What We Can Do About Gun Violence
In the 1960s the US government began a policy called “de-institutionalization” which essentially shut down mental health hospitals in the USA. For context, these asylums had been common across the nation since the 1850s, when Dorothea Dix (who I think deserves to be remembered as a modern-day saint) somehow trained and chuck-wagoned around frontier USA to found and fund over 32 mental health hospitals that focused on “moral treatment.” In essence, treating the mentally ill with dignity.
100 years later both Republican and Democratic administrations had kept the Vietnam War rolling along simply to save face, and one of the many institutions cut to pay for this war was public mental health, and so these hospitals were closed. In 1955, these places cared for around 600,000 patients and today there are less than 40,000. Of course there are at least the same number of truly mentally-ill people out there today, who could use this support, but it probably comes as no surprise that many now make up our nation’s homeless population.
Yes, we literally traded mental health for war and our reward was a massive, mentally-ill homeless population.
Fast forward another 50 years and here we are, in a society where there are many more guns in circulation than actual citizens of the United States. How do we manage this while keeping people safe? I’m presuming at this point that there’s really no way to register every gun out there, stop every illegal sale, or somehow register every owner. I’ve even read articles about outright taking guns away from people, as though they are children and the government should play the role of a punishing parent.
This feels to me like a policy of “just desserts,” and in this way feel more like revenge than righteousness. Because we are (rightfully) angry about gun violence, our first impulse is to dictate stricter rules to all people who own guns. And yet, with this tremendous number of guns currently in circulation, you’d think we’d be seeing much more gun violence than we already do (not that the amount we see isn’t utterly egregious).
I also think it’s worth reflecting on what we’d consider gun use for therapeutic purposes, which may include using a gun on a range in the effort of self-empowerment following (for example) being raped or a violent assault against you. I actually have groups I support where very stable people own guns they never use as a reassurance, given the tremendous abuse perpetuated on them as children.
So is it possible that gun owners, themselves, also are not the actual reason we’re so upset?
What I’m about to write might land hard on a relatively liberal audience, and so you don’t have to agree: I feel that the Democratic party do use these very real tragedies as opportunities to score political points at the disservice of all people suffering during these crises. The dynamic plays out like this:
- A shooting happens and suddenly the blame shifts entirely to guns and access, which clearly polarizes the parties, then,
- Democrats say it’s about compassion and commonsense, in order to frame all Republicans are non-compassionate and non-common sense.
For the liberal base, these are mobilizing moments I think we’ve all come to see don’t actually mobilize very far. In fact, I sense it’s pretty clear now how little actually gets done given the reality of how many weapons are in circulation, as well as how many are purchased just to feel safe in their own homes.
Just imagine how intensely afraid you must have felt at some point in the past that you’d need a gun to feel safe in your own home now. That is certainly a lot of assurance, and I don’t feel that I’m personally in a position to judge anyone about the assurance they need to feel safe, especially if they’re not hurting anyone.
Re-opening state-of-the-art mental health hospitals across the nation is not as flashy as “banning guns,” I know. It’s also doesn’t frame one side as compassionate and the other as heartless… I do know how great it feels to judge others and feel that we’re their moral superiors. Judging gun-owners are heartless certainly does make us feel like more enlightened compassionate people, despite our disinterest in why an not-mentally-ill gun owner might feel the need to have so many weapons in the first place.
But identifying young people who are showing signs of mental illness right away and getting them the help they need. Supporting mentally-ill homeless people until they’re capable of safely re-entering society. Being clear-eyed enough to know that guns will always be out there, that there’s no magic wand to make the devices themselves go away, and so face the real issue at hand, the one that is truly compassion and heart-felt: finding these poor mentally-ill children and adults before they do something terrible, that they cannot take back. Something that hurts everyone.
More to the point, we’re not as afraid of a gun per se as we are someone who is in a lot of pain and may use this gun to hurt others in a moment of dissociation or psychosis. Recognizing that they too are victims of genetics or their cruel upbringing forces us to reckon with just how much we’ve abandoned their whole population. As often as liberal commentators write about the gun, conservative ones write about the person being insane, to somehow deflect blame from the weapon to the person. Yes, of course it’s the person… someone who needed our help, desperately, and we simply did not give any to them. So they exploded their pain outward, violently, with the use of a gun, and to the heartbreak of millions. So where is the Republican demand for compassionate mental health institutions?
To her death in 1887 Dorothea Dix somehow built a century-standing mental health hospital network from literally nothing, during a time of institutionalized slavery, robber barons and frontier lawlessness, all while she was still not even allowed to divorce, conduct legal transactions or vote. When women were considered “perpetual juveniles,” (per state of Indiana court documents).
However low we may feel, however beat down by society and the violence we see in it, I know that we (like her) can do a lot if we’re willing to put our passions aside and just plain care about one another. It is, I sense, the only way forward here.
In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “I will always pray for the person who holds the weapon, pray that this person finds compassion and recognizes the humanity he or she shares with the person who may be at the other end of that weapon’s sights.”
I know they can, and we can help them get there.
And will guns even matter in a society so rich with trust and compassion?