Why Gun Culture Fails to Grasp a Systemic Fix to the Mass Shooter Problem

8508333525 ae1865a1b4I just had an epiphany. The reason the conservative/ libertarian /survivalist/ 2nd Amendment crowd cannot grasp the very simple correlation between gun regulation and a decrease in shootings and instead is fixated on the seemingly logical assertion that gun laws only affect law-abiding citizens and that criminals will still have access to guns is that a person with this mindset conceives of themselves as a fully autonomous person with the freedom to exist outside of any societal constraints. Because they consider themselves fully-disconnected individuals with complete autonomy, following the law is totally at their discretion and a person who decides to not follow the law should, according to their understanding of autonomy, simply be able to do so. Thus, according to this conception of the world, laws only have as much use as the morality of the person willing to follow them and making new ones to address problems seems like a futile effort and actually counterproductive if those laws will punish and endanger only those who oblige the law.
This is flawed, however, because no one exists in a vacuum. While on an individual level, everyone has the autonomy to follow or not follow laws, we exist in the context of a complex human society where others exert great influence over our ability to carry out our exacting will. Every person in this ecosystem makes decisions every day which have downstream implications for the reality of every other person they interact with and these actions have long-echoing reverberations throughout the system of human society. Much like herd-immunity in the context of vaccines, the majority of law-abiding citizens provide a buffer between those who would do harm and the illegal tools which allows them to maximize their impact. Any person who is having violent ideations of a mass shooting must interact with a law-abiding gun merchant to get a gun. They go to school with other law-abiding students and is taught by law-abiding teachers and that school is run by law-abiding administrators. Or else they go to work with law-abiding co-workers and report to a law-abiding manager. They interact with law-abiding relatives, who know they should contact law-abiding authorities if they notice something amiss. Murderous cops aside, those law-abiding authorities have the powers ascribed to them by that law to act in situations when said law is broken. While each one of the individuals with whom the potential shooter interacts can each choose to ignore the law, each is under their own societal pressure to follow the law, mostly to avoid consequences for not doing so, and when the total weight of everyone's competing objectives is summed, following the law becomes the default inertia of the average. Sure, these systems fail, and sometimes spectacularly, but they work more often than not and cannot work at all unless there is a law to create the basis for their functioning.
We are long past the point when we have recognized that mass shootings are a systemic problem. We are currently hampered in our efforts to address this problem by a very loud, very powerful, and very entrenched contingency of people who simply do not...nay, cannot recognize the system. They are blind to the idea that we are connected and those connections vastly influence each of our abilities to navigate the world. These same people, and let's not kid ourselves, it IS mostly the very same people, who are "system-blind" fail to recognize the systemic causes of poverty, racism, income inequality, sexism, and a dozen other societal ills and place the blame instead at the feet of the victims of those systems. They have an equally inadequate grasp on how to fix those ills; no systemic problem was ever solved by the suggestion, "Well, if everyone just [stopped doing X/took responsibility for themselves/was more moral, less evil or lazy...] this would fix itself." The flaw in this logic is that systemic problems are the macro result, the sum output of the actual moral and economic state of millions of people who live in that system. It's not a question of any one person just deciding to be better.
We know people can be evil. We know people can choose to ignore the law, but they cannot force others to not follow the law or act against their conscience lest they be complicit. If it is against the law to own an AR-15, a criminally-minded person without an AR-15 must find a seller who is also willing to break the law. In turn, the seller has to source an illegal gun from a manufacturer or a smuggler who is also willing to break the law. We have been lead by movies and television to believe that this is a relatively easy proposition, but the reality is that buying illegal arms is incredibly difficult and very expensive. Because of the exponentially increasing risk of being caught for each person who is required to participate in a criminal enterprise, in the real world criminal conspiracies, organized crime, and black markets are incredibly rare, exclusive silos of people who are nervous about outsiders and tend to exist outside of the experience of everyday people hidden in small, messy non-hierarchical social networks.
On any given day in America, 330+million people get up, get ready for the day and decide minute by minute to NOT shoot every person they see with a semi-automatic rifle. The "system-blind" would have us believe that each of those people is making the deliberate decision to be a law-abiding citizen and deserves the benefit of the doubt in having full access to some of the most deadly and effective killing machines ever designed. The reality is that each of those people is a multitude of competing emotions and desires with varying levels of capacity to reason, function, and navigate the world. Who might be a mass shooter today, might not be tomorrow if they don't have the weapons in hand to carry out the deed. The ability to possess or acquire a weapon in the heat of anger, during these violent ideations is the real correlation between gun violence and access. This stat is consistent domestically, across cities and states, and internationally among countries: the more available guns are, the more people die from guns by homicide and suicide.
Mass shooters, some exceptions notwithstanding, tend to be very lonely, angry men who are not rich, criminal masterminds, but simply want to inflict as much damage on a world they blame for their suffering. They aren't thinking clearly, if at all, and tend to be socially awkward. They are unlikely to stumble into the guarded world of a criminal black market. Making effective guns harder to acquire will absolutely have an impact in limiting the occurrence and severity of mass shootings by lonely, angry men because the mass shooting problem isn't about illegal guns, it's about the availability of the most deadly guns to very nearly everybody with no effective way to exclude the most disturbed among us.
Statistics show that most mass shooters typically acquire their weapons within a year of carrying out their crime. Anecdotes of shooters describe a spiraling period where they focus on their ideation and become noticeably obsessed and isolated. While it is a correlation and not causation that many shooters have used anti-depressants, this seems like times when these people have been in contact with our mental health system and that system has failed to recognize the threat they posed. Common sense laws about waiting periods, background checks, a centralized registry, mental health clearance, training, insurance, the repeal of the Dickey Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from funding gun statistics research, and the banning of the most effective types of assault-style weapons and all ammunition clips with more than a 10-round capacity for anyone outside of a law-enforcement, military, or that mythical (but still plausible) well-regulated civilian militia would reduce the occurrence and severity of mass shootings. A systemic solution is the only thing that will make a measurable, lasting impact. We cannot continue to rely on the individual to promise to not shoot everyone, every minute of every day. In the 18 years since Columbine, every mass shooter lived nearly every minute of their lives with the benefit of the doubt and failed this "solution" the one brief moment they decided to walk into a crowd and start squeezing the trigger.
Unless these "rugged individualist" types can recognize the system that they exist inside of and how much impact we all have on each other lives, they cannot begin to conceive of a way for the system of laws to fix the gun issue. We cannot expect them to vote for limits to their own perceived freedoms if they feel the laws will be ineffective. They can't possibly be good-faith partners in crafting those laws, thus won't have buy-in on whatever laws the rest of us agree to. The irony is what these people see as a fanciful solution to the mass shooter, the armed vigilante, part of the self-styled American animus for sure, free to follow the laws or not as they see fit, feeds directly into the self-narrative that fuels the spiraling isolation of a very small percentage of these people who would become mass shooters. One cannot participate in the proverbial social contract if they aren't a signatory to it; lonely people who don't see the value of socialized connections that constrains their impulses very quickly lose the compunction about killing those whom they see as the cause of their rage. To their mind, their targets should be just as vigilant about their survival as the shooter is, so to be killed is to deserve it.
If you have followed my logic thus far, take a step back and consider the typical pro-gun advocate's reaction to mass shootings (by shooters not dark enough to be written off as terrorists): they defend their sacred rights, they impugn the motives of those calling for reform, they want to regard each occurrence as a totally isolated, completely unpredictable event, they point to the shooter's individual infirmity (in mental illness or moral terms) with no political, racial or religious context, they blame the victims for not being able to shoot back. These are the arguments of a people who cannot connect the shooter's actions to a pervasive permission structure that allows angry white men a pass. Part of the "ask" gun reform advocates are seeking is getting the "individualist" to develop a sense of the secondary and tertiary effects of top-down change, to develop a completely different conception of the world than the one their entire identity is built on, which is reaffirmed by their social in-group daily.
It's a huge ask, but we have to ask. We cannot be shy or defer to the privilege that people who claim this identity have enjoyed for far too long. This "cold, dead hands" culture of the self-sufficient individualist IS the culture of the lone wolf. In every mass shooter, the people who would protect this culture recognize a shameful kinship. Perhaps this is why they cannot, or worse, will not see our side of it, because to acknowledge that a systemic fix can work is to acknowledge that the problem was systemic from its inception and that suggests they are complicit in it.
Human nature very nearly prevents any person from grasping logic that would take food from their mouths or invalidate their experience. This is what the gun reformers are up against and why we won't win by negotiating with gun supporters. We need to win in the very same way the gun lobby has been winning for so long: political will and by tilting the system in our favor. For too long the "left" has been uncomfortable about taking unilateral action to fix this problem because we thought a consensus was a better path even when we have held enough power to get this done. The "right" operates with no such self-imposed handicap. At the end of the day, at least accepting that the problem is systemic, means we are halfway to understanding what the solution should look like when we are finally prepared to fight for it.