What Do All Mass Shootings Have In Common? A Gun

It turns out the Florida Department of Social Services conducted a review of Nikolas Cruz’s behavior and decided he was at ‘low risk’ for hurting himself or anyone else. The good news about this report is that it takes the onus off the FBI, whose investigation into the shooter’s background led nowhere fast. The bad news is that neither of these investigations prevented Cruz from buying a gun.

parkland              Gun-nut Nation hasn’t yet begun trumpeting their usual mantra about how even the ‘mentally ill’ don’t necessarily forfeit their Constitutional ‘rights;’ Wayne-o will wait at least another week until he gets a wink from the Oval Office and then issues his now-standard nonsense about how every school in American needs an armed guard.  In the meantime, the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement will ramp up their demand for a renewed ban on assault rifles, carefully sidestepping the fact that Seung-Hui Cho, who used to hold the American record for most homicides in a single, mass shooting, managed to kill 32 people at Virginia Tech using a semi-automatic pistol, the Glock 19. For that matter, the kid who almost murdered Gabby Giffords in a Tucson parking lot on January 8, 2011, managed to kill and wound 20 people with a Glock 19.

What do these rampage shooters and so many others of the same ilk have in common?  Sorry, it’s not the fact that they used an AR-15, because that’s not always the case. On the other hand, if we look at the personal histories of the shooters at Aurora,The Pulse, Virginia Tech, Santa Isla, Sandy Hook, Columbine, Umpqua CC, we find a disturbing pattern; namely, all of them were either treated by mental health professionals, or were investigated by law enforcement authorities, but as far as we can tell, none of the individuals who intervened with the shooters ever asked them about guns.

Nancy Lanza, for example, the mother of the kid who shot his way through the elementary school at Sandy Hook, dragged her son hither and yon for mental health treatments, while at the same time that she was building an arsenal for his use. The Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was admitted overnight to an on-campus mental health facility because he had threatened to take his own life, but the report covering his contact with a staff professional makes no mention of guns. At the request of his mother, the Santa Isla shooter, Elliot Rodger, was interviewed by the cops the day before he started his shooting spree, but the issue of guns was never raised.

Let me make one thing very clear. I am not trying in any way to raise doubts about the professionalism or dedication of anyone in either the mental health or law enforcement communities. This column is not an attempt to imply or infer blame. What I am simply trying to point out is that for all the talk about banning assault weapons on the one hand, or better mental health screening on the other, what I see again and again leading up to these horrific events is a tacit acceptance of the idea that a professional intervention with a troubled individual somehow occurs without any mention of guns.

This may come as a great shock to my friends in Gun-nut Nation, but asking someone whether they own or have access to a gun isn’t a violation of anyone’s Constitutional ‘rights.’. And this statement applies equally as well to my friends in the GVP who sometimes appear overly concerned about respecting the 2nd Amendment, regardless of whose ox then gets gored. If you walk up to any adult in the street, the odds are one out of three that this individual can get their hands on a gun, in some neighborhoods more, in others less. Would you look the other way if you thought this same person might be infected with Ebola virus or some other virulent, communicable disease?  According to the CDC, Ebola killed 29,000 people during the outbreak in 2014. That’s nothing compared to the 38,658 Americans who were killed with guns in 2016.




John Lott Meets The New York Times. A Win-Win For Both Sides.

What? The New York Times is carrying an op-ed by John Lott? The John Lott? The John Lott who is the bete noir of the entire gun violence prevention community because he has singlehandedly convinced a majority of Americans that keeping a gun around the house will make them safe? No, not The New York Times. Not the newspaper whose recent op-ed by Gail Collins begged the GVP community to ‘energize’ and not give up.

lott             John has been making arguments about the positive social utility of guns since 1998 when the first edition of More Guns, Less Crime, was published by the University of Chicago Press. I also happen to be a Chicago Press author, so I’m not about to say anything nasty about his book. But I don’t have to worry, because nasty and unkind comments about this book abound.

When John first published More Guns, roughly 35% of all Americans said that guns made their home a safer environment, while 50% said a gun at home made it a more dangerous place. The GVP will tell you that this shift in opinion is due to the power and financial clout of the NRA. And while the boys from Fairfax have certainly done their best to tilt the legislative field their way, the fact is that what the poll numbers indicate is that a lot of Americans have changed their minds about gun risk who don’t happen to own guns. Our friends at Harvard estimate that somewhere under 25% of American adults (most of them men) own guns, and that’s a much smaller percentage than the percentage of people who now say that a gun makes them safe.

There are two reasons why I am pleased to see Lott’s work show up in The New York Times. First, the shift towards guns for self-defense is not just a function of the decline in hunting, nor it can’t just be blamed on the NRA. Something else is going on in the United States which has caused a growth in what scholars like Alan Fiske, Tage Rai and Steven Pinker  call ‘virtuous violence;’ i.e., the use of violence to achieve positive ends. Lott’s research is an attempt to explain why this shift has occurred and needs to be acknowledged from that point of view.

Second, I am not terribly comfortable with using regression analysis to explain human affairs. Finding an ‘association’ between two trend lines is more a kind of statistical alchemy rather than a scientific method to establish causal facts. I agree with Richard Berk who refers to most regression analysis as a good way to describe patterns of data, but description and causal explanations are two, very different things. In that regard, Lott’s reliance on regression analysis doesn’t necessarily persuade me that his argument is true. But none of his critics seem willing to do anything beyond running his data through different statistical models which will always yield different results.

The problem with relying on public health research to explain gun violence is that most of this research usually follows the traditional, epidemiological approach to figuring out risk by defining the victims, figuring out how the risk enters and move through a particular population, and then coming up with protective strategies to protect everyone else. The result is that we know an awful lot about the victims of gun violence, but we know very little about why less than 5% of Americans who commit a serious injury each year, against themselves or someone else, do it by using a gun.

Until and unless the GVP figures out why people commit gun violence, condemning John Lott for offering an answer to that question which they don’t like is a strategy leading nowhere fast. If my GVP friends would examine their own arguments with the same degree of critical vigor that they use with Lott’s work, his appearance in The New York Times will be a positive event for helping to end the violence caused by guns.



Bruce Pankratz: Terror Management Theory and the Great Gun Debate

The book GUNS FOR GOOD GUYS, GUNS FOR BAD GUYS Gun Violence in America by Michael R. Weisser says “The basic problem with the debate about guns, as opposed to debates about other public policy issues, is that the two sides have absolutely no idea what the other side is talking about. They’re not arguing about different definitions, they’re not just using different facts. The two sides exist in two very separate universes.”  One explanation for the two different universes comes from Terror Management Theory.
hal (004)In short Terror Management Theory assumes people are anxious about the fact they will die and know it could happen anytime. People live in cultures that function to keep death anxiety in the background by allowing people to believe the cultural myths to find meaning and significance in their lives. Anything that threatens that faith in their culture has to be defended against or the death anxiety rears its ugly head. I think the gun debate is a clash between two cultures in America each with its own creation myth. People in each of the cultures need to defend themselves against beliefs that are different. This explanation is perhaps too simple but I think there is a lot of truth in it and shows how logical arguments and facts do not matter much just like when people deal with deeply held religious beliefs.

My hope in writing this up is some academics out there will emerge and better discuss how terror management theory applies to the gun debate. I am only looking at one aspect in this article but think it applies in other areas as well.  With that in mind I will attempt to distill some ideas from the books The Worm at the Core: On the role of Death in Life (The Worm for short) by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and  Tom Pyszczynski (SGP for short) and In the Wake of 9-11: The Psychology of Terror (The Wake) on terror management theory and hope to show how terror management theory may offer some insights into the great gun debate.

The theory started when experimental social psychologists SGP discovered anthropologist Earnest Becker’s work and realized Becker was trying to explain two questions SGP were interested in. First, why do people need self – esteem (meaning the belief you have value in a world that means something to you).  And question two, why can’t people get along with people who are not like them. Terror management theory grew out of Becker’s work. Since SGP were experimental social psychologists they came up with ideas to test in their labs. First is a list of the details of TMT and following that is my attempt to describe the two creation myths and what I think they mean to the gun debate.

The basics of terror management theory has the following elements:

  •  SGP start out with the Darwin’s basic assumption that all living things have a biological predisposition toward self – preservation.
  • Humans are born with large brains so are different than other animals. They know they are alive and know they are going to die. The terror in TMT is the anxiety people have about knowing they will die. Making things worse they know they can die anytime.
  • As children grow up they shift from acting to receive their psychological security from being valued by parents to acting in ways to get a sense of value in the eyes of their culture and its gods and their earthly representatives. Cultural worldviews are shared beliefs people create about  The beliefs function to lessen  the horror created by being human with the knowledge one will sometime die and it may not be pleasant. The beliefs do this by allowing people to have some control over  the always present discomfort of death by convincing people they are beings that matter living in a meaningful world. This all only works if people keep the faith in the worldview and they feel they are important contributors to the culture.
  • Cultures have creation stories that lay the groundwork for the belief systems. These stories tell people how they fit in and that they matter. As an example the conservative version of the founding of America with the Founding Fathers, Declaration of Independence and the rest of the story are the basis for the beliefs of the traditional followers of American culture.
  • SGP also mention work by Robert Jay Lifton who talked about the difference between dealing with death discomfort with literal immortality involving an afterlife like some religions do and and symbolic immortality coming from a person’s lasting social connections and contributions to one’s culture. Example of symbolic mortality are achievements and people passing on their genes, assets and and values to their own children hoping for some influence on future generations once they themselves are gone. In addition people can have some sense of immortality by being a valued part of a larger group like  a tribe or the nation that will live on.

SGP used social psychology experiments to attempt to test their theory. There are many more details in The Wake and The Worm but here are some comments based on their findings:


  • As long as people think they are important members within the cultural worldview they belong to they can live their lives feeling confident and secure. But their beliefs are based on faith so when someone runs into people with a different beliefs they have a problem. The other people may be right and you are wrong and the discomfort of death comes back.
  • There is always some death anxiety in a person’s mind and SGP claim it gets projected onto other groups of people within or outside one’s own culture. The other people are scapegoats.
  • There are several ways to handle people who are different: 1)belittle them as misguided or stupid, try to mainstream some of their views or finally even destroy them.
  • Reminders of death cause people to increase their defending and reaffirming of their cultural worldviews. One example of experiments done by SGP shows when reminded of death Christians are more likely to dislike Jewish people in the US but in Israel experimenters found people are more likely to dislike Christians and Muslims.

Applying TMT to the Gun Debate

This is a bit broad but I think America has two cultural worldviews each with its own creation myth and that is why logical gun debates may be fruitless in trying to solve the problem of gun violence.

First, the traditional American creation myth and world view as described by SPG:  “… for patriotic Americans, the Revolutionary War, George Washington, the Declaration of Independence, and so on serve vital roles in their meaning systems. In this meaningful worldview, being a patriotic American makes one significant—no longer a purposeless, transient animal, one is now an eternally significant contributor to a great nation that represents eternal values of freedom and democracy. In this way, cultural worldviews set up the path to immortality, to transcendence of one’s own death. By being valued contributors to such a meaningful world, we become permanent constituents of an eternal symbolic reality, instead of just corporeal beings in a wholly material reality.” (Pyszyzynski, Tom. In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror (Kindle Locations 441-446). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.)

This is my own impression of what I call the progressive version of a creation myth for America.  The myth says Columbus who was a white European male sailed to America and was followed by more white Europeans who pushed the native people off their land and decimated their cultures with reservations and boarding schools. For cheap labor the Europeans imported slaves who built the White House and the economy.  Many of the founding fathers (all men) owned slaves and did not allow them or women to vote. The industrial era came along and the capitalists exploited the workers to become super rich and in the long run put so much carbon dioxide in the air that the planet is in danger.  This all means educated people have a duty to fight racism, sexism, income inequality, climate change and other social ills by advocating for government programs paid for by the rich people and corporations who have unfairly exploited all of the vulnerable people.  I think many or even most anti-gun people subscribe to some form of the progressive creation myth.

TMT talks about people needing to defend themselves against the existence of cultural worldviews different from their own to prevent death anxiety from surfacing.  As SGP say in  The Wake “Probably the most common response is to simply view the others as misguided , unenlightened , or too stupid , uninformed , or brain – washed to see through the facade of unreasonable faith that ties them to their delusory belief system ; and perhaps to wish silently that someday , somehow , they will see the light and come to view the world from our own far superior perspective .

Much of the talk about guns is to me about protecting one’s worldview against people who have a different worldview. Some examples for this in people with the progressive worldview is talking about the bitter clingers who cling to their religion and guns or saying proposed gun law changes are ‘reasonable’ or ‘common sense’ meant as a way to put down the people on the other side who are uneducated ignorant people who have neither. And when one reads the latest NRA pitch talking about the Founding Fathers it is almost like they want money to defend the traditional creation myth and culture. And if you don’t send money you will feel death anxiety though they don’t say that or perhaps even know they are saying it.

If you want more information on terror management theory try finding some of the many YouTube videos featuring Sheldon Solomon.






Khalil Spencer: Gun Violence Is More Than Gun Deep.

I just finished reading Mike Weisser’s latest post on why we are not reacting more strongly to the constant string of mass shootings. Mike, as usual, makes a lot of excellent points on this subject and discusses how the GVP community needs to develop a voice that will pull  Americans into common cause to reflect on our addiction to Sam Colt’s Hammer. That said, my concern is that this is not an issue as shallow as those guns themselves.

spencer1Here in New Mexico, we are going through the latest shock and horror over the latest incident of domestic violence in our midst. Thirteen year old Jeremiah Valencia was apparently systematically abused and kept locked in a dog cage for prolonged periods. He was tortured and beaten so savagely, according to reports in the Santa Fe New Mexican and Albuquerque Journal, that he sometimes needed a cane or wheelchair to get around. He was finally beaten severely, put in the dog cage to die, and buried in a shallow grave. Maybe that was the only form of relief from torture that this little boy could hope to find. Sadly, these stories, like mass shootings, keep happening. Like mass shootings, they are here and then gone from public consciousness as we go about our everyday lives. Not to mention, these incidents often occur, as JC said in Matthew, to “the least of thee”. Easy to overlook until you read the details.

The bottom line is that in New Mexico we have a fair amount of gun violence. But at its heart we have a lot of domestic violence, drug abuse, poverty, and illiteracy (roughly one third of our kids don’t graduate high school).  The gun violence is far from random but correlated with these underlying problems. The GVP community is correct that we need to disarm domestic violence perpetrators and others who are documented risks to the public. Unfortunately, our governor vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have done just that during the 2017 legislative session. But Jeremiah’s tormentor didn’t need a gun.

It would be the height of hypocrisy to only worry about mass shootings because unlike everyday low level violence that happens in those other places, these incidents of mass carnage can happen in nice communities such as ours: Santa Fe, Los Alamos, or the town where GVP crusader Shannon Watts lives. We need to focus more efforts on why our society has this cancer within it because if we don’t do so, we will breed more monsters. As the Ghost of Christmas Present said to Scrooge about the two ragged children within his robes,

them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both,
and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy,
for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the
writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out
its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye.
Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse.
And abide the end.’
The gun violence certainly makes the social violence more toxic, but is only the surface manifestation of the metastases within this country. We can try to regulate guns, but we can’t build enough prisons and workhouses to escape the cancer within.


Why Isn’t There More Concern About Mass Shootings?

One of our friends at Huffington Post just did a story lamenting the lack of public concern about mass shootings, specifically referring to an incident in Pennsylvania when another crazie shot his ex-girlfriend and three others at a carwash and then turned the gun on himself. The reporter, Melissa Jeltsen, blamed the seeming acceptance of such violence on a combination of what she calls media, Trump and ‘compassion fatigue.’ She also sources an article in The Trace, which found that the Las Vegas shooting disappeared as an issue of interest to media shortly after it occurred.

mass shooting             The idea that gun violence might become something less than a priority issue in the public domain has been a fear within the gun violence prevention (GVP) community ever since Sh*thead Numero Uno took the oath on January 20, 2018. After all, Trump often validated gun violence during the campaign, bragging that he could ‘shoot someone down in the street’ and still retain the support of his base. I hate to say it, but if he had actually gunned down a black guy, some in his base probably would have cheered.

Trump is no longer a candidate, he’s the President, and in that regard the Huffington piece also contained an interesting quote from our friend Shannon Watts regarding Trump’s stance on gun violence: ““Unlike President Obama, he [Trump] is not going to have a press conference about horrific incidents of gun violence, In fact, he is going to do everything he can to avoid talking about it.”

Shannon’s comment gets to the heart of concerns about the lack of public and media discussion on gun violence because, like it or not, just about every issue which becomes grist for the media mill is provoked and shaped by what is said by the guy at the top. My friends in the GVP community shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which public awareness about gun violence over the last several years was heightened by the response of the Obama Administration to what happened at Sandy Hook. It wasn’t just the multiple press conferences held by the President and his surrogates that filled up media space virtually every day, it was also the attempt to morph this talk into action by dint of a major legislative initiative expanding background checks to secondary sales.

Even though the effort ultimately failed, there would have been no Manchin-Toomey without the White House ginning up support.  Compare post-Newtown media interest in gun violence to what happened after James Holmes walked into a theater in Aurora, CO just six months prior to the massacre at Sandy Hook. The kid killed 12 people and wounded 58 more, Obama gave a very forceful and impassioned speech the day after the event, and that was that. No more Obama gun control, no more Aurora, within a week the media was focused on the civil war in Syria.

I trust that what I am about to say won’t be taken the wrong way because I mean no disrespect or lack of support for the GVP. But maybe the fact that Trump’s silence on shootings tends to mute media interest in gun violence is a good thing. Because what the GVP really needs to do is develop its own voice and its own messaging about guns without depending on the occupant of the Oval Office to help lead the way. I voted for her and I worked for her, but I was never all that comfortable with the idea that Hillary was considered such a friend of the GVP. Remember Obama’s prescient comment about ‘clinging’ to their guns? It was Hillary, not Wayne LaPierre, who led the criticism of Obama for making that remark.

Like every movement for change, the GVP shouldn’t turn its back on allies or friends. But the ultimate responsibility for leading the way towards reducing gun violence lies in what we say and how often we say it. That’s something we shouldn’t forget.


As For The Mandalay Bay Shooting, What Happens In Vegas Stays In Vegas.

So the mountain moved (to paraphrase Phaedrus) and out came a mouse in the form of an 81-page report from the Las Vegas Police Department covering the events of October 1, 2017 when Steve Paddock barricaded himself in a hotel room and set a new American record for the number of people killed and wounded in a rampage shooting event. You can download the report here but save yourself the trouble because there’s really nothing we didn’t know about the how’s and the why’s of this horrific 20-minute shooting spree that we didn’t know within a couple of days after the volleys that poured from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel came to an end.

LV2             Paddock did what just about all rampage shooters do in the months and weeks leading up to the event. He stockpiled lots of guns and lots of ammunition, he knew the venue well, he behaved in a normal way to the point that even his live-in girlfriend claimed that nothing appeared to be amiss, and he made a point of not telling anyone about his specific plan. These four elements – building an arsenal, scouting out the terrain, acting just like everyone else, not divulging the specific plan – was exactly what happened at Virginia Tech, Aurora, Isla Vista, Orlando, Sutherland Springs, Sandy Hook and just about everywhere else where a rampage shooting has occurred since 1966 when Charlie Whitman took a bunch of guns up to the top of the University of Texas Tower and began blasting away.

Paddock also shared one more feature with most, but not every rampage shooter, namely, that when the blasting away ended, so did his own life. Which creates an immediate problem in terms of figuring out why rampage shooters commit rampages, because few of them are around who can then tell everyone why they did what they did. But for the several shooters who have survived their own rampages – James Holmes in Aurora, Anders Breivik in Norway – it appears they simply want to become notorious and well-known and choose this particular type of behavior to gain notoriety, even if they spend the rest of their lives in environments which don’t give them much opportunity to cash in on their new-found fame.

One other issue with rampage shooters that remains completely beyond any understanding at all. The fact that they devote serious time to developing a game plan, stocking up with weapons, casing out the venue, and so on and so on, doesn’t reveal the ‘trigger’ event or moment which makes them decide their plan is now good to go. Paddock evidently wanted to blast away at a large crowd attending a public event, but his computer searches indicate that Vegas was one of a number of such events which might have provided him with the scenario he would use. Deciding that you want to plan a rampage shooting is simply not the same thing as carrying it out. The shooter at Sandy Hook was on his computer studying other shooting rampages for months before he drove over to the elementary school at Sandy Hook. How come he chose that particular day?

One thing the Las Vegas timeline reveals is that it took the cops close to 75 minutes to get to the room where Paddock was located and breach the door. First responders on the ground began helping victims almost immediately. How come it took so long to get into where the actual shooting was taking place?  And by the way, we still haven’t learned how a member of the team that first entered Paddock’s room took personal pics of the crime scene, including a dead shooter, which then showed up on various internet sites. The chief, Joseph Lombardo, promised a thorough investigation of what can only be described as a complete contamination of the crime scene. A thorough investigation. Yea, right.

Know the old saying, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas? As far as figuring what happened on October 1st, 2017, that saying is still ringing true.

Do God And Guns Go Together?

Today’s Des Moines Register contains a Letter to the Editor that sums up everything that works and doesn’t work for people who are trying to figure out a way to reduce the violence caused by guns.  The author, who identifies himself as a practicing Catholic, comments positively on an earlier letter from a reader who did not understand how someone could be pro-life and, at the same time, be against ‘common-sense’ measures for gun safety.  To which the writer of this letter opined: “Anyone claiming to be pro-life but silent on gun safety is irrational.”

church2             What the author seems to be saying is that pro-life activists who also identify themselves as gun supporters are crazy, which means that there are an awful lot of crazy people wandering around. The pro-life movement has always found its message receptively received by people who consider themselves to be religiously and socially conservative; i.e., Evangelicals, many of whom, particularly white Evangelicals, also tend to be extremely pro-gun.

Does the fact that someone might hold religious and social beliefs which appear to be inconsistent to someone else make that person a nut?  Or is it possible that what at first glance seem to be inconsistent religious and social beliefs aren’t really inconsistent at all?

Evangelical preachers were wandering around spreading the gospel in colonial times (basically because most were tossed out of England because they criticized the Anglican Church) but the movement really came into its own in the 1970’s and 1980’s, in particular when Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell began to make common cause with the rightward shift of the Republican Party in the years leading up to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign.  This period happened to coincide with the emergence of a much more aggressive, politicized NRA leadership following what is referred to as the 1977 Cincinnati ‘revolt.’

Although the Evangelical movement has now spread all over the country and has even shown surprising popularity with inner-city, new immigrant groups, its basic strength has always been in the South among whites who also happen to be the population that overwhelmingly owns guns. And while Evangelical belief is based on a literal interpretation of the Good Book, another strain which runs through the faith is the idea that family safety and security are basic cornerstones of the faith.  That being the case, how could the gun industry and its NRA allies not attempt to promote a narrative which linked guns to protection from crime?

The fact that someone believes in the sanctity of life doesn’t mean they are being inconsistent by promoting at the same time an argument which views owning a gun as a means of preserving life when or if that life is threatened by someone else. Ask any gun owner if he practices proper safety measures and he’ll always say ‘yes.’ Ask the same individual what he would do if someone tried to break into his home and he’ll unhesitatingly tell you that he’ll pick up his gun and blow the bad guy away.  What’s inconsistent about that?

At the beginning of this column I said that there were things which worked and didn’t work for advancing the idea that we need to make a stronger effort to reduce the violence caused by guns. What works is reminding people again and again that no matter how you cut it, more than 120,000 gun injuries each year is simply a cost we shouldn’t have to bear. And it doesn’t work to wait until after the injury occurs, then grab the guy who committed the injury, slam him into a cell and throw away the key.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that just because someone believes a gun doesn’t represent a threat to themselves or anyone else means that such an individual has no honest respect for human life. I long ago decided that what I believe may conform with reality but that’s only because I define reality in a certain way. Which may or may not work for anyone else.