion" groups. The NRA is right, develop a national database of crazy people. We can put 4 million names on it immediately, using the membership rolls of that organization.

  • Rick B on December 21, 2012 6:41 PM:


    Hey! Some of us joined the NRA before the gun-sellers and gun manufacturers took it over about twenty years ago and turned it into a sales promotion system for the gun manufacturers and sellers.

    Check it out. The takeover coincided with the reduction of government contracts for small arms for the military. The only possible market to expand to was the civilian market.

    Marketing to that market involves spreading lies and fear. The hook up with the Republican Party, already in decline even then, was a natural.

  • Rabbler on December 22, 2012 10:31 AM:

    Neoliberalism and it's first cousin Social Darwinism promote callous competition by any means in all things not just economics. They are now the true state religion of America. Everything else is just posturing for the masses.