• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).



Questions and some answers on the shootings at an Oregon community college.


October 3, 2015

Why do these young men shoot?

Because they have untreated mental illness with homicidal and/or suicidal ideation, live in a society that glorifies violence, and have easy access to firearms.

Why men and not women?

For complex reasons, men tend to externalize expression of their emotions while, as a rule, women internalize them. Thus, while shooters are almost exclusively men, it is women who overwhelming inflict self harm through such methods as mental illness disorders associated with eating and cutting. 

Why is mental illness not treated?

There may be many answers to this question on an individual level but whatever those answers are they must be viewed in the social and public policy context.

On a societal level, U.S. culture, stigmatizes mental illness, especially among young men. That stigma exacerbates an individual’s experience of mental illness through denial, repression, extreme feelings of self-hatred, further distortion of self perceptions and the ability to form relationships or have empathy for other people.

As a matter of social policy, in the 1980’s the United States defunded the mental health programs that it helped to create and support in the preceding generation. The absence of national health care in any form over the last two generations (some 40 years or so) is another factor. The cost of health care rendered mental health out of the reach for the vast majority of such people who most needed it. Thus, even though medical science has medications and therapeutic modalities that affectively help people with many forms of mental illness, as a society we have not systematically made those medications and therapies available. A profoundly sad commentary of U.S. society is to note the contrast between the (un)availability of mental health treatment to the availability of firearms. 
Why is there such easy access to firearms in the United States?

Historically, violence is inextricably woven into European expansion into the Americas. Superior weaponry in the form of firearms played a critical role in the success that Europeans enjoyed in conquering native peoples. National pride in defeating Great Britain for independence achieved through warfare reinforced an emerging fetish with firearms. Although intended as a constitutional protection for states against the federal government, the Second Amendment to the Constitution has become intertwined in that fetish. Frontier society further combined the practical use of guns for hunting and protection together with ideological fervor to create a cultural iconography around the possession of firearms. That iconography continued through the 18th and 19th centuries, U.S. expansion in the Western Hemisphere, its own Civil War, two World Wars in the 20th century and continues down to today.  

Economically, gun manufacturers, together with ideological advocates, are some of the most powerful lobbyists in U.S. politics generally and with Congress in particular.  Largely through their efforts, attempts at regulation of the industry and the availability of firearms have been defeated.

Finally, the 2008 Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller, reinforced the cultural fetish in U.S. law by interpreting the Second Amendment, generally known as the “right to bear arms,” as a personal right and not one vested in the states through its militias.
What is the connection between the individual and the culture?

Culturally, the United States entertainment industry, which both reflects and projects this iconography, has done so with enthusiasm beginning with the westerns film genre through to gangster films, contemporary Hip Hop music and in a vast array of popular video games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. While a healthy individual can separate fantasy of these forms of entertainment from the reality of the laws and norms of civil society, a person suffering from mental illness may not be able to make these distinctions. The proliferation of a culture that idealizes violence combined with easy access to firearms not only reinforces violent fantasies by giving them the appearance of normalization but, as a matter of fact, provides the affected individual the means by which to act out homicidal and/or suicidal fantasies.

At a deeper, more disturbing level, the delusion of the individual suffering from mental illness who chooses to act out bears some similarities to the delusion of ideologues who fail to acknowledge a connection between their preferred policies that effectively make guns easily accessible and a moral responsibility for the terrible acts of violence that plague U.S. society.  

Why do “shooters”  choose our colleges and universities as the target for their fantasies?

Under the delusion of their fantasies, shooters seek locations where people congregate in numbers.  Elementary schools, colleges and universities are thus obvious choices in addition to churches, military bases and shopping malls/theaters.  Furthermore, since schools are a common denominator of the socializing process, a shooter may choose to revisit school as a place to settle psychological scores that have become part of the landscape, so to speak, of their personal experiences and mental illness. In addition to whatever real or perceived slights, marginalization or bullying that the individual may have experienced from teachers or peers, a shooter may have an underlying resentment that the school, or schools in general, did not or could not help him at earlier stages of his life and emerging mental illness. 

Finally, colleges and universities generally represent hopes and dreams, aspirations and social mobility.  For an individual hampered by mental illness, the representation of these qualities, seemingly out of reach, may also exacerbate the frustration of their condition which, in their mind, transforms those profound disappointments into making these sites appropriate targets.
How does the United States compare to other countries in this regard?

The United States as a developed country is unique in this regard.  All other developed countries have gun control laws. Other developed countries do not have the same degree or specific kinds of stigma associated with mental illness that the United States has, especially when it comes to violent expression. All other developed countries have had comprehensive health care for decades. Other developed countries do not consistently have as a part of their contemporary culture and entertainment a fixation on violence. Other developed countries do not have proliferation of guns in their population. Not surprisingly, other developed countries are, in fact, significantly less violent. Moreover, there are pockets of United States culture that exalt “exceptionalism,” a notion that the United States is preternaturally distinct. Apparently cut off from intellectual understanding or emotional compassion, such proponents, who are not infrequently those who support pro-gun ideologues and the firearms lobby, fail to appreciate the horrible irony of their beliefs. 



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