In Pursuit of Doing Something Meaningful

[Content Note: Guns; violence; disablism.]

In the wake of the shooting at Newtown, there is one thing on which we can all agree: Something has to be done.

Republican Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and professional garbage nightmare, thinks we need to shove more religion into schools, because: "We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be surprised that schools would become places of carnage?" This is obviously a solid theory, since no harm ever comes to children in religious institutions. Ahem.

Republican Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas thinks we need to arm teachers, because: "I wish to God [Principal Dawn Hochsprung, who reportedly ran at and tried to stop shooter Adam Lanza] had had an M-4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out and she didn't have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids." Also a solid idea. Never mind that every single teacher to whom I've spoken since this happened, including those who own guns, wants nothing to do with being responsible for a deadly weapon in a classroom.

Gohmert is not the only gun advocate who recommends more guns. I am loath even to dignify that absurd argument with a response, but I will simply observe that the US already has more guns per capita than any other country in the world, but also has, with the exception of Mexico whose stats are skewed by drug-related violence, the highest gun-related murder rate in the developed world. If more guns really translated into fewer gun homicides, we'd have the fewest gun homicides, not the most.

There is also the usual talk about violent video games, with no one sensible to observe (at least on television; it was certainly observed in my living room by my Scottish husband) that kids play the same violent video games in Britain, and lots of other places, but they don't have easy access to the sorts of high-powered deadly weapons used in those games except in the US.

What other discussion there has been on the topic of Doing Something has largely centered around "mental illness," a vague term that public commentators are broadly applying to everything from depression to developmental disabilities to personality disorders to the neuroatypical spectrum. The inexactitude of the language is complemented by the pretense that access to comprehensive mental healthcare will somehow "solve" this problem, eliding key realities of some psychological disabilities, like:

1. Not all people with mental illness are dangerous, and not all killers are mentally ill, i.e. meeting any standard of psychiatric diagnosis. (In fact, being mentally ill makes one more likely to be victimized by violence than to perpetrate it.)

2. Not all killers who are mentally ill can be helped by psychiatric care. This is The Thing we don't want to talk about at all—that there are dangerous people who can't be "fixed" by all the mental healthcare in the world. Most of these people currently end up in (and out of and in and out of) the prison system.

3. In addition to the continuing stigma around seeking care for mental illness, perpetuated and entrenched by ill-informed public "debates" that demonized people with mental illness, some mental illnesses themselves inhibit care-seeking. Relying on people with mental illness to "flag" themselves in need of care, especially men prone to aggression and violence, is not a realistic expectation. And an increasingly fantastical one the more that mental illness is stigmatized.

I am totally and unreservedly in support universal access to comprehensive psychiatric care. I believe universal healthcare to be a human right. But mental healthcare reform is not necessarily, forgive the turn of phrase, the magic bullet some imagine it to be.

Centering the discussion around mental healthcare—whether it's advocating for better psych care services, or advocating for background checks on all gun purchases—is ultimately just another way of eliding what the real and forever problem is: Anyone outside of law enforcement or the military having access to guns that are designed for nothing but the murder of other human beings.

That is the subject about which we need to have a meaningful discussion. And it is the primary subject we continue to studiously avoid.

There is one other subject that is off the discussion menu—and that is the fact that mass killings are committed by men almost exclusively. Of the 62 mass murders carried out with firearms across the US since 1982, 61 of them were committed by men. Forty-four of the killers were white men.

Every one of the men who picked up a gun—or multiple guns—and started shooting people was socialized in a patriarchal culture that encourages an aggressive masculinity one of the key expressions of which is meant to be violence.

That is not incidental. And you can bet your ass that if there was an epidemic of mass slaughters committed by women, their gender would be mentioned. How we raise girls would be examined. It would be talked about. Womanhood would be on the discussion menu.

But we carefully ignore talking about how it is men, mostly white men, picking up guns and killing lots of people. We carefully ignore talking about how many of these mass killings start with an incident of domestic violence. In Newtown, Adam Lanza started by killing his mother. We carefully ignore talking about how mass murder is a male problem (that is, committed almost exclusively by male people, not that most male people do it) in the same way that rape is a male problem.

Instead, we Other every individual man who commits these acts, and imagine he exists in a cultural void (except for video games). Only when they do something like this do we Other white men, even though what Adam Lanza did is sort of the ultimate patriarchal act—destroying women and children.

That is something we are never, ever, supposed to talk about.

And it makes me angry that we can't talk about it, not only because I think it's part and parcel of all the intersecting things that are part of this problem—gun access, healthcare being a privilege rather than a right, a cultural fetishization of violence—and thus must be addressed as part of a meaningful solution, but also because it prevents us from really talking about what it means that all seven of the adults Lanza killed were women, and how it is (mostly) women who stand on the line between violent men and children. In schools. In churches. In homes.

That discussion needs to happen, too.

Yes, we need to do something. There is not one solution. But for the love of the children whose lives have been lost, let us at least endeavor to have an honest conversation. For once.

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