It feels useless, even shameful, to write one more column expressing outrage about yet another outburst of gun violence in the United States. What a parade of editorial futility follows each new gun aberration as we “opinion makers” fall into a predictable line to dispatch our familiar script of frustration and anguish. Years of such folly and we remain confronted by the same ghoulish, draining drama.
While the rest of the industrialized West has long put the problem of everyday gun violence behind it, the United States endures 31,000 firearm deaths each year. I feel foolish even writing another word about it. If the abomination at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Conn., was not enough to change the national dialogue on gun violence, I am under no illusion that the comparably “minor” bloodletting at the University of California, Santa Barbara, will lead to any meaningful change now.
What has to change first, as the father of one victim pointed out, is the nation’s “craven” political class. Cowed by the gun manufacturers’ shadow lobbyists at the National Rifle Association, they have demonstrated persistent institutional cowardice in confronting this national crisis.
As after each such incident, some column writers will bemoan the toll of gun violence, while the gun apologists will just as predictably continue to distort the meaning of the Second Amendment. That perspective has rarely been so explicitly expressed as it was when the conservative oracle Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, a k a Joe the Plumber, was asked his opinion of the matter: Sorry for your trouble, he told the parents of these young people cut down before they could legally drink, but “Your dead kids don’t trump my constitutional rights.”
That’s pretty much it in a nutshell for gun absolutists, who attempt to mainstream a profound misreading of the Second Amendment. This reading was rejected by the Supreme Court’s Heller decision in 2008, which endorsed both the right of individuals to own guns and the power of the state to regulate the same. They are content to accept as customary and normal the level of gun mayhem experienced by the United States as long as their access to guns remains the primary social good.
Each mass shooting incident seems to highlight something uniquely “off” in American society. Sandy Hook spotlighted the nation’s woeful mental health care system—an issue gun lovers rushed to embrace. This latest incident revisits that problem while tapping into another: a cultural undercurrent of a seething-to-subtle hatred of women, especially among an emerging cohort of apparently self-entitled, angry and occasionally violent young men. The sad and creepy video posted by the Santa Barbara shooter Elliot O. Rodger and his emailed manifesto detail his loneliness and his isolation, but mostly they declared his simmering misogyny. He was a heart-breakingly lonely boy ignored by most girls and young women—and other boys for that matter—when he wasn’t being taunted by them. He sought solace in Internet chat rooms, but instead of support he found only new humiliation and resentment, generously stoked by the jeering and anger of his peers among male “incels,” as these “involuntary celibates” called themselves.
Should American parents, especially those struggling with troubled young boys, be worried about the state of mental health services in the United States? Of course they should. Should they be concerned about the subterranean hatred of women exhibited by Elliot Rodger and the young men with whom he made common cause on the Internet? You bet. Fathers especially need to add this agenda item to their regular discussions with their children on sexuality and human dignity, especially with boys, who will soon confront a confusing swirl of contradictory messages about their sexuality, their power and their relationships with girls.
Elliot Rodger suffered life-long problems with mental health; and, absorbing cues from the culture and society around him, he acquired a furious resentment toward women. But with a gun in his hand (and, yes, in his case, also a knife), he became a murderer. Let’s not take our focus off the real problem. These especially violent incidents make headlines and sometimes startle us into action, but the truly shocking monotony of gun violence in America—85 deaths each day—should make as compelling and consistent a claim on our outrage.