Leave the Flag at Half-Mast: The Normalization of a Country Plagued by Gun Violence


Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in March 2018, posted on Facebook Notes

    On the 20-year anniversary of the mass high school shooting at Columbine, Colorado almost to the day another school shooting took place at a school two miles away. At Virginia Beach, 22 years after a shooter took the lives of 32 students at Virginia Tech, a municipal worker opens fire on his co-workers killing 12. The phrase “Its like deja-vu all over again” wasn’t meant to be applied to mass murder, but here we are. Memorializing anniversaries of death. Other nations look at the United States of America and scratch their heads in disbelief. How can a problem such as the gun violence that our country suffers persist for so long without a reasonable response from our leaders, lawmakers or citizens? How can a country that declared the ‘War on Terror” become the victim of a more insidious terror from within? The problem with gun violence isn’t the same as what led up to the attacks of 9-11, the Boston Marathon bombing or the spate of violence that continues to plague European countries. This is homegrown evil, a disease that has spread from the American heartland to the cities. Fueled by the rhetoric of a fanatic conservative majority, our citizens remain convinced that the 2nd Amendment is the most important element of the Constitution. Make no mistake about this, because if you are shot dead you can’t exercise your 1st Amendment.

Columbine Plaque

A Normal Day in America

The official FBI definition of a mass shooting is “an incident in which four or more individuals are selected indiscriminately”. These days, four victims is a relatively conservative number. In fact, gun violence has risen steadily for the last five years in a row according to Centers for Disease Control statistics. This includes a span from 2011-15, which will most certainly be topped in 2017. The past fall saw a horrific spate of violence committed by armed assailants within a few weeks on one another; most notably, Stephen Paddock’s human safari in Las Vegas during an outdoor concert which took the lives of nearly 60. This tragedy made the rounds in news coverage for weeks but the assailant, a Caucasian 60-year old with virtually no criminal record, was dismissed as an anomaly of humanity by nearly all the outlets. Within a few weeks focus had been muted by other news agendas or the additional mass shootings that occurred within days. Perhaps most disturbing was the feigned anger from conservative outlets and talking heads at the “politicization” of the incident by calling for tougher gun restrictions and legislation. Lawmakers responded abidingly to their NRA lobbyist obligations by doing nothing and the NRA doubled down as they always do by declaring those who would move to restrict firearm sales in any way as, “an infringement of the Second Amendment and an affront to American Rights”. NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre appeared on Sean Hannity’s program to rail against liberal politicians who hide behind guns yet mount their ongoing campaigns to use mass shootings as a premise to strip away everyone’s civil liberties. He declared that anyone advocating gun control was an enemy of the United States, even those merely calling for stricter background checks and the possibility of mental evaluations.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

It actually takes a few clicks to locate the Second Amendment excerpt on the NRA’s webpage when you’d think it would be the first thing you see since it’s their doctrine and covenant. Actually, the first thing you see is an ad to buy their merchandise which is appropriate since they are a money-tree of sorts. Along with being the most wealthy and powerful lobbying organization in the country, the NRA donates money into the coffers of the most powerful of our country’s elected representatives. While it is true that this country has plenty of laws to restrict guns from falling into the hands of the wrong people, there are plenty of examples of how these measures have failed because the institutions charged with enforcement don’t follow through with their obligations. We should not underestimate the ability of conservative news outlets paired with the NRA’s influence to censure dialogue concerning the ease with which firearms are procured in this country. Additionally, discussion related to gun sales often avoids the topic of necessary training, mental ability/stability and evaluation that should be required to own and use the most lethal tool on the planet. A license is required to drive a motor vehicle, serve an alcoholic beverage and act as an attorney, so why wouldn’t the same regulations be applied to possess and use a firearm? It’s as if allowing an ongoing, productive dialogue on these matters would affect sales. This is because the bottom line is money to organizations such as the NRA. After all, profit is what allows any entity in a capitalist system to maintain its dominance in the market and hold sway over opposition.

Suppose that the American public were encouraged to seek education on the responsibilities of gun ownership (“a well trained militia”), the lack thereof, and its relation to gun violence. Many citizens would probably come to the conclusion that knowing how to load a firearm and pull the trigger is woefully inadequate to being well-trained. And, if even a small percentage were to make educated decisions concerning what regulations should be made to possess guns and demand stricter ownership requirements to prevent more tragedies from happening, then the bottom line (profit) might be affected. Understand that there are plenty of citizens who have been trained, vetted and even put into situations where use of a firearm is necessary. It is also imperative to understand that gun violence is glorified and omnipresent in our society through media depiction which definitely influences public opinion and perception. In the majority of incidents, widespread, legal access to guns resulted in massacres by seemingly “normal” individuals who suffered mental breakdowns, depression, or simply acted out in revenge. Many of those who go on to carry out mass-shootings suffer psychological issues including a variety of disorders that our broken healthcare and mental health systems are not prepared to address. One of the realities of those who require professional help is that they do not have affordable or ready access to these resources. Perhaps more sinister is the prospect that some may be acting through mass-killing as a sort of self-therapy. A society with the gun-violence problems that we now see daily cannot allow the one-sided argument that ultimately results in nothing being done to continue. The occurrence of mass shootings should present the opportunity to stimulate a national dialogue concerning firearms and their risks and abuses, not a shouting match where conservatives get to prove their allegiance to the NRA by lambasting anyone who wants to suggest what is evidenced with each incident: many American citizens have developed an unhealthy, addictive relationship with guns that has been taken advantage of by mass media for commercial profits in which the end result is often the gun violence that occurs every day.

2018: The Children’s Crusade

The first eight weeks of the year saw America’s epidemic move to another level altogether. Each week our country witnessed a school shooting until early February when a former student walked into a Florida school and killed 20 of his former classmates and instructors. How the country had managed to marginalize the atrocity of the previous seven incidents and their casualties is somewhat astonishing. That American society has reached this level of callousness is a tragedy onto itself and indicative of how we have managed to force ourselves into accepting what few if any other developed nations in the world would consider “civilized behavior”. Finally, on the heels of this new shocking spate of violence, citizens, the media, and yes, politicians, were forced to take up ongoing conversation. More importantly, the youth of our country spoke out. Walkouts, marches, protests and activism directed at leaders who have refused to take action for decades is the result and our citizens are now recognizing the tragic results of not taking stronger action against gun violence. Not unlike emerging from the fog of a drugged state, people are engaging in the gun argument in different ways. The NRA is being taken to task, by kids, and the results favor the common ground of safety, sensibility and compassion instead of the typical biased, lobbyist monologue. How long this will last remains to be seen. If this country and its leaders turn their backs on future generations then it will speak volumes about how our moral ethics are dictated.

“The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”

Most of us have probably heard this argument made by pro-gun advocates and the truth of the matter is simply that this isn’t true a majority of the time. Recently, President Trump advocated a similar opinion by speculating that arming teachers would be an effective deterrent to mass shootings in schools. Examples where individuals in mass shooting situations were able to neutralize or disable the gunman before lives (or more lives were taken) are the exception, not the norm. An FBI study of 160 active shooter situations that took place between 2000-2013 reported that five of these situations resulted in armed civilians stopping the shooter. This demonstrates that the actual occurrence of a “good guy” preventing or ending an armed shooter situation is a rarity. Preferably, those who should carry firearms in public are off-duty or plainclothes law officers, or military personnel. If they adhere to their training, they will realize that in the reality of a situation involving civilians and an active shooter, another individual drawing a weapon and firing away is the last thing that should happen. An incident at a Texas church in November of 2017 resulted that after the shooter had shot at 40 people, killing 26, he fled and then was chased by an armed civilian before he took his own life. Being Texas, I’m not surprised that many of the other citizens of the town owned guns, but they either did not bring them to into the church, or chose not to start firing at their assailant in a crowded room out of common sense. Any situation involving a shooter is best left for local law enforcement to deal with. If you are involved in such a tragic incident, the best thing to do is duck, seek cover and help others. It is far more likely that medical trauma skills will be more necessary than owning a gun in the long run.

This brings us to the subject that the United States has apparently bought into the “good guy with a gun” theory as it leads the world in ratio of firearms owned by citizens. Estimates indicate that the current rate of gun ownership in America could account for one gun per almost every citizen. Then there’s the irrefutable statistic that the U.S. leads all developed nations in gun deaths per year. We are not the leader of all nations; those countries with higher percentages are those that are either in states of civil war/political collapse, have major drug-trafficking/gang problems or suffer from huge socioeconomic disparities which drive them towards civil strife and failure of law enforcement institutions. In instances where developed nations did resolve to use laws to enforce gun restrictions, the numbers don’t lie: gun violence and homicides as a whole have decreased dramatically. Australia is the primary example of this with countries such as Japan, the U.K. and Canada also worthy of mention. The United States is another case altogether. Statistics on gun laws and their correlation to homicides vary widely from state to state. In some cases, strictness of gun regulations do not seem to directly result in a drop in gun-violence statistics while in others the numbers would appear to indicate improvement in a reduction of gun violence. The U.S. is a country that has never attempted to address gun violence as a national epidemic as have the countries previously mentioned. Could the incidents of 2018 be changing attitudes of our approach and attitudes towards gun ownership?

I don’t have any conclusive answers to society’s problems, the United States is a unique case when it comes to firearm ownership. What myself, and all rational citizens, should recognize is that any problem does not disappear by ignoring it, and it certainly does not improve by feeding it the fuel it needs. Many complicated factors can be attributed to the epidemic of gun violence that the United States suffers: accessibility, poor mental health rates, poverty, media depiction/glorification, lack of training, lack of education, the list goes on. The solution won’t arrive overnight; there isn’t a ‘magic jacket’ to stop all the bullets from flying in schools, malls and our public spaces. Our nation faces a grave challenge and a great deal of time and effort are necessary to identify viable solutions and apply them until positive change is made. What this country cannot do is continue to make the same mistakes that it has made for decades now. We have allowed private interest to control the discussion, influence policy and ultimately avoid addressing the issue as much as possible. While taking away guns will not guarantee safety, the mass armament of society has not achieved it the same end. Many citizens are as unwilling to possess a gun as are those who prefer to. Beyond the lives taken, the true tragedy of gun violence is that it has made many feel like hostages to the constant threat it poses. If Americans accept a society that allows homicide to occur on a daily basis and does nothing to prevent it, then it cannot be considered a civilized nation. The Second Amendment was intended to instill the responsibility of safeguarding the nation against threats both foreign and domestic. In this day and age, it is no longer the British who are coming for us. The daily headlines don’t usually involve terrorists from the Middle East or anywhere else committing the shocking acts that we hear about. The bad guys have become our neighbors and co-workers, raised on a steady diet of paranoia, fear and the myth that violence must become part of our lives without question in order to remain safe. It is time for this country to face its failures and fears and maintain a progressive conversation about gun violence and how it must end. We cannot afford to do the same things we have done until now or we will continue to memorialize the victims of gun violence to no end.

Mike Lee's Fantasy








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