Friday, 6 October 2017

Mass shootings are not a mental health problem

A few days ago, an old white man fired a lot of guns into a crowd of people at a music festival in Las Vegas. Apparently he also shot at a nearby fuel storage site in a failed attempt to cause an explosion. You can find his name on the news sites; in the distant hope of setting some kind of example with the ultimate goal of cutting off the notoriety that motivates others to emulate these killers, I’m not going to repeat it. He killed 59 people, I think the current count is, and wounded a number estimated at over 500. Some people are calling this the biggest mass shooting in US history, which of course has prompted others to bring up bigger ones, like the Greenwood Massacre of 1921 and the “Battle” of Wounded Knee in 1890. Perhaps they mean the biggest mass shooting by a single shooter.

Last month I said the following about the politics of climate change in the hurricane-torn US, and it goes treble for gun control and mass shootings:

More often, however, “Don’t politicize this problem” means “Your politics offer a better way of fixing it than mine do, and I’d rather people didn’t figure that out.” I can sympathize with a preference for peace over contention, but politics can be operationally defined as the set of problems which are more important than not being contentious.

Gun control laws work. They don’t prevent every single possible shooting, but they cut them down dramatically. Here in New Zealand, we have civilized gun laws. You cannot buy a gun in The Warehouse here like you can in Walmart in the US. You can’t open-carry in New Zealand. Nobody keeps a handgun for “protection” – you don’t need one, because you know other people don’t have them either. The last time anyone shot and killed members of the public here was in 1990, when I was twelve, at Aramoana north of Dunedin. (There have been a handful of incidents since when angry men shot their family members.) In Australia thirty-five people were killed at a place called Port Arthur in 1996, so they tightened up their gun laws and the government bought everybody’s guns off them, and they haven’t had a mass shooting since. You can Google other countries and their gun laws and mass-shooting prevalences for yourself. You’ll find the pattern holds.

Yes, there have been scary incidents in my life when I was exceedingly grateful that the person confronting me wasn’t allowed a gun; and no, they weren’t carrying guns illegally. Turns out our firearms licensing laws actually do make it difficult for dangerous people to get hold of them. So not many people in New Zealand want American-style gun “freedom”. But I’ve met one or two who do, enough to have figured out what’s wrong with their arguments. First up: no, America, you do not have more freedoms or better-functioning democracy as a result of your guns. New Zealand has the same freedom of expression that you do, rather better freedom of religion in practice, a much more representative electoral system, far less gerrymandering, automatic voter registration, and vastly more time to vote when elections roll around. Your idea that your guns keep dictatorship and corruption at bay is a peculiarly American fantasy.

The guy I’m thinking of reckoned the whole problem with American mass shootings was that they let people have guns without taking a mental health exam. He was recommending target-shooting as, he said, a tremendously calming sport. Apparently it’s meditative to squeeze a trigger and see a hole appear in the centre of a target. I told him this wouldn’t work for me because I have terrible, terrible aim. I can’t skip a stone over a lake or win a game of pool against a three-year-old or get past level 1 of a first-person-shooter video game. I didn’t add that I would fail his mental health criterion, that I have exactly the same psychiatric diagnosis as the guy who killed six people in Santa Barbara in 2014 – and also, at his age, the same difficulties with romance and sexuality that he was so enraged about.

Now if you’re wondering, no, I’ve never killed anybody, and no, I don’t think I would have done if only I’d had access to a gun at age 22. Which just goes to show: mental health is not the problem. Though hyperbolic, Michel Foucault’s assertion that mental health diagnoses are primarily a method of social control isn’t completely off the mark. I’ve seen an otherwise pleasant-seeming person try to get library security to eject another library user who was making a bit of noise, not because of the noise primarily but because – in a harsh, horrified whisper – “She’s a handicap!” As a funny-looking person myself (my fashion options are basically “deliberate eccentric” or “aimed at normal and missed”), I occasionally get things thrown at me in the street: usually water-balloons, once an egg, once a lighted cigarette. One acquaintance, when I mentioned this, responded with sympathetic incredulity “I guess some people just have mental problems.” No. This is how people treat people with mental problems. This is the behaviour of a mentally normal human being towards someone they feel entitled to disrespect.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t concede that like most laws, in practice if not on paper, gun restrictions disproportionately target people of colour. That has certainly been the case in New Zealand, from 1869 when selling guns to Māori became a crime to 2007 when armed police stopped traffic and raided people’s homes and arrested seventeen people, most of them Māori, on dodgy charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act. It’ll be the tenth anniversary in about a week, and I don’t think we should let them forget. But to suggest that Americans of colour are better off with their on-paper right to bear arms would be a joke in very poor taste. Ask Tamir Rice or Philando Castile how that worked out for them.

There’s always a lot of discourse about either race or mental illness after mass killings, depending on whether the killer was white. You don’t hear so much about gender, despite the fact that it’s a better predictor of deadly violence than either. I know of only one mass shooting by a woman ever, that being the one that inspired the Boomtown Rats song I Don’t Like Mondays. What does seem to come out repeatedly when people analyse these killers’ backgrounds after the police have shot them dead is anger, hatred, possessiveness, and entitlement, and especially towards women. It’s entirely unsurprising to me that people remember the Las Vegas killer pushing his girlfriend around.

Anger and possessiveness are going to take a lot of time and work to expunge from the culture. In the meantime, the quickest way to make a difference is to prevent these people from getting their hands on the means to kill dozens from a distance. In the longer term I can’t help thinking that the American sanctification of the right to bear arms – that is, the right to have the power to kill – itself encourages the attitude that deadly violence is an appropriate response to perceived social wrongs. Either way, America, you’re never going to fix this problem you have without gun control.

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