Writing about what I have been reading and encountering in the media.
|Five people dead. The gun people say “they should have been armed.” The press says “one of the dead was armed.” As details are revealed, the press attributes the following information to the shooter’s family: the shooter was spiraling into a place of hopelessness and irresponsibility with a lethal combination of depression with suicidal ideation and substance abuse. In the past, some have said that pointing out mental illness is a way to excuse the behavior.
My thoughts on the subject focus first on the intense sadness I see in those directly affected by the tragedy. My heart goes out to the families of the victims and especially to the family of the shooter. None of those people had any power to change the course of events. Had the families of the victims armed their children, an unexpected shooter had the element of surprise and at least some would have been shot anyway. A gun is not armor. The family of the shooter had no legal control over an adult son who was falling apart. There is very limited legal support for healthy people who recognize the decline of a loved one to stop that decline. We are a country that values the right of the individual over the well-being of the many. We can see a shooter forming, but like a tornado, we can’t stop it, nor can we publicly warn people. This is how our laws are structured. The family of the shooter will live with the shame of his behavior, even though it is not their responsibility, and will have to work very hard at their own sanity to cope.
As a mental health professional, I can tell you that even the people who specialize in recognizing and helping people who find themselves in a “shooter cycle” have limited options. If the budding shooter denies thoughts of harm to self or others, no one can read his/her mind and know the intent is there. If the shooter is fighting the urge and admits to the problem, options remain limited. Witness the Colorado theater shooter found guilty last week of that shooting. The therapist did initiate a process to intervene, as I understand it, and that didn’t stop him. In addition, we are determined to function as if individual behavior occurs in isolation from, and is totally independent of, the larger social context.
As a professional Social Worker, I cannot think that way. I am too deeply aware of social context of human behavior to see individuals as solely responsible for tragic choices. This young man was a member of a small minority that has been vilified both officially and unofficially in the US: immigrant middle eastern Muslims. He didn’t put himself in that position. He is described as a devout, gentle person. In addition he could be described as a vulnerable young man receiving constant mixed messages about his value to his community, and mixed information about how to make sense of his own traditions. Who knows how many insults he experienced growing up in a nation at war with the society from which his family emigrated?
We live in a cyclonic social situation made up of many conflicts, in which vulnerable young people have trouble finding a safe place for their emotional and spiritual development. People are armed without restraint, and shooting is a highly valued skill with few “appropriate” ways to use the skill. We are teaching hunting skills where there is no prey, and teaching military skills to people who will never be in the military because they are not healthy enough. Our social attempts to combat racism and ethnic prejudice are feeble in many places and contradicted by other powerful forces. The problem is so complex it will take years to solve it. In addition, other problems that threaten our very existence draw energy and attention away from this one. I do believe that we could make significant headway by putting limits on gun ownership, and buying back guns that are not needed.