It seems that scarcely a few months can go by before America experiences yet another tragic mass shooting. Debate quickly ensues among politicians about whether this should be the time where the line is drawn and gun control legislation is passed. Yet after only a couple of weeks, news networks and politicians seem to lose interest, and the issue is mostly forgotten. This does nothing to allay the fears and anxiety that Americans have concerning gun violence, which only seem to grow in response to the lack of government action towards the issue.
Why do our elected officials fail to take action? The reason is rather simple: There is no enemy. When there is no foreign group, influence, or ideology to blame for our woes and to be the subject of our fears, America is forced to come to terms with its own faults and flaws in an uncomfortable way. By failing to come to terms with our own culpability, politicians make any sort of gun control all the more unattainable.
So just how common are shootings in America? That question proves rather difficult to answer, contributing to some of the confusion and tension in the gun control debate. There is no universal definition of what a “mass shooting” should be. The definitions may vary from organization to organization on the number of people who must be shot, whether or not there must be fatalities, or whether or not the shooter’s death contributes to the death total. Because of these disparate criteria, some sources say there has been more than one mass shooting per day in 2019, while others say there have only been around 20 so far.
Regardless, the increasing number of shootings in public places in recent years have done much to contribute to the country’s concerns about gun ownership. In a particularly deadly week in August, two people were killed at a Walmart in Mississippi, three were killed at a music festival in California, 20 were killed at another Walmart in El Paso, and nine were killed in an entertainment district in Dayton. When shootings occur with such regularity, it is no wonder that some Americans feel a looming threat of gun violence wherever they go.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 48% of Americans fear that they will be the victim of a mass shooting at some point in their life. This is a marked increase from October 2017, when the same question was asked and only 39% said they were afraid they would be victims. Additionally, the American Psychology Association released a survey that suggests that nearly a third of Americans are so concerned with the idea of being targeted in the next mass shooting that they actively avoid certain places or events because they fear for their safety.
Perhaps the most striking evidence of the growing awareness of and fear surrounding mass shootings is in the increasing number of active shooter drills performed by schools across the country. Many schools now offer training programs to educate students on possible courses of action in case a shooter happens to break in. Yet, do these drills truly prepare our children for anything other than a life of fear? By forcing them to go through these drills, we are merely teaching them that nothing can be done about the state of gun violence in America and that they should be scared and ever vigilant about possible armed attacks.
These drills bear a strong resemblance to the “Duck and Cover” campaign of the Cold War era, where schools taught their students the procedure to be followed in case of an imminent nuclear attack from Russia. For many students, the information they learned would have very little bearing on whether or not they would survive something as devastating as a nuclear detonation. While these drills may have brought peace of mind to some, it is likely that being constantly reminded of one’s own mortality and fragility at such a young age was actually detrimental to the mental health of the students participating, increasing their fears instead of allaying them. It has been suggested that both active shooter drills of today and the “Duck and Cover” campaign only succeed primarily in hampering the emotional development of younger children, increasing their anxiety, impulsivity, and dependence on others.
Regardless of the utility of the school drills of the 1950s, they were merely a symptom of the fears and anxieties of the American public as a whole. The “Duck and Cover” campaign emerged in the midst of the Red Scare, a time when the threat of Communism upon the American way of life seemed to be looming at every corner. The possibility of mutually assured destruction and concern for the overthrow of capitalism and democracy at home captivated the minds of Americans. Yet, the American people refused to become crippled by fear, and they remained united through their disdain for the Russians. The Communists were an identifiable group who would be considered assailants. Having a scapegoat of sorts and an identifiable enemy enabled Americans to overcome their fears and push for action against this group.
The fears of the American people were directed again in a similar manner in the months and years immediately following the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. American security and peace of mind had been destroyed in a matter of a single day, and now people all over the country felt unsafe in their daily lives. Yet there was once again an identifiable enemy – radical Islamic terrorists. Singling out a group to receive the vengeance of the American people allowed them to cope with their own fears and move forward.
This is not to say that American treatment of Islamic countries in the past two decades has been entirely justified or without fault. Oftentimes, uneducated Americans, relying solely on their fear, conflate the acts of a select few radicalized people to all members of the Islamic faith, leading to xenophobic and Islamophobic attitudes. Yet 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror still demonstrate an important fact.
Before 9/11, fears of terrorism were low, even in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing. The American people did not see terrorism as a serious threat because, until 9/11, it had been primarily domestic in origin. It was not until after the attacks on the World Trade Center that this illusion was dispelled. This seems to indicate that there is something inherently provocative about being attacked from outside one’s circle of influence. Being out of control of your safety and state of mind elicits a visceral reaction and brings about action in a far more immediate manner. Thus, in the past, America has responded to fears of foreign threats to its security with harsh force and swiftness.
That is what prevents America from enacting meaningful gun reform. Americans are undoubtedly afraid of the deadly effects of gun violence in America. Yet, there is a lack of motivation to change anything, stemming from America’s inability to blame an outside influence or group for their suffering.
Often times lawmakers raise concerns about our failure to address mental illness in America, arguing that this is the primary cause for the prevalence of gun violence in this country. However, mental illness fails to present a strong enough body for the American people to rally against. The idea of mental illness is difficult to define for the average American. A mentally ill person could be of any background, race, or ethnicity. They could effectively be anyone. In order for fear to be an effective catalyst to meaningful legislation, it must be directed towards an identifiable image or group. Without this image, gun reform would first and foremost require an admission of guilt and a level of critical self-examination that we aren’t used to giving.Why do we feel the need to have more guns than people in this country? Why does America have a gun homicide rate about 6 times higher than any other high-income, developed nation? And do we really value keeping our semi-automatic rifles over the mental health of our children and our neighbors? Until we demonstrate the prudence and wisdom it takes to answer these questions, we can never hope to enact the change necessary to alleviate the fears of American citizens.