Why are mass shootings on the rise in America?

December 16, 2012, Sunday/ 11:19:00

It was only a few days ago in Oregon that a gunman opened a fire in a mall and killed two people. The American public is very familiar with this story because it's been very common for the last several years. A gunman enters a public area, sometimes a school, sometimes a movie theater and sometimes a mall, and opens fire on a group of people. Yesterday, in Newtown, Connecticut, it happened again. A gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 27 people, 20 of whom were little kids.

It is definitely apparent that mass shootings have been more common and visible in the US than in other countries. The American public is now trying to understand what lies behind the mass shootings.

Today's Zaman interviewed experts and scholars in the US to understand what the mass shootings mean for the American public.

Frank Scandale, former editor-in-chief of New Jersey daily The Record, who covered these types of mass shootings in the past, says the shootings are happening more and more and that makes it scarier. “The US for sure is not the only place it happens -- Norway, Scotland, for example -- but it seems to be happening with regularity. Surely there are more guns here.”

“The easy availability of guns is obviously the heart of the problem,” says Professor Carol Wilder of the School of Media Studies at the New School in New York. She also believes that a cinematic culture in which everything has to be larger than life to gain attention makes the situation worse. She sees this exacerbated by widespread cultural anxiety and instability and says that it is a miracle these unspeakable crimes don't happen every day. She says that the deliberate murder of little children takes this massacre to a new level that just might change public opinion, at least on the issue of gun control.

Dr. Lauhona Ganguly, on the other hand, thinks there are some specific policy gaps and some larger social-cultural issues that need to be accounted for. In terms of specific policy gaps, she also sees the lack of gun control laws playing a big role: “You may have heard a similar case of a mentally unstable man attacking schoolchildren in China this morning. But there were no dead children in that case because there was no gun in the hands of the man. He had a knife and certainly wounded some but the level of injury and scale of attack could be contained.”

No doubt, guns are just very efficient killing machines. With more guns in circulation, more such mass killings are likely to happen. There are numerous studies on this, particularly comparative studies that suggest the availability of guns plays a role in such events.

Ganguly says that the US needs specific gun control laws. “It is beyond ridiculous that one can walk into a store and buy milk, baby diapers and a gun in the same store at the same time. I am talking of guns sold at Walmart, for example, which is simply wrong, to my mind, let alone all the gun fairs and other mechanisms that make it so easy to have a gun [licensed or unlicensed] in the US.”

But on another level, aren't there are also some larger social, cultural and philosophical questions that need to be asked? Such as how the discourse of masculinity, warfare and social alienation in the modern economy impact American society?

Ganguly has very interesting insights on the question: “We give guns as toys to little boys; teenage boys play violent video games in their bedrooms, at homes … involving killing, rape, theft, etc., all of which are considered ‘normal' as part of popular culture; we tell our boys and men that emotional expressions or crying are signs of weakness, which discourages them from seeking mental health services that could address the increasing stress levels that the modern capitalist economy entails; the country has been fighting wars for the last 10 years, filling our media with images of warfare that have become part of everyday life and consumption. Such a social-cultural context is alienating us and eventually making us immune to acts of violence -- which social psychologists and commentators have suggested leads to loss of human empathy, ability to relate to the pain of others.”

Dr. Hasan Tahsin Arslan from Pace University's Criminal Justice and Security Department thinks that the shooters in fact are inspired by other shooters and focuses on their motivation.

“First, I believe that these are copycat killers. Just on Tuesday we had a shooting in Oregon. They were encouraged and inspired by other shooters. [They are] seeking fame in pursuing a horrific act, because it might be the only way to ‘achieve the success' after several failures in their personal lives. Once they have seen ‘others' doing it, then they act upon it,” he says.

Dr. Arslan also points out that most shooters have multiple mental conditions and problems. “Signals [of such problems] were sent at different times and places but there were no receptors on the other side. Again, it is hard to detect them most of the time, especially for strangers. Only relatives or the people around them could identify and interpret those signals prior to a possible horrific act.”

But are the guns the root of the problems? Arslan says that it is the lack of education and the entertainment world -- video games and the media with its "if it bleeds, it leads" approach to news. “There is already a black market for guns; thus, [passing] laws can only delay the shootings but will most likely not terminate them. However, a cultural transformation must be done for this.”

It is so interesting that the Second Amendment of the US Constitution proclaims the right to bear arms. But why?

Anthropologist Professor Jenny White of Boston University has an insight on this. “Many people think that it is an important part of American independence that every citizen is allowed to own a gun so that no one can invade the country, so that people can stand against tyranny, and can express their individual freedom.”

“There is a push for more gun control, for instance by banning the type of guns and ammunition that only have a military purpose, rather than handguns and rifles that people use for target shooting, self-defense and hunting. There is, however, a powerful lobby that stands in the way of strengthening gun laws. They argue that ‘guns don't kill people; people kill people',” Professor White adds.

It's obvious that mass murders gain considerable media attention. Every time there is mass shooting, the way the media covers it raises question. Actor and musician Micheal McGlone believes that American media plays it like a show:

“As to the shootings I think their increase and type have in part to do with the speed and growth of a desensitization to human experience and empathy [from] the vast resources of stimulation and gratification of the age of information.”

“Exposure to the worst is so constant, and the media plays it as if it is an ongoing show.”

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