OP-ED: What we keep getting wrong about mass shootings

Rudolph Bush
The Dallas Morning News

There is a special kind of stupidity that approaches terrible and repeating problems with an obstinate assurance of what the answer will or won’t be.

Or maybe it’s cynicism — just digging in against any sort of movement that might be politically dangerous, even if it promises to break the paralysis of doing nothing repeatedly.

By now, with more than 200 mass shootings since Columbine and already 33 this year, we have to acknowledge that we are a deeply unwell nation. Or at least we are a nation cultivating terribly unwell people with the nihilistic will to kill all in their paths.

Motive isn’t really sortable. Yes, racism has emerged as an important theme. But mass shootings come with or without ostensible motives. We’re guessing each time another one occurs at what exactly drove the killer. Often, once the facts are settled, we’re wrong.

What these shootings mostly have in common is the presence of a disturbed (generally white, generally young) man and a powerful weapon.

An honest assessment of how to prevent these killings has to look at both elements and try to understand (a) what in our culture is creating monsters and (b) what do we do about the easy access to the weapons they use to kill people.

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These are social and political questions that we could begin to answer if we were willing to do so honestly.

The guns question is turning, and with each shooting it has become harder for Second Amendment absolutists to defend the kind of broad access to high-powered military-style semi-automatic rifles. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is left with a series of increasingly embarrassing tweets celebrating the kinds of weapons that most of us now associate first with wanton murder. Sen. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, is stumbling through Twitter about how “We need to do MUCH more to stop violent criminals & those w/ dangerous mental illness BEFORE they murder.”

He’s not wrong about that. He just refuses to consider the other half of the problem in the name of what he has made a religious, versus a political, matter. He throws around Bible verses in defense of the AR-15, citing Exodus 22:2, which justifies killing a burglar in your house as long as it’s at night. That might appeal to a certain constituency. But it does nothing to draw most Americans into the conversation or to advance this genuine human crisis toward a political solution.

Abbott has apparently realized the politics are shifting and is rolling out a plan to address mass shootings, although the details aren’t yet known. He understands though that with each new horror, Americans become more inclined toward greater restrictions. That’s a normal and healthy human response. Most of us come to realize why hot stoves burn. With guns, there are obvious, easy compromises with background checks, red flag laws and limits on magazine capacity that a more serious political class would have already engaged. (Although tougher background checks may be harder to propose as a solution after Odessa. The gunman there failed a background check but was able to get his hands on a rifle anyway.)

Tougher proposals will surely follow whatever Abbott puts forward as less secure politicians realize the unteneability of defending the gun access America has now.

That brings us to the second half of the equation, the disaffected man. This is the question that the left is less equipped to deal with and where its leaders stumble badly. There are deep holes, wounds really, in our culture that are nurturing nihilists. Only the most profound spiritual emptiness could lead a human being to slaughter people just going about their daily lives. It is the deepest immoral expression of the conclusion that life is meaningless. Why does someone come to that conclusion? Because evil, the only name this sort of killing deserves, will fill a vacuum in a soul. So where does the vacuum come from? Where is the loss of meaning and grounding in basic human decency?

Leaders on the left would be wise to speak more openly of the problem of a moral and cultural relativism that persistently undermines, as old-fashioned as it might sound, the value and dignity of human life.

After the killings in El Paso, U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu slammed Walmart for “blaming video games,” a common response now from the left. The company had, in fact, called on employees to “remove signing and displays referencing violence.” That wasn’t a moral decision by Walmart, of course. It was a public relations response. But, it too, was a hot-stove human reaction that we ought to be attentive to. Something in our gut is telling us this isn’t what a society should be celebrating and promoting, no matter how much money it makes.

If we are willing to open the question of what we should do about the availability of weapons of war, shouldn’t we also be willing to look deeply into the culture we have created and ask what in it is empty and wanting? What in it is leading killers to believe that human life has no value?

There is no single answer to the terrible thing we are living through. There is not even a multiplicity of answers that can be applied to each circumstance. The only appropriate and serious response to this wave of soulless terror is a willingness to consider every possible answer, to set aside biases and pre-conclusions and listen wholly to those with whom we might disagree and then to offer compromises and considerations that address both the killer and the weapon.

— Rudolph Bush is deputy editorial page editor for The Dallas Morning News and director of journalism at The University of Dallas.