I was an 8th grade teacher in Littleton, Colorado in April, 1999, when the nation was shocked by a horrific mass shooting a mile away at Columbine High School. Back then it had been unthinkable that such violence could happen in the suburbs or the comfort of the upper class. We were used to gun violence being the consequence of the deprivations of the inner city or the turf battles of gangs. That event brought needed attention to other causes of violence, like bullying and social ostracization.
By one count, there have been 30 mass shootings (8 of them in schools) in the 14 years since Columbine, claiming 284 lives. 18 of them happened in the last 5 years (including Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown).
And when we talk about how to prevent the next mass shooting, we still default to the argument over restricting gun access, an argument that, like the argument over abortion, is mired in extreme positions having a tug of war that is a guaranteed tie.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m an extremist about guns. I’d rather live in a state that denies citizens the right to own any firearms. I think the arguments about needing guns in many hands to keep us safe are wrong. Violence begets violence. I think that volatile moments with a gun are deadly, while volatile moments with fists or weapons that require direct physical contact are much less damaging. I think NRA president Wayne LaPierre’s “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is unimaginative, ridiculously simplistic, and self-serving. Sorry, hunters; if it were up to me, you’d be forced to go back to using bows or blowguns. Sorry, gun enthusiasts, your hobby is too costly for society. Firing guns for fun needs to go the way of dog fighting. There are some recreations that we just don’t allow as a society because we judge the cost to the many to outweigh the benefit to the few. (And yes, I’m aware that it’s easy for me to say this, since guns are not my hobby. I have played the mental game of wondering whether I’d be willing to submit to the same logic if a movement arose to ban small airplanes…)
On some level, I would expect to be happy that guns are taking another beating in the public square. Our cultural worship of guns and violence is a deeply rooted cancer, and seeing it appear on another scan of the American body is good.
But I’m tired of guns being the focus of conversation after mass shootings. We are not going to solve our problem of mass shootings by legislating about guns. On this point, I have to agree with my usual opponents in gun conversations. They’re right when they point out that the guns used in mass shootings were legally purchased, that background checks wouldn’t have stopped those purchases, and even if they did, having to get a gun illegally wouldn’t stop those who are on the path to mass murder.
The issue is deeper and more difficult to see. It can’t be fixed with a bill in congress. It’s not something “They” can handle for me. The scary reality is that mass murder will continue to happen until we change the way we all understand mental illness.
Today, even with significant progress over the last generation, mental illness is still heavily stigmatized. It’s synonymous with “being crazy”. It’s a category without dimension, without degree, without a human face. It’s still seen as weakness, something to be pitied, something monster-like. Suggesting someone seek professional help for a mental/emotional issue is often received like telling them they’re evil would be–there’s some part of us that believes mental health is within our control, and acknowledging a need for help is like acknowledging failure. Mentally ill people are always ‘Them’, the Other, not me or my loved ones.
Until it is me. Or someone I love. Then I’m forced to see mental health just like other health issues: with compassion, not judgment. And, truth be told, the judgment/blame voice is so deeply embedded in our assumptions about mental illness that it’s still hard to have only compassion even when the person with the illness is myself or a loved one.
I think that’s at the root of our denial about mass shootings. The solution will require change from all of us. We can’t solve the problem by building stronger legislative fences, because the problem isn’t as simple as easy access to guns. And we all know that in the good ol’ U-S-of-A, firearms are ubiquitous and will likely always be. So let’s stop the insanity of chasing our tail all over again, only to accomplish nothing that stops the next mass shooting before it happens.
What will stop mass shootings? Taking mental health seriously. Changing the systems that encourage denial by making anyone in treatment for mental illness equivalent to a raving lunatic. Paying for treatment. Educating the masses. Humanizing the illnesses of the brain by talking about them in connection with people we know and love. Honoring the courageous people in our midst who are willing to share their stories and diagnoses. Turning our stigma about mental health treatment upside down–rather than looking down on someone for being treated, recognizing that their treatment labels them healthy. Just like we see an obese person who’s sweating at the gym as one who makes healthy choices. Just like we see a person with diabetes who’s watching their diet as wise and well. Just like we see a stroke survivor who’s diligent in physical therapy as a strong person.
Ultimately, we live in cultural denial about mental illness. It’s better than it was a generation ago, but we still carry the assumption that the only people with mental illness are the ‘crazy’ people and that everyone else is perfectly well mentally. That’s no more true than the physical analogy–that the only people who have any physical illness are those who are incapacitated by it. It’s time to grow up as a culture and get past our denial–our assumption of sameness. It’s time to grow up enough to recognize that we all need some sort of help. It’s time to celebrate all people who are mature and strong enough to seek treatment for whatever ails them.
Only when mental illness diagnosis & treatment is as common as physical illness diagnosis & treatment will we no longer have an epidemic of mass shootings.