The drama captivated the nation. As a 16 year old kid in Phoenix, I remember reading updates each day on the front pages. Nightly news showed unceasing coverage, no matter the channel. Over a three week period, ten people died.
Two men were eventually caught. 42 year old John Allen Muhammad and 17 year old Lee Boyd Malvo had tag teamed in killing random victims and driving the getaway car. The drama continued into the trial, as we learned of mixed motivations, grandiose plans, brainwashing.
You can’t deny the attraction of such a story. The plot would make for a gripping movie, and indeed, the story has since been dramatized for a full-length film and rehashed in multiple crime documentaries.
Random acts of violence, especially large scale, bizarre, or that-coulda-been-me scenarios like what happened in D.C. or in the movie theater in Aurora, or in Orlando, perhaps deserve unbalanced media coverage. We want to know about it. Such is human nature, well known and happily harnessed by media corporations.
I’m interested, though, in how these shootings steer public policy debates. Of course mass shootings are tragic and deserve attention. But we exert disproportionate and misdirected energy looking for quick fixes to a complicated, relatively rare, unpredictable phenomenon. The fantastical nature of these crimes and their unbalanced media attention bias our judgement.
A quick comparison: Judging from averages for the year 2002, during the same three week sniper stretch, 1,790 people committed suicide in the United States.
Homicides in our inner-cities dwarf the number who die from mass shootings.
Yet politicians latch onto mass shootings, burning political capital calling for marginal changes like universally applied background checks or banning certain types of weapons. Democrats made a big show this week with their “sit-in” demanding a new vote on these measures, and staking support for banning weapons purchases by individuals on terror watch lists, which are flawed in their creation and violate basic expectations of due process.
Undoubtedly these measures might help save a few lives each year. But in my mind, we should be pushing for deeper reform measures at the community level. Education programs, support for family units, prioritizing mental health—attention to these fundamentals would be more preventative of all sorts of ills that sprout discontent and violence. How can we find ways to make people feel happier in their lives and more integrated into their communities, less prone to lash out or gravitate toward radical ideologies?
John Muhammad became unhinged after a messy divorce and a court order preventing him from seeing his children. Lee Malvo was an impressionable kid, victim himself of a broken, abusive upbringing. Look up any mass shooter and you will find a disconnected, mentally disturbed, angry person.
Guns don’t kill people, people kill people is a tired cliché. Certainly guns help people kill people; certainly assault weapons in the hands of murderous people increase the death count. Guns are dangerous and more can be done to keep them from dangerous people.
Our collective energies, however, can be better directed. A political stalemate over gun control shouldn’t prevent us from creating a happier, safer country.
Previously written posts on mass shootings: