Our gun debate is topsy-turvy. Like quitting donuts to stop lung cancer | Rebecca Solnit

Imagine a chainsmoker comes in to see you who has lung cancer. You tell him to stop smoking, and he starts bargaining. He’s willing to give up donuts. You say donuts don’t cause lung cancer, so he offers to stop watching Game of Thrones. What’s clear is that he doesn’t intend to stop smoking, and he doesn’t want to hear about any correlation to lung cancer. That’s about where this country is on gun violence.

It’s weird that the civil-rights gesture of a sit-in is now being used to support gun action that apparently includes the no-fly list. The list, as a brown friend pointed out to me, is a list of mostly brown people, who got on for various reasons, some of them dubious at best, or wildly unfair and have no path to clearing their name and getting off.

Sloppily enforced, the list apparently also targets people who have the same name as people on the watch list. Senator Ted Kennedy was treated as a no-fly suspect at one point; so have small children and lots of peaceable people. But we have mass shootings all the time, and they’re mostly by citizens who’ll never get anywhere near a list like that. So this terrorist-watch-list legislation is a bandaid nowhere near the wound that matters.

What we see over and over is that this society would like to imagine our epidemic of violence is by “them” – some kind of marginal category: terrorist, mentally ill, nonwhite. But when it comes to mass killings, mostly it’s an epidemic of “us” –mainstream men, mostly white, often young, usually miserable.

In the wake of the murder of 49 people in Orlando, people have addressed the strong correlation between domestic violence and mass shootings. According to Everytown for Gun Safety: “More than half of women murdered with guns in the U.S. in 2011 — at least 53% — were killed by intimate partners or family members … This is also true for mass shootings: in 57% of the mass shootings between January 2009 and June 2014, the perpetrator killed an intimate partner or family member”.

With that in mind, we could just get serious about enforcing the 1996 Lauterberg Law that allows firearms to be taken away from those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors and prohibits them from purchasing and owning guns. It’s rarely actually used to require convicted abusers to surrender their guns, but it could be.

Lack of background checks also allows people who should not be allowed to buy guns to buy them. Fully enforcing that law nationwide would take away a whole lot of guns from people who are not good at self-control and respect and who are, as I said in the Guardian just before the Orlando massacre, the significant terrorists at large in this country. You can tell they’re terrorists because there are a lot of people, mostly women and children, who live in terror because of them.

No-fly-list no-guns legislation would not have prohibited the Orlando shooter from buying guns. He wasn’t on it. But if we had adequate domestic violence services in this country, perhaps his first wife would have contacted the authorities, rather than just being whisked away by her family. And if he had been convicted of domestic violence, as he should have been, and we had enforced the existing federal Lautenberg law in every state, with background checks in place, then he would’ve been denied guns and employment as an armed guard.

It’s too late for that now, but not to enforce the law on the books that might prevent a lot more deaths down the road.

Beyond that, we could recognize that we have a unique kind of violence in the United States. The omnipresence of guns has something to do with it, and so does what people are now calling hypermasculinity or toxic masculinity. But there’s also some warped idea of individualism and self-expression at work in the lone-gunmen shooting sprees.

In most countries around the world, people either kill someone they’re personally furious at or kill for political and economic reasons. The people they kill are killed for reasons that are coherent even if they’re reprehensible.

Many of our mass shootings are something else altogether: some miserable guy who finds personal relationships hard and his own psyche a mystery and a torment goes out and kills a bunch of strangers in a movie theater or a school or a workplace as a form of creative self-expression, general punishment or a desire to go out in a blaze of glory.

If the casualties are high enough, he’ll have his week or two of celebrity, thanks to the eagerness of the media to show and tell us everything about him. These days shootings involving three or four or five victims are hardly news unless the circumstances are spectacular, though. That’s why there was so little news about the man who allegedly shot his wife and four daughters in New Mexico the day before the Orlando bloodbath; allegedly his wife had asked for a divorce. The desire to be free of abuse is often what triggers its fatal escalation.

Mental illness is a factor in some – the shooter who killed six people and gravely injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 was said to be a paranoid schizophrenic, though he was also a supporter of far-right ideologies and also seemed to hate women, especially women in power like Giffords.

In many cases, including his, mental illness seems more a factor in disinhibiting people than in directing them; the directions come from the outside culture. There’s plenty of mental illness around the world, and it doesn’t lead to mass murders the way it does here. (Mental illness was cited as a factor in the 2014 Isla Vista mass shooting, and it led to a California law that went into effect this year that allows temporary restraining orders preventing mentally ill people from buying and owning guns.) Some cases are apparently fueled by racism, like Dylan Roof’s Charleston church massacre a year ago appeared to be.

In the case in Orlando, homophobia seems like a more compelling motive than Islam, and we might want to remember that the conservative mainstream has been, of late, in a frenzy of demonizing gay and lesbian and trans people, treating them as threats and outsiders and enemies.

The lesson is that a lot of the United States’s mass killers are just angry men. It’s not foreign-born ideologues; it’s our very own armed and angry men. It’s not them; its us.

We know everything we need to about the epidemic of violence in this country, except how to overcome the opposition to diagnosing it accurately and treating it effectively. You don’t pretend it’s not lung cancer, unless you want to have a good excuse to not give up the cigarettes that are killing you. Donuts don’t cause lung cancer. They never have and they never will. We all know that – some of us just don’t want to admit it.


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