Is it getting worse, or are we just paying more attention?
by Breanna Beers and Alexandria Hentschel
Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Orlando: these cities have come to represent not just locations, but tragedies that have torn apart both individual lives and the nation as a whole.
The United States is home to more mass shootings than any other nation by a wide margin. According to a study published by Dr. Adam Lankford of the University of Alabama, the United States has had 90 mass shootings from 1966 to 2012; no other country has had more than 18.
Adjusted for population, the disparity remains, and the reason seems clear: there are simply more guns in circulation among the United States population. The United States has almost 90 guns for every 100 citizens; most other countries have 30 or less. The rate of mass shootings does not correlate with homicide rates, which indicate the overall level of violence in a country, or suicide rates, which can signal levels of mental health.
History and law professor Dr. Marc Clauson explained that while most other countries assert that citizens must proactively earn the right to gun ownership, the founders of the United States began with the opposite assumption: that the right to bear arms is inherent, to be taken away only if a person has proven themselves incapable of managing it responsibly.
“People in Europe don’t even care about owning guns,” Clauson said. “They’ve not grown up with the sense that they want their guns for anything. When guns began to be made in greater numbers, right away there were restrictions placed. Over here, when we enacted the Constitution, we immediately put in the Second Amendment because of the culture that already existed.”
According to Clauson, the culture that led the founders to write gun ownership into the Constitution was one that strongly valued individualism and freedom. As they were shaping a country that was created from an uprising against an overbearing empire, the founding fathers wanted to ensure that such tyranny could not return in the future.
“We didn’t want the kinds of restrictions that were easily accepted in Europe,” Clauson said. “We’ve always used guns for self-defense or for hunting or for militias or things like that.”
However, the world has learned all too well that when dangerous tools end up in the wrong hands, tragedy ensues. Don Parvin of Campus Safety and Security spoke about the role of mental health in incidents of mass violence. Specifically, he mentioned the lone wolf mentality, which describes a person who tends to isolate himself or herself from others, physically, emotionally, and mentally.
“A lot of what goes on is based on mental health issues and the fact that there’s something not quite right,” Parvin said. “The lone wolf mentality is an indoctrinated state of mind, where they’ve exposed themselves to whatever this doctrine might be, whatever this thought process might be, whatever this belief system might be, that they have to do this.”
Lone wolf perpetrators are dangerous because they are closed off from the shared moral values and rational thought that other members of society possess. Yet according to Parvin, our nation already has laws in place to prevent those types of people from accessing weapons; it’s just a question of how effectively those laws are enforced.
“If we put as much effort into enforcing the laws that exist as we do in trying to create new laws, we’d actually be further ahead,” Parvin said. “We have plenty of laws in place. Every time I buy a gun, I have to go through an incredible background check. It’s four pages long, and it takes a good half-hour to 40 minutes to go through that background check.”
In many cases, people with close relationships to the perpetrators of mass shootings are aware of mental health issues. However, that information is often not communicated to the agencies in charge of regulating gun ownership.
Yet, even if it were, guns can often be accessed through other means, whether by borrowing, stealing, or purchasing them privately. As time goes on, the country has grown increasingly divided over the issue of gun control, especially as events such as the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas dominate the headlines.
“Immediately, people are saying, ‘Well, what should we do?’” Clauson said. “We restrict guns or we don’t restrict guns. It comes into the conversation almost immediately.”
If sensationalized language, divisive statements, or emotional tension can lead readers to read, share, or spread a story, news outlets that use those tactics are the ones that will succeed.
“They will try to push the story and keep it alive as long as they can,” Clauson explained. “There’s even a tendency to use language in the stories that’s overly emotionalized.”
However, Parvin has concerns about media analysis of mass shootings beyond mere interest in the quality of news coverage. He fears that heightened media focus on acts of mass violence may unintentionally perpetuate criminal behavior.
“The media always talks about the person,” Parvin explained. “They talked about the guy in Las Vegas, they talked about the guy in Sutherland Springs, they keep talking about the guys. And so what happens is people think, ‘I can make a name for myself, I can become famous. If I do something like this, I’ll get that same notoriety.’ That’s often what happens with the copycat effect.”
According to Parvin, security professionals often speak differently about violent acts.
“You’ll notice that I have never mentioned the perpetrators’ names, because a lot of it is seeking notoriety,” Parvin said. “We’ll talk about the incident, we’ll talk about where the incident occurred, but we don’t talk about who perpetrated it because they don’t deserve the recognition.”
However, the media often ignores these risks because of the intensity of readers’ questions. Who would do this? Why? How did it come about? Not only is the general public stunned and curious, perhaps morbidly fascinated, but the answers to these questions can provide closure to the families of victims. This focused study of individuals, however, can accidentally memorialize them in the minds of people with narcissistic tendencies.
The changes in technology not only increase awareness of mass shootings — perhaps unintentionally incentivizing similar acts — but may also make it easier to carry out mass violence. Parvin described how the increasing availability of all types of information on the internet, while it has many benefits, also leads to greater risks.
“You can get a couple guys that can go online and find out how to make a bomb out of a pressure cooker, stick it in a bag, and injure and kill hundreds of people at the Boston Marathon,” Parvin said. “It’s not necessarily the individual; it comes back to [the technology]. Where do you draw the line between your First Amendment rights and the fact that I can go to a website and find out anything, find out how to build a bomb?”
While mass shootings have not become significantly more frequent in the last few decades, a study published by Baylor University criminology professor Dr. Grant Duwe found that they have affected a greater number of total victims. In fact, two of the three deadliest mass shootings ever in the United States occurred in the last two years, in Orlando and Las Vegas. This, too, can be attributed to changing technology, as powerful guns are becoming more readily accessible.
Parvin emphasized that while changing weapons and information technology may make it easier for certain types of violence to occur, the real issue has less to do with these developments, and more to do with the human heart.
“It’s the depravity of man, and it’s by the grace of God that we’re not as bad as we could be,” Parvin said.
Once an incident of gun violence occurs, the conversation turns to prevention — in part due to media sensationalization, in part due to political motivation, and in largest part due to a desire to avoid such an event ever occurring again.
The immediate conversation is one about gun control. Campaigns for stricter gun control typically circulate the moment after a mass shooting, while the National Rifle Association works overtime to say the issue is with people, not guns. Repealing the Second Amendment entirely is often discussed as a solution. The question, of course, is whether or not these stricter gun control laws are actually effective — and if they are, whether partisanship can be overcome to implement them.
Parvin believes the answer does not lie with stricter gun control.
“One of the greatest statements I ever heard was actually a parent from Sandy Hook who spoke before Congress and his ending statement was, ‘You can pass all the laws you want, because it’s not a legal issue, it’s a heart issue, and until you solve the problem with the heart, the laws don’t matter,’” he said.
One piece of legislation being discussed at the moment is House Resolution 38, passed on December 6, which deals with national reciprocity. The legislation would require states that issue right-to-carry permits to recognize the right-to-carry permits of all other states. Parvin believes that this will increase communication between states for gun permits, which will overall prevent the illegal acquisition of firearms.
“The question is not, ‘Do we need more laws to control who has the guns?’ What we need is some open lines of communication so that people who know, who have these concerns, can communicate that effectively, so that it joins the background check system,” he said. “Part of national reciprocity has to be that open line of communication.”
Clauson argues that the Reciprocity Act may increase the ability of individuals to obtain firearms, because it could open up the possibility of firearms crossing easily over state borders. He sees this as having the potential to both increase protection from gun violence and to increase gun violence.
“There are going to be more firearms circulating in the United States,” he said. “One side argues that that creates the conditions for more unlawful killings, mass shootings or just individual shootings. Another side argues that that also opens up the door for more private citizens who want to defend themselves or their families to carry weapons, and therefore they could be a check on those kinds of people who want to kill other people. I really can’t say which of those two is going to outweigh the other at this point, since we don’t have reciprocity yet, and we don’t have enough numbers to really measure those two kinds of things.”
A solution that is not legislative is increased education and awareness of mental health issues, which both Clauson and Parvin believe is the most effective way of combating gun violence in a world where the issue is the depravity of man, not the lack of laws. Parvin argued that mental health reporting and mental health education is essential to gun violence prevention.
“Sutherland Springs is a good example,” he said. “The Air Force knew of mental problems, they knew of instability, and they didn’t report it.”
One effect of media sensationalization of these events is how routine they have become -— we rarely react to mass shootings on a personal level. Gun violence became a highly personal issue for Cedarville student Leah Cole on Jan. 20, 2017, when her brother Logan was severely injured in a school shooting at West Liberty-Salem High School in West Liberty, Ohio.
As Leah was leaving a class, her mom called her to tell her that it was her brother, Logan, who had been shot. She and her boyfriend drove home immediately.
Logan was shot twice by fellow student Ely Serna but survived. Logan was able to talk to Serna and offer him forgiveness, even saying that Serna should not commit suicide.
“Logan did talk to the student, saying, ‘You don’t have to hurt anyone, no one’s died, you don’t have to hurt yourself,’ and that’s basically what they discussed when the principal and the vice principal came in,” she said. “I think Logan very much attributes this to being a God-thing, even having the clarity to say that when he was not in the right mind to be talking necessarily.”
Leah expressed how grateful she was that Logan was able to pull through, and how inspired she was by his courage in the moment.
“Just one little thing changing and it would have been a completely different day,” she said. “The shot on his back was a 1/16th of an inch from his spine and 1/16th of an inch from his heart, and that was mid-spin. It taught me to really respect life, and realize things change literally in an instant. There will still be times when I drive by the school and I think, ‘I’m really blessed to not have to have gone to my brother’s funeral when he was 17.’”
Though the incident was heart-rending for the Cole family, Leah expressed how encouraging it was to see her community come together after the event.
“The way that people responded was absolutely incredible. They held a prayer vigil, and I think four or five hundred people showed up to our small church that holds maybe 50 or 60 people. That was really encouraging to see. I remember our freezers and fridges, there was no room from how much food people were bringing. And Logan’s hospital room was really filled to the brim with gift baskets and generous things.”
Perhaps the hope in stories of gun violence are the stories of communities coming together. After the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017, hundreds gathered on Las Vegas Boulevard to pray and hold a candlelight vigil. Hundreds of citizens flocked to local hospitals to donate blood for the victims in intensive care. Across the world after the Orlando shooting, thousands of Facebook users changed their profile pictures to say “We Are Orlando” in solidarity.
Tragedy has a unique way of bringing communities together. The worst of humanity and the best of humanity is displayed in incidents of gun violence.
Leah described how what happened to her brother changed her perspective on gun violence. Though she does not believe in stricter gun control — believing that the issue is with the people, not the guns — she has a unique heart for the situation now.
“It’s made me much more sensitive to other mass shootings. We live in such a broken world, and God gives us goodness, which we’re undeserving of, but He even turns badness into goodness, which we’re extra undeserving of. He didn’t have to let this situation turn out as well as it did, and He would’ve still been good. He chose to spare Logan in this scenario, but not only spare him but counted him worthy of using him, and counted our family worthy of using us, in whatever way that He has been able to. It’s really awesome.”
Breanna Beers is a freshman Molecular Biology and Journalism double major and an off-campus news writer for Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and quoting The Princess Bride whether it’s relevant or not.
Alexandria Hentschel is a sophomore International Studies and Spanish double major and the Off-Campus news editor for Cedars. She enjoys old books, strong coffee, and honest debate.