It is difficult even to think about this massacre. I have no calloused soul and fill easily with grief. I am surprised nonetheless with the rapidity and vigor with which the gun control debate has erupted after the massacre. Are people not willing to think and engage others before they voice opinions on what might or should be done, if anything, after the murders? Alas, it's ideology surging to the fore.
I would like to suggest several ideas about the contexts of the massacres. My suggestions are based on the notion of overdetermination, familiar to social philosophers. Overdetermination is the idea (a hypothesis, really) that many social phenomena, including individual behavior that is socially determined, are the product of multiple, sometimes contradictory, causes (in the scientific sense of causality).
We are unlikely to find a single determinative social causality that produces non-political mass murders in America. The misguided search for such causality is result of a legislative drive, the effort to write and enact laws that will regulate the social phenomenon. This legislative framework almost certainly will obscure, rather than reveal, the underlying social forces and influences that produce massacres, such as those which have shaken our emotions in the past decades.
In the spirit that delineating overdetermination is going to be a more helpful approach to understanding, I offer the following suggestions.
1. School massacres and other nonpolitical mass shootings by individuals (distinguished from law enforcement shootings), exist in a spectrum of violence ranging from nonlethal assault to attempted murder to successful murder to mass murder. Individuals who are candidates for one kind or scale of violence are capable of committing other kinds of violence on greater scales. It is a hypothetical issue whether they would be likely to commit violence close in quality to a kind of violence they have already committed, but there is no prohibition in them against their committing other kinds of violence.
We need, therefore, to understand the sources and influences that produce violence all along the spectrum, not just mass murder, in order to understand mass murder.
2. When we look at the full spectrum of violence, we note that most physical criminal violence is committed by young men. Most attempted and successful murders, most felony battery, most gang violence, are committed by young men. There are racial characteristics to the murder phenomenon, with young black men committing a disproportionate percentage of murders, and young white men committing a disproportionate percentage of mass murders. I have addressed this issue before after the James Holmes' murders in a theater: young males are a social problem, in ways that young women are not.*
How do we understand the problem of violence among young men? There are several causative chains research about which have been and would continue to be enlightening:
- the absence of older men to dominate and control the expression of violence by younger men (e.g. absence of fathers or effective fathering in lives of young men);
- the role of testosterone in triggering behavior, especially because testosterone can be raised quickly by social situations and excitement;
- the abolition of universal military service for men, which deprives men of a strict authority structure within which to emerge from adolescence into adulthood;
- the persistent high unemployment rate among young men;
- increasing social tolerance towards petty crime and deviance committed by young men, inoculating the conscience of young men against the notion of absolute prohibition against criminal and violent behaviors;
- cultural traditions with legacies of male violence - some immigrant groups to America, such as Irish and Scots, have historic traditions of rebellion against a colonial state, which bequeaths legacies of the honorableness of violence opposition - this is the real source of romanticization of outlawry - computer shooting games are unlikely to have been nearly as influential;
- political traditions that justify (men) killing oppressors - justification can be generalized outside its political purpose, example, the romanticization of the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s;
- inter-generational transmission of gang cultures;
- mental illness exists in a spectrum of disorder, seldom exists by itself separate from social situations and social influences, and seldom by itself explains specific behaviors;
- lack of familiarity with, lack of education about, and lack of supervised use of guns for personal protection and hunting - it could be argued that understanding guns and their use and their power would help people not to use them against other persons.
3. Banning and confiscating assault weapons will not prevent mass murders. The murderers can use bombs, with which they could kill more persons more quickly. The Oklahoma city blast of April 1995 "claimed 168 lives, including 19 children under the age of 6, and injured more than 680 people. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius, destroyed or burned 86 cars, and shattered glass in 258 nearby buildings."
* The objection might be raised that young women are also implicated in violence through participation in abortion. Late term abortions particularly raise for many persons the issue of how we conceptualize destruction of the fetus or baby that might be able to survive outside the womb with intensive medical care. This issue is complicated, however, because in my opinion as many as 75% of abortions are performed under the severe influence of men who do not want the woman to have the baby.