Yes, this Article will Stay Invisible, But …
Given that I am a social worker and worked with folks that killed people, I think I have a voice when it comes to an active shooting. I want to be clear that gun violence is complex and varied.
Active shooting is not the same as gun violence or even as common as everyday gun violence in communities of color. Nor do we acknowledge that suicide with a gun is a leading cause of death for white men. Urban gun violence is a leading cause of death for Black men.
All of these deserve attention. However, it is important to focus on active shooting because all groups have been targeted by mostly white, male shooters. Of course, there are exceptions, but one common thread is clear. They are dominantly very angry men, whether Asian, White, Black, etc. This issue is gripping the nation, President Biden calling it a “national embarrassment” but offering the same old lame prevention that, if passed, will do little to change the trajectory of active shootings.
This exhaustive article will likely fail to make any change though it would surely reduce active shootings, but the problem is that the article is comprehensive, and politicians and advocacy groups don’t do comprehensive. I could make this article one page with pretty bullet points, but the context would be lost. We often do black and white, right and wrong, pro-gun, anti-gun, liberal, conservative. There will never be a time that only one kind of person will exist.
If we want to yell “diversity,” we can start by being tolerant of diversity in all its forms. That involves comprehensive solutions to complex problems. Advocacy is important, but advocacy sucks. Often, it oversimplifies the problem to that of gun protection versus that of gun rights. The many deaths at the hands of these angry men are all but forgotten. Instead, people make it political, just like COVID is political. The result, more death; people are still dying.
I did a similar list for a past article on school shootings. Again, little interest because there is no black and white. Nonetheless, I list these here in hopes that if some of you are serious about active shooting, that we will see there are a host of reasons why one pulls a trigger, either once, or hundreds of times, and the reason they choose to ultimately kill themselves. That happens before they ever put their hands on a weapon. We can help them stop from getting there.
Problem One: Band-Aids Don’t Cure Cancer
I often use this statement from a medical doctor. I heard him speak in the documentary The House I Live In that covers racism and “America’s” failed War on Drugs. He says that in the United States we treat symptoms of problems as the problems. People use drugs because they want to stop physical and emotional pain, not because they are bad people. We think the drugs are the problem. People always used drugs and always will.
Pain is the problem. In my work, we think sex is the problem. People will always have sex and have “dirty” thoughts. Power and sex-negativity, shame, are the problems. In the U.S., we are residual thinkers. We wait for a problem, then we react to the symptom, making hasty laws that look good but do little.
We put a Band-Aid on what is killing us. We often censor and hide the symptom, then claim victory. We blame the individual: “psychopath,” “terrorist,” “monster,” “sex offender,” “pedophile,” “thug,” “pimp,” “druggie,” but it never occurs to us that such people are not only like us, but they are also very much us. Making “others” does not reduce crime. It distracts from the solution. If anything, such is a catalyst for crime. We will only have more shootings regardless of what Congress does or does not do.
Problem Two: Panic and Negativity Sells
The U.S. news media is one of the most negative, panic-focused entities on the planet. Go to CNN, Fox, or the AP and take time to scan the headlines. One thing is clear; you better be scared and outraged out of your minds! Do we see happy puppies? Cute kitties? Do we see a good person in the headlines, and if we do, how often?
Did it ever occur to us that people do good things every day? I went to the drive-thru a while back, placed and order, got to the window, and the server said, “Oh, your meal was paid for by the person ahead of you.” I was so moved. I would have followed that white car but did not want to seem like a “predator.”
So, the next day, I paid for the person behind me. It does not matter who that person was. Maybe, if the guy behind me was planning a shooting, that kindness would have stopped him. Is such wishful thinking? Sure it is, when such kindness is in such short supply in our culture.
The news media is not immoral. It is amoral. What sells is what you see: FEAR! PANIC! OUTRAGE! When a bear is chasing us, we have little time to be cool and think, but that coolness and thinking is what will save us. CNN and Fox News will not save you. They will land you in therapy for depression and anxiety.
The media creates copycats because if that person is a very angry and feels cheated and hurt in life, making a shocking statement appeals. Several gunshots make one famous, an infamous legend, and this has magnetism for a person in this culture that is saturated with violence, violent entertainment, awful putdowns and verbal assaults, in which men and boys, whether hero or villain, make their mark, get their respect, often by using a Glock as a means to a solution, and often as a pathway to fame. Big media is happy to comply and sensationalize as a means to keep big investors happy.
Again, when does a nice guy make the “front page?”
I am not against violent entertainment any more than I am against sex in entertainment. People need outlets, and by in large these things may serve more as protective factors, but there are people at considerable risk that see this glorification. News media hails, through constant public damnation, everything the shooter does. They name him, provide pictures, and take us through the shooting event, noting the terror. It’s just like a horror movie except that these active shootings are real. This undoubtedly fuels future shootings. Since local media has all but dried up, these national stories become a local conversation. The most horrid events become all our traumas and experiences, even though they are not our local reality.
In a world where so many of us want to be famous, noticed, and known, it becomes clear that few of us ever are. For some, that is too much to take, but an AR-15 becomes the ticket to redemption and fame. The media is hiring, looking for the most horrific while pumping up the smallest to seem like the same.
Do this. For one week, don’t look at national news at all, no social media, no news. Tell your online friends that you are taking a week away. At the end of that week, what did you learn? Focus on your community that week, not what happened 500, 1000, or 5000 miles away. Focus on you and those you love, those in front of you for just a week. No one needs CNN or Fox News. You got to turn it off when such becomes too much. If we think we are missing something, we are not missing anything of value. There are better places for information.
In sum, any prosecutor can directly link these news agencies and social media platforms to the crime, as accessories, enablers for the shooter. We need to know things, but we need to do that ethically and responsibly, minus profit-driven motives. True freedom of speech is not dictated by money.
Problem Three: The Absence of Mental Health Treatment Access
When I taught at Cheyney University, my one student introduced himself to me and the class, “My name is Tyrone and I just got out of prison for crushing my teacher’s skull with a baseball bat.” I understood what he meant. It translates this way, “Professor, what I need from you is mutual respect.”
Those of us that have worked around violence, murder, and trauma stories beyond most people’s comprehension see the humanity that causes inhumanity. This imposing, scary Black man (I am a white teacher), was intelligent, but I failed in keeping him in class. I was still a bit afraid of him. I was too inexperienced at the time.
If I had it to do over again, I would have sat down with him, looked at his essay, “Sir, I want you to know that I appreciate you.” Often, just ten minutes with a forgotten or judged student is the most time anyone ever spent trying to help them. I learned one thing in prisons and in the ERs of higher education, community colleges, always treat people with respect. Currently, we live in a culture where so many pick sides and then degrade others brutally online. Respect is in very short supply.
When I worked with inmates, those that sex offended, I always referred to them as “Yes, sir, no sir.” I did my job, but my job is to separate the human being from the bad choice they made. There is no such thing as a bad person. There is no such thing as a good person. There are people, and all people make good and bad choices. We aim to do better, and we can start by valuing mental health and that means valuing people’s emotional needs in terms of identity, belonging, who they want to be, and how they want to express themselves, no matter how odd or weird to us. Our first aim should be to truly see who is in front of us. Our workaholic culture does not allow us to spend any time to get a depth of understanding.
Like physical health, an annual physical, all of us should have a yearly mental health exam by a professional. Social workers, therapists, psychologists, and counselors should be part of primary health care and part of overall health. I am convinced that if there was easier access and yearly checkups, we could reduce some, certainly not all, active shootings.
Almost no one gets up in the morning and says, “I think I will go and shoot a bunch of people today.” Most of these are planned, and the person is running these ideas through their heads for extended periods of time. Most of these weapons are legally purchased or they are owned by someone in the household. For comparison, we can make YouTube illegal for kids, but plenty of kids will still have access to YouTube. But killing people does not come naturally for humans, as watching them does.
I heard from an anthropologist about ancient combat that if we trace the movements of the Roman Legion and soldier movements in general, what is clear is the constant avoidance, circling, of troop movements. They were avoiding conflict at all costs. These are men trained in levels of close combat brutality that even modern soldiers would buckle under. Human beings are not meant to kill each other, even the Roman Legion knew that. But in Roman culture, the individual was an alien concept. You were a collective, a Roman. In our society, we expect the world to stop rotating every time we are offended, and the problem is that nature, evolution, does not give a damn about our individuality or our being offended.
We are losing our communities in favor of a kind of forced individuality, hiding in office caves, working on evidence-based success rates all the while forgetting the human connection and condition. It’s fine to be an individual. That is part of our history in the United States, but there is a reason why the states are called UNITED: community, civil duty, and collective and diverse identity.
At my college, the administration is fixated on student success, but student trauma and mental health, the student experience, is left out. There is no connection between college work and a person’s life. That is seen as a liability. So, for People Of Color, as is often the case, they wear masks.
Men, in particular, often wear masks, smile, then explode with anger or aggression because that is all they are allowed to show. As a male myself, when I show my vulnerability, self-disclose, I am met with contempt, hate, and shaming. The message, “Be a man.” More and more, that means “Be a killer, an abuser, a predator.”
It’s cool to be tough and masculine. These are good qualities, just as being feminine and passive can be. At times, we have to be angry and aggressive too, but we need to know when too much is too much. More focus on our mental health can do that.
Communication may be an important quality we have developed, but we still suck at it. I am convinced that if these guys could have talked and processed their frustrations, had and were willing to get help, few would have done what they did. This is difficult work. It’s time-consuming, but at some point, we have to invest in our most important infrastructure, people, and their communities.
Problem Four: Lack of Sensible Gun Laws
If you follow my exhaustive writings, you know I consider myself white trash. I came from rural New York and sometimes slept with a loaded rifle. In my community, everyone had guns. People walked down the street with rifles. We used guns as kids, I around 11 or 12, and many of us had access to whiskey, wine, and beer. I drank and smoked a bit when 9.
Yet, I never did an active shooting nor have I been drunk a day in my life. I am not a smoker. These have no appeal. Our crime rate was virtually non-existent. No one shot anyone violently except once in 20 years. If such did happen, almost always, it was an accident. There is nothing wrong with liking and collecting guns. It’s cool.
Have you ever target practiced? It’s a blast. Despite what it sounds like, these communities are pretty responsible because it’s a culture. Deer hunting was not only for survival, it built community. Dad would take his son or daughter hunting. Yes, it was boring, but dad tried to bond with his kid the only way he knew how. He tried. Often, people like me, white trash, were poor, laughed at and mocked, so we survived on deer meat and with our community support. We are what’s called “the fly-over people.” We don’t matter.
We also, as a nation, were founded on the individualistic principle of rebellion against authority, the British Crown. We won, not because we had a powerful military. Quite the contrary. We were often farmers, without uniforms, militias with muskets, that fought the most powerful military in the world back. This is often missed by the more liberal among us (yes, I am liberal). Our history would not be ours if we did not own rifles as a way to protect our mouths.
It says someplace that the people of the United States have the right to use arms to overthrow our very government if that government becomes a tyranny. Interestingly, no politician will bring that up. Guns may not have made the United States, but they played a role in freeing us. To ignore this is to cut away a major part of our histories and identities. A gun is not just for protection. It carries our history with us, our rebellion, and they are seen as a tool in helping us stay free.
However, like most things, guns have advanced to Weapons of Mass Destruction. If one goes to the mall with a musket, they’d be lucky to get two shots off; the first, probably would not kill anyone. The second would take a minute to set up. Today, one can kill dozens in seconds. That is the difference.
Rather than fighting against gun rights and the people wanting to protect them, why not come together and work on the problem together? We will fight, but we will learn the whole context, something politicians never, ever want to openly discuss. Why not learn gun safety from gun owners and dealers? Why not have gun owners hear an urban woman’s concerns?
My dream is to see a bunch of People Of Color talking to a bunch of bikers, each listening to their stories, the context of their experiences. I really believe that such forms of community and both “sides” would be able to help one another live safer lives. I do not think that is naïve.
We often hate each other due to a lack of context. Now, as a suburbanite, I realized that we feel so safe that we created a myth for ourselves, a myth the pandemic shattered. If we want to know about gun control, we must learn about gun culture first, but keep an open mind. When I wanted to learn about child sexual abuse prevention, I realized that I had to learn about those that offend. If we don’t do this, we are coming at a problem we will fail to identify.
Most are for reasonable gun laws, and if we work together, we can reduce some active shootings, kids that die from guns and do more to reduce urban gun violence as well. For urban gun violence prevention, having urban kids camp out in rural communities during the summer would drastically reduce gun violence, since more happens during the warm weather. They could work on a farm, tough and dangerous work, and both rural farmers and Black Lives Matter advocates could learn together. We just have to be open to the experience. We may not always agree or relate, but we can form common bonds and understandings.
We can change the paradigm by including, not excluding.
Problem Five: Politicians and the Public Mobs that Embolden Them
Churchill noted that the best argument against democracy is a few-minute conversation with the average voter. This is true. Let’s say it together, when we all are in a group, we behave like dumb idiots. If one person gets emotional in a group, we all get hyper-emotional. Such is dangerous and very common.
Though being in a group is necessary and important, we need to recognize a group’s limitations. We may hate gun violence, but that does not mean we know how to stop it. You may be an abuse survivor, but that does not make you an expert on offending. Unfortunately, politicians are in a bind. They always have to appeal to mobs of voters that they represent.
Often, they need to appease with simple slogans, “Make America Great Again,” or “Tough on Crime,” or “No Child Lost.” But different people have different ideas on what makes America great (America is not a country, the United States is a country). Being tough on crime has only made a mess of our criminal justice system, and we will never live in a society were “no child is lost.”
These slogans, all of them, are potentially dangerous and always ineffective. Being the emotional individuals that we are, we want a simple solution. There are none. So, we pass irresponsible laws that often increase problems to appease the mob in hopes the mob goes away. Seldom, if ever, does Congress pass meaningful legislation. They cannot unless they wish to destroy their lifelong careers. There is the bind.
Most of the people that stormed the Capital on January 6 were not “insurrectionists,” “terrorists,” or anti-American. They were misled by those with power and believe they are following the Constitution. They were misled by Fox News, Parlor, Facebook, Twitter, and were told repeatedly by the President of the United States that the election was stolen.
What the FBI is finding out is that most of these folks are average people, misled ones that joined an emotional group, a mob, because they felt it was their Constitutional duty to uphold free and fair elections. We can mock them because we were lucky enough to get our information from other sources, but the problem is those that who get charged and punished tend to have the least power in our society. They may be white men and some Proud Boys, but most are poor or middle class. Who is responsible? The multi-billion corporations and the most powerful man in the world. They all will not only walk, but they made a crapload of money. Justice follows a race-income-based scale.
My point is that law enforcement is reactive and looks for the weakest to charge, the most defenseless. Those responsible for the violence or our community problems are seldom ever held accountable. It is no secret that people feel much more instability today than they did in the past, and feeling stable and safe are basic human needs. This can add to our culture of violence and mass shootings.
I find it hard to believe there is no correlation between big profit and gun violence, but if law enforcement does what it always does, it will focus on the little Joe or little Tyrone and allow the powerful that bankroll them to secretly abuse. If we want less shooting, those with the power have to make a change, not simply profit off those of us mentally ill, struggling, and miserable, and emotional. That is kind of like wishing for unicorns. I understand that, but we can still hope.
What we all can do because our politicians won’t is focus on our local communities. Make sure our kids are OUR kids and we help them feel accepted no matter what the hell they look like or what they like. Accept and appreciate diversity, even if we are uncomfortable with some of it. Ask people why they feel the way they do. And if someone is screaming at you, let them finish, and if they stop and are still standing there, only then can you now have a conversation. What is killing us is a lack of human connection.
Earl Yarington was a professor and social worker. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years. As a social worker, Earl focused on human sexuality and child sexual abuse prevention by working with those at risk which included those with sex offenses, pedophilic disorder, dual diagnoses and other comorbid factors. Earl now writes literary fiction, poetry and non-fiction and often incorporates difficult subjects in his work.
He drives buses for a living.