06/19/2012 11:56 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2012

Gun Control, Vigilante Justice... How About Some Anger Management?

As locals gathered at Café Racer in Seattle to mourn the deaths and memorialize the lives of its patrons recently killed at the hand of yet another "disgruntled" man with a gun, the tragic inventory of those murdered at the wrong end of anger grew exponentially longer. Grief and outrage were expressed on social media, hitting all the usual bullet points (pun sadly intended), but the reactions and responses have become almost playbook at this point, each side taking their predictable positions, none leading anywhere productive. It's a debate, like abortion or religious neutrality, which gets immediately incendiary, as those who fear for their lives clash with those who fear for their freedoms. And anger seems to be driving both the debate and the crimes being debated.

It's not just gun deaths; there was the recent and horrific story of a father who walked in on an acquaintance allegedly "attempting to molest" his four-year-old and proceeded to beat the man to death. No details have been shared as to what "attempting" meant and there were no witnesses besides the child, but the father went from understandably protective to homicidal in front of the very child he was trying to protect. His rage trumped her need to not witness him beating someone to death before her eyes (which likely provided Part Two to her considerable trauma).

The online comments that followed both stories were filled with their own violence and rage. Paragraphs bursting with blood lust, cheers for the "protective" father, cries for charges against the Seattle shooter's family, applause for vigilanteism, and the general hooting and hollering of the gladiator's ring. Americans at their best: one grabbing guns and killing out of frustration and disappointment, another killing out of uncontrolled rage, and a whole lot more commenting with their wolf pack mentality and raised pitchforks. Yep, lots to debate...but I suspect we're having the wrong conversation.

One of the assertions Second Amendment zealots are right about is, "guns don't kill people, people kill people." That's true. And while it's also true that guns make killing people easier, it is the mind of the killer, abuser, bully, or vigilante that propels the crime, not the weapon of choice. But it seems we've traded the Mad Men culture of routinely drinking away our problems for one in which our problems, some more extreme than others, are front, center, and all over the place; flung around like so much dirty laundry. Whether vein-popping road rage, mean-spirited online discourse, social media bullying, abusive personal relationships, predatory sexual behaviors, or, most tragically, murder, we're one pissed-off society.

Certainly people have been killing each other since amoebas slimed out of the sea, and if one looks at history and the wanton cruelty of various eras of civilization, it's clear that, despite appearances to the contrary, we're actually less violent than the days when arguments were settled with cat o' nine tails, stake-burnings in the town square, and dusty six-shooter ambushes in Old West bars. We went from all that impulsive madness to a more dignified, cultured, and considerate time when "Thou Shalt Not Kill Thy Neighbor" was enforced and, outside of gangsters and run-of-the-mill criminals, most people had the good sense to refrain from flipping the bird at slow drivers, verbally assaulting errant store clerks, beating the crap out of sassy wives, or stabbing drunks who challenged them over a beer.

Then those more genteel days ended. It's debatable when, exactly, but as we asserted more personal freedom -- which was good -- we lost sight of the balance between stultifying repression and rampant indulgence. Certainly the "we're free!!" mandate of emotional openness -- honestly expressing thoughts and feelings in lieu of insincerity -- is progress. But it comes with the responsibility of impulse control. And that's where we seem to have stumbled. Culturally we have birthed a series of generations with members who've grown more entitled, less respectful, more enraged, and less capable of controlling that anger. Why?

• The pressure of surviving in our rough and tumble economy?
• Lack of guidance or wise parenting on issues of decorum and anger management?
• Failing schools that ignore or matriculate troubled students who'd rather disrupt than learn?
• An uptick in untreated mental and emotional illnesses due to healthcare costs?
• Increased societal detachment and lack of empathy as a result of obsessive cyber-life?
• Exposure to 24/7 news, stirring anxiety about how terrifying, dangerous, or disturbed the world is?
• Oversaturation of reality TV and its unreal participants who demonstrate life at its most crass?
• All the above?

I'd go with "all the above."

Certainly we must continue to debate gun control, advance healthcare reforms, prosecute and take predators off the street, but we must also take a hard look at the deep, toxic pool of our systemic and percolating anger and do something significant about that as well. Parents need to pay more attention to teaching their children, particularly their boys, how to deal with disappointment, frustration, sadness, and rage (and the old "boys will be boys" or "hit 'em right back" will not do). They need to do this by example, discipline, and attentive, ongoing dialogue. Schools at every grade level should mandate -- as they do sex education and academic requisites -- age-appropriate anger management courses that creatively and effectively teach skills that promote impulse control, how to manage adversity, and what to do with disruptive emotions. Corporations, businesses, and professional organizations should require "continuing education" on the topic of decorum, ethics, and anger management so that those in highly stressful and competitive fields get "refreshed" on how to mitigate the accompanying responses to that stress.

This is not theoretical, it's personal and it affects us all. I was stopped at a light the other day and an angry young man in the left-turn lane opened his passenger window and flung an entire cup of coffee at me, screaming that my slow approach to the intersection prevented him from making the turn. I'd make a joke here about "not the way I usually like my coffee!" but it's too serious a problem. So let's get on it; it was only coffee that day, but we all know next time it could be a gun.