Political Animal


December 15, 2012 12:10 PM Newtown: Forcing America to Stare Into the Abyss

By Samuel Knight

In this painful but necessary post-Newtown discussion, gun control advocates should prepare for the worst. That Republicans will ratchet up their extremism, that Democrats will cave as they do - some legitimately fearful that the NRA’s cartoonish villainy will haunt them next election cycle. It is likely, therefore, that even after such an unfathomable tragedy, policies like a national gun registry and the assault weapons ban will remain but pipe dreams, despite the fact that these guns - including a high powered rifle - were purchased legally.

Fine. If we can save lives without one iota of gun control, so be it. It’s time, then, that we talk about the deep-seeded malaise that is turning civic institutions into gruesome crime scenes. After all, there are people that own impressive weaponry who don’t feel the need to use it to tragic effect - so let’s launch an inquest as to why this is the case.

Mental health is becoming a massive issue in this debate and with good cause. The subject, in general, might have long been held as one of America’s last taboos. But that was shattered - at least in the context of mass murder - after a clearly disturbed Cho Seung-Hui circulated a ranting video to media outlets just before launching his killing spree on Virginia Tech’s campus in 2007. The Tuscon massacre committed by Jared Lee Loughner, too, made us stare the issue square in the face in early 2011, after his disturbing mugshot was plastered above almost every centerfold in the country. Aurora shooter James Holmes also reportedly sought out help before committing his heinous killings - and, allegedly, declared himself to be The Joker afterwards. And, while facts are emerging, it appears that Adam Lanza, too, “had some sort of mental disability or developmental disorder” and “often [made] those around him nervous because he was painfully shy and seemed to struggle to be social and form connections with people.” This isn’t to say that all mentally ill or developmentally different people are risks to the public order - far from it. Its just that they can act out in a spectacularly violent fashion when their conditions go untreated, unnoticed and misunderstood.

So what are some social conditions that might cause a mentally unwell person to deteriorate to the point of acting out in such a manner? On one hand, a collective failure to fully comprehend and care for mental illness exacerbates it. On the other, a regrettable frat-boy exalting culture stokes the flames of instability. Mark Ames - Matt Taibbi’s old colleague at the gonzo Muscovite paper, The eXile, for those unfamiliar - looked into common themes in rage massacres in his book Going Postal. He managed to sketch a compelling profile of workplace killers and school shooters as the victims of sustained bullying campaigns - a byproduct of the culture fostered by the dog-eat-dog Reagan years (though some of the killers might not seem to fit the profile of a goth nerd stuffed into lockers, neglect is a form of abuse). This isn’t to say that everyone who is bullied commits mass murder. But that mass murder often results from a culture that was unsafe to begin with.

Democrats could, therefore, use this mass shooting epidemic as an opportunity to talk about this: How we systematically encourage (if only tacitly) our children to bully for marginal gains in status; how our sons and daughters remain neglected because parents work long hours at menial jobs that barely pay the bills.

I assume that Republicans - having just failed to elect a cold-hearted bully of Presidential candidate - would squirm at the thought of having this discussion if Democrats increasingly demanded that it happen. It would be ideal, in my opinion, if we did address these issues. If not, then pressure on the GOP to engage in such a discourse, might at least force it into talking gun control instead.

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.


  • sjw on December 15, 2012 1:07 PM:

    It is Obama's responsibility to lead on this. To propose legislation. In my view, he ought to have done it yesterday, at least in a preliminary way. Today, with his weekly presidential address, he should have followed up with specifics. And as one poster suggested, he should tie such legislation to fiscal cliff negotiations. Given that support for gun control peaks right after such horrors, he/we need to strike while the fire is hot.

  • jjm on December 15, 2012 1:14 PM:

    My question: to have been that proficient at killing so many, this Lanza fellow must have had a lot of target practice -- with his mother's guns, apparently. Was she a gun nut? It would be more than interesting to know.

    Two: how about this for a private sector, individualistic solution to gun violence: mandated liability insurance for any one possessing a gun. Police could stop and check if you have the insurance, and if not, impound your gun.

    You can bet that if the for-profit private insurance industry got involved, there'd be very real background checks of individuals applying for the insurance: and for those with certain 'pre-existing conditions' like mental illness ... that would be that. We require liability insurance to drive a car, after all, because the car is potentially a lethal weapon. Why not liability insurance for a real lethal weapon?

  • c u n d gulag on December 15, 2012 1:22 PM:

    Madness mixes well with many things - like poetry, music, literature, sometimes even math and science. Many of the geniuses in those fields were borderline insane - if not over the line.

    The one thing madness does not mix well with, is weapons which were originally intended to allow for the more effective and efficient mass murders of enemy soldiers.

    That nut in China attacking at a school, killed exactly no one - because he brought a knife to an attempt at a mass murder of children, which would more effectively have been brought about by a gun.

    Crazy people have always been with us, and probably always will be.

    Yes, we need to analyze who they are and get them all of the help they nee - but it's access to guns, and semi and automatic ones, which results in body counts.

    To minimize the carnage, minimize access to guns - or at least those which have large clips and that can fire rapidly.

    No one wants to take away a hunterís gun. Nobodyís talking about that.
    And, if to feel safe in your home, you feel you need a handgun, no oneís going to take that away from you either (though you might not feel you need one, if the ďothersĒ guns are eliminated).

    Itís the semi-and-automaticís that are useless to hunt with (unless you like shredded venison, rabbit bits, or metal-ground squirrel), and also useless for home defense (unless a baseball team decides to steal, and invades your home base, en masse).

    And if we canít outlaw these semi, and automatic, weapons, as Iíve asked before, Ďwhy canít we outlaw bullets?í

    There is NO Constitutional right to bear/have bullets.

  • Josef K on December 15, 2012 1:29 PM:

    As more and more details emerge (just heard how teacher Victoria Soto hid her class in the closet right before gunman arrived and killed her), I suspect we'll both have and fail to have an actual dialogue on this. It won't be much more than the usual warmed-over bolivations on both sides, but that seems to be all our media has air for anymore.

    Within our emerging social media, however, it might prove a different story. There's enough intelligence within the body politic to allow some serious discussion and debate. Its possible there's enough rational NRA membership left that can distinguish between the organization's leadership delusions and the real world.

    In short, whatever discussion might happen is more likely to happen under the radar, not above it. Here's hoping it results in something more positive than Huckabee's little exhale last night.

  • Mimikatz on December 15, 2012 1:32 PM:

    The issue of guns and the need for guns that some people feel and the use that shooters make of guns is all tied up with issues of mental health. I don't think you can separate the two. A really sane person might own a couple of hunting rifles, maybe a pistol for target practice, but no more than that. And they would be connected enough to society to appreciate the need for some regulation of weapons--after all, they kill more people, or about as many, as cars each year and yet we require insurance, licenses and driving tests.

    So let's talk about mental health and what might impel a person to feel that they need to be armed to the teeth. Of course there are also questions of "free enterprise" here, the right to market products that cause mayhem and have no purpose other than to kill. We have finally agreed to regulate and educate people against tobacco.

    But there is some kind of story here. Why would a woman who had a son living with her who she had to know was at least troubled if not mentally seriously disturbed buy assault pistols and an assault rifle? It certainly didn't make her or anyone else safer. What is the story here?

  • DenguyFL on December 15, 2012 1:34 PM:

    There is one weapon more deadly than guns in this country. We do not even think about it as a weapon. Our ability to handle this weapon is periodically reviewed by the state. We can lose the right to operate this weapon. Figure it out?

    The automobile. Why can't we sensibly legislate that every one that owns a gun must show an ability to use it responsibly and understands the law? Do I think this is enough? NO, but I am not hellbent on making perfect the enemy of the good.

    Gun control is the wrong phrase. Public safety is the right one. And this tragedy along with too many other lesser ones that occur every single day is proof that it is a public safety issue as much as driving is. In fact,this year we are perilously close to eclipsing auto fatalities with gun fatalities. Both should be lower but only one is going up.

  • Sean Scallon on December 15, 2012 1:40 PM:

    " a byproduct of the culture fostered by the dog-eat-dog Reagan years"

    So no one was ever bullied before the Reagan years? Amazing! And wasn't that a time to live.

    Stranger still, all of these incidents occurred after he left office. It must have been one pretty powerful culture to last through three following Administrations also having lasted eight years in office.

    I hope this screed is no indication the style of writing on the Right blogosphere is seeping into the Left but I have my doubts.

  • Mimikatz on December 15, 2012 1:44 PM:

    One of the saddest stories I read today was by a man whose college student son was killed in a school shooting in the 1990s. He crusaded about guns, wrote a book, everything. Then he gave up. He realized we value our freedom more than our children.

    I'd say rather that we value our freedom more than other people's children, because no one thinks it will happen to their children.

    One last thought: the NRA lost every race it put money into this year. If there ever was a time to push for guns to be treated as seriously as cars it is now.

  • schtick on December 15, 2012 1:49 PM:

    Sean, in case you forgot, Reagan was shot as was his aide Brady. So he was lucky he made it eight years. That's how the Brady bill came about.

  • SecularAnimist on December 15, 2012 1:54 PM:

    Samuel Knight wrote: "If we can save lives without one iota of gun control, so be it. It’s time, then, that we talk about the deep-seeded malaise ..."

    You just surrendered to the NRA.

    NO, it is NOT "time, then, that we talk about" ... well, something, ANYTHING other than gun control.


    It's time for the NRA's bought-and-paid-for, cowardly stooges in Congress to be MADE MORE AFRAID of the wrath of the voters at the ballot box than they are of the NRA's money -- NOT time to let them off the hook and "move on" to whatever vaguely defined "deep-seeded malaise" the NRA sees fit to allow us to whimper about.

  • hells littlest angel on December 15, 2012 2:01 PM:

    Americans need to stare not into the abyss, but into the mirror.

    And we won't do it because we're so bloody "exceptional."

  • roadburnt on December 15, 2012 2:07 PM:

    While I fully support gun control, nothing will come of this. First, gun control will suck all the air out of Washington for months and our useless Senate can only manage 2 or 3 items per year when it actually works, let alone now. That means no immigration reform, no long term budget solution, no chance on an energy policy - nothing but demagoguery on guns. If that is what we want, so be it, but the gun debate is all we will get.

    Second, you do all recall how well this goes ever with the tea party types, right? If the conversation is beyond stupid in Washington, it goes batshit nuts in the hills. Here we go again with the militia wingnuts, the Waco wingnuts, the Ruby Ridge type wingnuts. To do this right means stirring up that hornet's nest again, too.

    And finally, how do we even get the cat back in the bag? There are what, 350 million guns in the US? There are so many guns out there, how do we even begin to account for all of them. It would mean ending gun shows and doing some sort of gun census, right? If the idea is to go door to door and register them, then the gun nut dystopia is truly up on us.

    Honestly, after watching us completely overreact to 9/11 with an Orwellian surveillance state where even a so-called liberal president happily conducts a secret drone war 10 years later, how will this go any differently?

  • jjm on December 15, 2012 2:16 PM:

    @mimikatz is on to something re mental health. But gun-worship also correlates with our politics and economics. How many people feel extremely impotent in their lives -- in all aspects (not only sexual) e.g. in their financial or their work situations -- where they are literally powerless. To their mind, the gun is attractive as a symbol of absolute or pure power.

    It is a mental health issue, but more than individuals have to be put on the couch.

  • dalloway on December 15, 2012 2:19 PM:

    I think it's possible both the shooter and his mother were mentally ill. There are reports that she was at least somewhat obsessed with guns and believed an economic apocalypse was coming and she'd have to defend her home and possessions. Gee, I wonder where she could have gotten that idea.

  • PTate in Mn on December 15, 2012 3:43 PM:

    Agree with MimiKatz

    A couple of things strike me. First is that we need to re-evaluate assumptions about mental health care as well as increase spending on mental health. As mimikatz says, "...let's talk about mental health and what might impel a person to feel that they need to be armed to the teeth." The right wing fringers who have taken over the Republican party are fueled by paranoid delusions. Could we please just start by documenting that this is a dangerous mental disorder, not a political free speech?

    Or, consider "privacy." A decade ago, I worked with a woman who was sick with worry about her son. He was threatening and bullying her, but because he was legally an adult, she had very few options to get help for him. It was only after he murdered her that the various social agencies agreed that, yes, he had a problem. Quite apart from funding, we are so concerned with privacy and violations of civil rights in the US that people who need help don't get it. Many of them don't think they are the ones with the problem. The problem is all those people who are out to get them. So can't we figure out ways to identify and help deranged and dangerous people without violating their civil rights?

    Finally, abortion has been legal in the US since 1972 but that hasn't stopped the minority of Americans who think abortion is immoral. Their crusade to make abortion (and contraception) nearly impossible to obtain has been very successful. So, a majority of Americans support gun control. Surely we can do the same with gun control as the minority who oppose abortion. While the constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, let us start by insisting on the "well-regulated militia" condition. Why should individuals have access to weapons of mass murder? Why do individuals need that kind of fire power?

    So, let us start insisting on public safety (thanks, DenguyFL!), city by city, state by state, until the nation is disarmed. To me, that means more well-regulated militia, less powerful guns, fewer guns in the hands of individuals, fewer and less crazy bullets and fewer laws that encourage gun vigilantes AND better mental health reporting and care.

    I really would like to live in a country in which my children could go to school without fear for their physical safety.

  • rrk1 on December 15, 2012 3:43 PM:

    Our legislative branch is owned and constantly kept in line by lobbyists of all stripes. Plus the legislators have only one fear: that they will lose their seats. The overarching obsession with getting reelected that infects just about every elected official is hard to believe unless one has seen it up close. I have. There have been those few who have demonstrated personal courage and led the good fight. Too often they are rewarded with defeat not only of their causes, but in reelection.

    Any new discussion about obviously necessary control of assault weapons, mega-ammunition clips, and ultra-damaging bullets will most likely not get beyond hollow bloviation and self-serving grandstanding, which will endure only until the media gets tired of it and presents us with a new distraction.

    Cue the next mass murder somewhere. Perhaps it will take one massacre a week so that everyone will eventually know someone who has been killed in these mindless rampages. More likely, in our narcissistic coma, such a frequency of horror will only become like Musak playing gently in the background at the mall, i.e., the new normal.

    Screw Captcha

  • bleh on December 15, 2012 3:52 PM:

    If there is some progress on mental-health funding out of this -- even if it is only embarrassing Republicans, who try to distract the conversation about gun control by talking about mental health, by asking them why they support DE-FUNDING mental health programs -- then I'll consider it a signal victory.

    But I think it's more likely that this story will be gone from the discussion within a week. Christmas, the Gentle Fiscal Slope, etc., along with the resolute Congressional inaction on the subject, will cause it to sink like a stone.

    And I'm sorry, but anyone who expects Obama to lead on this is deluding themselves. He CAN'T lead on it. He's a BLACK MAN. When you ask the "gun enthusiasts" why they have so many weapons, they say "for protection," and guess who they imagine they're protecting themselves from. I suspect they're already locking and loading, expecting the Black Panther and UN Storm Troopers to swoop in any minute in their black helicopters. Even if he could do something without Congressional action -- which he really can't -- he'd be setting himself up for an impeachment. It would be a gift to the nutcase Republicans.

    Sorry for the bleak comment, but I got a hundred bucks that says this goes nowhere fast.

  • emjayay on December 15, 2012 4:57 PM:

    Great comments as usual, except for one which seized on a detail of the original post ("a byproduct of the culture fostered by the dog-eat-dog Reagan years") and missed what I think is Samuel's point, which I think is a profound one.

    First, the anti-bullying in schools movement, which has somehow perversely been vilified as glorifying sinful gay people or European Socialism or something, is already having an impact in schools. Connecting bullying to these massacres can't hurt. Awareness of and addressing domestic violence is another way we've made some recent progress down these lines.

    But the Samuel's overall point is I think that the richest country on earth has become much more income stratified, more dog-eat-dog, more winner take all, more totally individualistic instead of more humane and caring in recent decades. The Reagan administration marked a turning point. This attitude has resulted in both the ability of individuals to arm themselves with battlefield weapons and the social climate of paranoia about the government and the need for individual action to solve anything. Mix that with crazy and repeated massacres is what you get. But it's not all you get.

    By the way, when the founders wrote about the right to bear arms, they weren't conceiving of semiautomatic rifles. Or even rifles. It was the right to bear muskets.

    What we need, and could achieve easily if not for, you know, the right wing, is a more fair and humane society. Raising the age of qualifying for Medicare is not exactly a step in the right direction.

    How about, on a national level, a bit of job protection particularly seeing as how unions are disappearing. A minimum wage that is significantly higher than it was in 1969 (just correcting for inflation would raise it $2 an hour to equal that year's level). Forbidding hiring temp workers for what are not temp jobs. Forbidding making people work part time to keep them desperate and from getting benefits at a business that is open 60 or 80 hours a week. How about a national pension scheme instead of companies being taken over, sucked dry, and folded by vulture capitalists (or just folding on their own accord) and pensions disappearing, or unions having pension funds to corrupt. It's a little late now, but allowing states and localities to compete to bribe car and other factories to move to southern states and speeding the decimation of existing cities was absurd. Oh, and reducing prison populations by half at least. Limiting access to public housing to a year or two, not a lifetime, or actually multigenerational lifetimes.

    I'm sure there's a hundred other things we could easily do to make our society a more humane place. Progressives have mostly spent recent decades trying to keep the right wing from making things worse, often unsuccessfully, and have been mostly unable to think about the big picture. Massacres of schoolchildren and teachers and students and moviegoers and coworkers are only an extreme but tiny symptom of something much larger.

  • Doug on December 15, 2012 5:55 PM:

    emjayjay has something there. There IS a greater sense of "why bother?" around now than I can recall anytime during my six decades. Yes, there was bullying in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, but there was also the idea that even if one was being bullied NOW, it was only a temporary situation. The whole general atmosphere was one of expecting, and usually receiving, an improvement in one's life - no matter who one was, where one lived or even the color of one's skin.
    The Civil Rights protests WEREN'T acts of desperation, they were acts of hope - something we don't seem to have an awful lot of anymore. I wish I knew why.

  • hawiken on December 15, 2012 8:52 PM:

    I wonder what the conversation would be like if this guy had shot up an NRA convention instead of a school?

  • BillB on December 15, 2012 10:36 PM:

    Hello, no one mentions all the video 1st person shooter games selling by the millions. It is what young men do now in this country, they sit for hours pulling the trigger. This generation will be killing us for a long time.

    I'm with the person who says 'require insurance' on guns. If you turn the giant rapacious insurance cos. loose on this massive revenue source, you can bet there would be gun control in five years.

  • Yellow dog on December 15, 2012 10:45 PM:

    The National Alliance on Mental Illness, echoing a Surgeon General's report, has concluded, "The overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small." In fact, people living with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than its perpetrators. And we have only speculation at this point about any mental illness in the Sandy Hook gunman.

    Please let us be careful of labels and easy but unwarranted supposition. It is harmful to propagate the idea that people living with mental illness are all dangerous. It is easy to generalize, and thereby, to hurt men and women who are struggling against illness and against social stigma that degrades and isolates them.

  • Cameron on December 16, 2012 12:42 PM:

    First thing to remember, murder is already illegal. If someone can't abide that basic law, 150 more won't hep, nor will #151. Criminals acts already show a disregard for laws, so more won't help. A firearm is a mechanical device. It is incapable of functioning without a human behind it. The real issue is the actual cause. What causes these people to go off the deep end? We need to focus on that. Introducing more gun control legislation would be equivalent to stopping drunk driving by installing breathalyzers in every single automobile. The criminals would just figure out a way around it. By the way, we still lose at least 10 times as many people to drunk driving as we do to gun violence every year. But I'm not hearing an uproar there.

  • Mimikatz on December 16, 2012 6:46 PM:

    Your data is way off, Cameron.

    For 2009, evidently the latest statistics, the number of firearm deaths did indeed approach motor vehicle deaths, that is all motor vehicle deaths, not just drunk driving. There were 11,463 firearm homicides (3/4 of all homicides) and 18,735 suicide or self-inflicted firearm deaths, about half of the total. There were also some number of accidental firearm deaths to be added in, but that is a relatively small proportion of accidental deaths. By far most gun deaths are intentional. That is manifestly not true for motor vehicle deaths. And perhaps you have heard of MADD-- Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose campaign did reduce drunk driving deaths. Maybe it's time for MAGD--Mothers Against Gun Deaths.