Each incidence of violence has a uniquely devastating effect and must be understood in relation to the specific circumstances. At the same time, events such as the multiple stabbing and mass shooting in Isla Vista prompt us to look into the very fabric of our society. Since the Columbine killings in 1999, I’ve attempted to do this, searching beyond the usual explanations and polarized debates that occur in the aftermath of the destruction. What has become evident to me is a largely camouflaged factor, woven into this country’s way of life.
Even accounting for the availability of guns, Americans disproportionately target and kill others at a rate far beyond that of comparable nations. Switzerland and Finland have gun ownership rates about half that of the United States, yet their murder by firearm rate is a small fraction of ours. Other international comparisons reflect this same glaring difference. Thus, while access to firearms is no doubt an immediate precursor that could be curtailed with political will and regulation, it doesn’t fully account for the problem, nor does the presence of mental illness or simple criminality often proposed as explanations by the gun lobby.
A study by two sociologists, Steven Messner and Richard Rosefield, Crime and the American Dream, has helped anchor my perspective. There they write, “beneath the cloak of normative goals and aspirations … (lies) … a cluster of social values that can be identified as precursors to gun violence.” They describe the American Dream as “entail(ing) a commitment to the goal of material success, to be pursued by everyone in society, under conditions of open, individual competition,” but also note a shadow effect: “an environment in which people are encouraged to adopt an ‘anything goes’ mentality in the pursuit of personal goals.” They reach the conclusion that the high rate of gun violence “result(s) in part from a cultural ethos that encourages the rapid deployment of technically efficient methods to solve interpersonal problems.” Combined with other studies and cultural commentaries, this understanding led to my own attempt to grasp the gun problem, which I outlined at a Santa Barbara conference in 2008:
“The gun appears when the gap between actual life and the idealized American Dream opens too wide; the gun is fired when there is no thing left to satisfy the belief that we make our own destiny. … As a distorted realization of willful accomplishment, the gun becomes the final solution, the way out, (and often) a ticket to immortality, even in the face of suicidal intent. The gun is a pure expression of controlling one’s life. As such, it is the dark epitome of the self-made way of life.
“Neither the danger involved, nor the prospect of life in prison, nor in some instances the idea of taking one’s own life can compete with the shame and belittlement that occurs with not ‘making it.’ These deterrents can’t compete with the need to eliminate feelings of failure and social alienation. As James Gilligan writes: ‘The death of the self is of far greater concern than the death of the body. People will willingly sacrifice their bodies if they perceive it as the only way to avoid “losing their souls,” “losing their minds,” or “losing face.”’ When ‘soul,’ ‘mind,’ and ‘face’ are all aligned with climbing a narrowly defined socio-economic ladder and you lose your footing, violence becomes an attractive option.”
My argument was this: “There’s an idea or fantasy behind the gun that animates its role in this society long before anyone picks the thing up. It’s the fantasy of ultimate individualism and willfulness, which can be engaged when all else fails, to compensate for the lost Dream. The power of this fantasy is at the root of the addictive attraction of guns. When you hear from childhood on that you live in ‘the land of opportunity,’ that you are ‘special,’ that you can ‘be all you can be,’ or you simply see self-aggrandizement all around, then someone or something comes along and clips your wings, the ability to reach for a gun is like having a godlike sense of agency in your back pocket.”
The conditions under which this social disenfranchisement occurs are far more prevalent in the United States than in comparable Western nations and appear at all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Combined with the inclination to objectify others, turning them into mere stand-ins for that which one feels alienated by or from, you have the cultural recipe for gun violence. People buy guns because their sense of identity is threatened, not their lives, and they use them when that sense of identity reaches breaking point. Understanding this doesn’t undermine efforts to find practical and sensible interventions to prevent this violence, but it does place such efforts in perspective.
Glen Slater lives in Seattle and Santa Barbara. He teaches at Pacifica Graduate Institute and writes in the area of depth psychology and culture.