It’s the garbage in our minds, not the guns in our hands

Last week’s mass shooting in Oregon once again has the usual suspects on the left calling for more gun laws and those on the right blaming the mentally ill.
“Some say the answer is stricter gun laws,” said a visibly shaken Stephen Colbert on The Late Show the evening after the shooting. “Others say the answer is mental health care, that we need better treatment or just keep the guns out of the hands of the insane. Maybe it’s both. I honestly don’t know.”
Few do, but that doesn’t stop the debate from playing its endless loop.
“We’re going to have to change our laws,” President Barrack Obama said. The liberal echo chamber then became predictably saturated with similar demands for more laws.  
But what laws, specifically? They never say, because they cannot say.
“The way they talk is as if they have the answer and there are these recalcitrant forces in the country that say ‘no, no, no,’ even though deep down they know their legislation will work,” said conservative writer Charles C.W. Cooke during a debate on MSNBC. “That’s simply not the case. It’s far more complicated than that.”
Cooke is right. Conservatives aren’t opposing legislation that could prevent such crimes, but nothing the president’s party has ever proposed would have stopped Chris Harper-Mercer from purchasing the firearms that he used to kill nine people at Umpqua Community College. He wasn’t a criminal. He wasn’t under the care of a physician for a severe mental illness. He didn’t use any sort of outlandish weapon whose capability couldn’t be matched by another firearm if banned.
In fact, if you blame the availability of guns, nothing short of a constitutional amendment to ban personal firearms could have impeded Harper-Mercer, and even then he could shop on the black market.
Truth is, nothing can stop someone intent on random murder.  
But was Harper-Mercer simply insane, as many conservatives speculate? Maybe. Anyone willing to do such a thing isn’t stable, but many mass murderers aren’t actually clinically insane. They’re just evil, and that’s not something a physician can diagnose and it isn’t a justification to be placed in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
Still, one cannot escape the fact that previous generations didn’t have to deal with mass shootings all of the time.
So what’s changed in the past few decades?
Not the availability of guns. They used to be oddly ubiquitous. My grandparents had rifles and shotguns leaning in the corner near the front door of their country home, like a stack of umbrellas. I even remember students coming to high school with their shotguns behind the seats of their trucks after having stopped to hunt deer before class. Many folks have similar memories.
And guns were more easily obtainable. In the 1950s, you could walk into a corner five-and-dime with $20 and walk out with a .38 and a box of bullets – no ID required. Lee Harvey Oswald bought the rifle he used to kill JFK through the mail, for Pete’s sake.
There hasn’t been much of a change in the instances of mental illness, either, at least in the unusual types that produce psychotic killers. That’s because experts believe there’s a large genetic component to such severe mental illnesses, so the frequency of their occurrence in the population remains steady.
What has changed, however, is how our nation views life.
Life is devalued in our laws and its destruction is celebrated in our culture. Our mothers kill their unborn children, our elderly and sick are euthanized, our kids pretend to shoot people in graphic video games, and we consume endless hours of violent films and television programs. Killers become celebrities, and their atrocities become renowned. It’s easy fame, and fame isfortune these days.
We can pretend all that doesn’t really matter, and that we’re immune to such negative influences. But it does matter, and we’re not immune.
We’ve become desensitized to the violence that invisibly envelops our culture, and when someone shoots up a school, we may be shocked for a moment … but only for a moment.

We blame guns. We blame the insane. But as the Bard wrote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

(First posted on