Thinking Clearly About Gun Violence by Dr. Karl E. Scheibe (1)

The recent spate of mass shootings in the U.S. has produced a flood of outrage, fear and argument about how to account for these events and how, “Please God”, we might control them. Yesterday, Senator Chris Murphy was practically on his knees in the Senate, asking with evident pathos what our nation’s leaders might do to reduce the likelihood of incidents such as the reported killings of 21 people in Uvalde, Texas.  I am in sympathy with Senator Murphy.  But I have reservations about the depth and scope of his proposals.  Should we not seek to eradicate mass shootings as a regular event in our nation—not just diminish their frequency?  I then heard him refer to the difficulty of obtaining support for such weak proposals as making routine background checks or diminishing the supply of ghost guns.  Too weak, say I. 

The first point of thinking clearly about gun violence is that no amount of the display we saw at Uvalde, Texas is now nor ever will be acceptable.  We need to think about the fundaments of this problem.  Why is the United States of America uniquely troubled with gun violence?  And why is this problem becoming worse over time, despite an overwhelming public interest in making our schools and streets and shops safe from gun violence?  As a first step toward genuine progress, let us recognize that the what we are doing now is not satisfactory.  Effective action toward the eradication of gun violence must be based an understanding of what is wrong in our system and then we can work to fix it.  

This first step of establishing a more radical goal for the reduction of gun violence is of critical importance.  Unless we think that such a thing is possible, it is guaranteed that it will not be accomplished.  The status quo is immensely powerful and the forces for maintaining that status quo are massive, and only partially recognized.  The NRA has been such a force, as have been the lobbying resources of the weapons industry. The manifest defeatism of our congressional champions bespeaks a lack of will to change the status quo.  As an organization, the NRA is currently in tatters—and yet the shadow of fear that that they have generated remains a paralyzing force. 

The easy availability of firearms such as the AK-47 is an open scandal.  The only reason for the production and distribution of such a weapon is to impart the capacity to kill swarms of human being quickly and effectively. How could such a tool ever end up in the hands of an 18-year-old civilian?  I observe that it is less trouble to buy an AK-47 than it is to buy a handful of cherry bombs.  When I was a kid, I could buy fireworks easily, on the street or through the mails.  Fireworks are still available, of course, but access to them is carefully regulated, and the accidental harm they produced a generation ago is a thing of the past.   The need for effective laws to govern access to weapons is obvious.  And the major barrier to the enactment of such laws is the self-fulfilling prophecy that such laws would be difficult to enact.  The problem here is lack of will—a fatal weakness for our social fabric.  Let us first believe that this can change.

Here are some other examples of unclear thinking about gun violence:  The Texas killings had no sooner been announced than reporters announced that authorities were investigating the background of the killer, with particular attention to what his motives might have been.  Also, the mental status of killers is automatically examined, based on the facile assumption that mad acts must be occasioned by the madness of the perpetrator.  In fact, there is little benefit in seeking explanations for gun violence by examining the motives of the perpetrator.  And it is simply a sham to operate on the belief that gun violence is a product or mental illness or deranged thinking.  It does not help to examine motives or to think about mental illness as explanatory—there are clearly red herrings, obscuring the simple but unpleasant truth. 

Thinking that gun violence is a manifestation of mental illness is tantamount to explaining one mystery by inventing another. There is no warrant for thinking that gun violence might be reduced if the general level of mental health in our population were improved.  The current population of the United States is a little less than 333,000,000 people.  Despite or because of its hideous nature, gun violence in this huge population has an extraordinarily low base rate of occurrence—certainly less than one such incident for every million people per year in our borders.  In this mass of humanity, bizarre, unaccountable, and whacko occurrences are inevitable.  This trick is to make it less likely that these aberrations will result in human deaths because deadly weapons are so near at hand.  We need to make it difficult to weaponize deviant spasms.

The number of firearms in the United States of America exceeds the size of our population, reaching nearly 400,000,000, according to recent estimates.  Per capita, we are easily the world leaders in firearms.  I invite the reader to perform the exercise of inquiring about per capita firearm possession by nations worldwide.  I have performed such an inquiry—takes just a couple of minutes.  Your results will match mine—we are flooded with guns.  It is as simple as that.  This observation does not make vestigial NRA supporters content that we have enough guns.  Reason is not operating here—just blind habit. 

What if we should take the task of reducing or eliminating gun violence seriously?  What might this entail?  The example of New Zealand comes to mind.  The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, was recently in this country, and provided for us a simple and compelling account of how New Zealand acted to remove assault weapons from the streets of New Zealand, after a mass shooting in Christchurch in 2019.  They instituted a set of laws restricting purchase of assault weapons and instituted a buyback program for those weapons currently in the country.  The results have been gratifyingly positive. 

         Of course, New Zealand is a small and relatively homogenous country.  Even so, I allow myself to imagine a swell of public courage in the United States of America that will result in a similar disarmament of our population.  We will retain guns, as have new Zealanders, but they will be fewer in number by far and will be employed for plinking away at tin cans, as used to be my practice—or hunting, which I also practiced in my youth. 

         We need to do whatever it takes to initiate such a popular movement and to establish it as a permanent part of our political and social lives.  Life is not a charade. Once a child is dead, it will never live again.  Once you are born, you have a right to life.  Let us take this responsibility seriously.  Fewer weapons will result in saved lives.


[1] Karl E. Scheibe is Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Wesleyan University and a licensed Clinical Psychologist.  He is author of eight books, including The Drama of Everyday Life (Harvard, 2000), and an essay entitled “Legitimized Aggression and the Assignment of Evil.”(American Scholar, 1972)

With Karl’s permission, I am posting his text here for reflexion.

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