Charleston shooting demands difficult conversations about guns, race, and mental illness
James Holmes was obsessed with Batman. Elliott Rodger thought all women hated him and he needed to exact revenge. Adam Lanza played Dance Dance Revolution and killed innocent first graders, an act that shocked the collective national conscience. Now, in a country already reeling from racial turmoil, mass shooter Dylann Roof has targeted black churchgoers. All of the shooters were described as "quiet bright boys" who became increasingly isolated in their teens. For all of them, numerous red flags were raised.
In his national response to the tragedy, President Obama observed what many have been saying for years: "This type of mass violence doesn't happen in other advanced countries."
That's not entirely true: Norway's 2011 massacre, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in France, and the Germanwings crash show that other nations experience unpredictable and senseless violence as well. But Obama's still-valid point is essentially the same one muckraker Michael Moore made in Bowling for Columbine (2002). There's something different about guns and America.
Let's look at what we know about gun violence.
- Fact: Mass shootings account for only about two percent of all gun violence in the United States. In 2015, only 133 of 5,767 deaths caused by gun violence were the result of mass shootings. In fact, you are much more likely to die in an airplane crash than in a mass shooting event.
- Fact: Blacks are disproportionately affected by gun violence. Though blacks make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population, 55 percent of all people who died by homicide in 2010 were black.
- Fact: To date in 2015, there have been 2,025 reported and verified shootings involving law enforcement. It is hard to know exactly how high the number of fatalities is because the government does not track police shootings. The Washington Post has reported 385 fatalities this year so far; The Guardian, 470. According to a Pro Publica study, young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than young white men.
- Fact: Suicide completion is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-34, with 41,149 deaths by suicide completion across all age groups in 2013. Almost 60 percent of deaths by gun violence are completed suicides; the vast majority (87 percent) of suicide gun violence victims are male.
- Fact: Based on studies of mass shooters, about half of the shooters suffered from serious mental illness. But the most common form of violence associated with mental illness is self-harm; more than ten percent of people diagnosed with schizophrenia and 15-17 percent of people with bipolar disorder die by completing suicide.
President Obama acknowledged that gun control is not going to happen, not even when a Bible study group is gunned down by a young man obsessed with white supremacist dogma. That's why it's up to each of us to face up to what guns, race, and mental illness represent in America. The seemingly endless and unproductive debates are really about our fear. It's time to change that conversation.
How do we solve the gun issue?
We all look in the mirror and admit that we are afraid to die. We acknowledge that we likely will have no control over the time, place, or manner of our deaths. Then we start living. As part of our commitment to overcoming fear, we educate ourselves, practice responsible gun ownership, and teach it to our children. (Also, we start tracking data about law enforcement and gun violence.)
How do we solve the race issue?
We all look in the mirror and say, "I'm human. So is everyone else, no matter what color his or her skin is." Then we start to treat people the way we want to be treated. We hold doors open for people of all genders and races. We write thank you notes to each other and buy each other's coffee in the drive through lines. If we're white, we recognize that we have privilege, and we fight even harder for the rights of those who do not share that privilege.
How do we solve the mental illness issue?
We all look in the mirror and say, "Mental illness is not a choice or a character flaw." It could happen to me or someone I love, just like cancer. Then we end stigma and provide treatment. Mental illness is a costly public health crisis, in both financial and ethical terms. U.S. Representative Tim Murphy has reintroduced his "Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act" with significant revisions that can help individuals, families, and communities to improve access to care.
In the wake of mass shootings, I used to write about the need to provide treatment before tragedy. My new message is this: enough about tragedy. Let's focus on treatment. Treatment provides hope, and love overcomes fear.
The American writer Thomas Wolfe wrote, "To believe that new monsters will arise as vicious as the old, to believe that the great Pandora's Box of human frailty, once opened, will never show a diminution of its ugly swarm, is to help, by just that much, to make it so forever."
Let's stop believing in new monsters and start hoping instead for an America that can overcome its fear--of guns, of race, and of mental illness. Today we may feel lost and hopeless and afraid. But as Nelba Marquez-Greene, a grieving mother who lost her six year old daughter to gun violence, said one month after her daughter's senseless death, "We choose love. Love wins in Newtown, and may love win in America."
I'm betting on love.