Friday’s attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT is difficult to comprehend. Nonetheless, a social science that can’t use its tools to begin to make sense of the act and the political and social response to it is not worth pursuing. Since 11 am on Friday, this is about the only issue to which I’ve given serious thought. I’ve watched hours of television coverage, mostly on CNN, I’ve read news articles and watched countless relevant tweets scroll by, and I’ve tweeted a lot about it myself. I’m fortunate to have very thoughtful friends from multiple disciplines, and we spent some time Saturday night discussing the shootings and the response. I’d guess my experiences are similar to many others who are trying to make sense of what is undeniably awful news.
First, how do we explain the act itself? As is often the case after these kinds of shootings, there are conversations about the types of guns used and whether they were obtained legally, which they most often are. I appreciate this conversation because I see it as primarily about a social aspect of the act with potential political consequences, and because on the face of it these mass killings would not be as massive without access to such deadly weapons, regardless of how they are obtained. Quite quickly, however,discussion will move to diagnosing the ‘troubles’ of the assailant or his immediate family, and if possible documenting his (in these cases, it is almost always a man or boy) history of mental health care in ways that emphasize his strangeness relative to ‘normal’ kids and families. All of this happened in the Newtown shootings (the guns and how they were obtained, mental health). Discussion of causality, then, moves to the individual or family level, and questions about the possible causal roles of our institutions and culture are usually considered only in a secondary fashion because the shooter and his family are labeled as fully deviant. As a sociologist, I’d like to see much more conversation about institutions like our gun laws, or the influence of interest groups like the NRA, and about our culture which I would argue values aggressive masculinity and fetishizes guns while stigmatizing those who seek help for mental health concerns by downplaying how relatively common mental illness is. Why, for example, do so many of the mass shooters have documented mental health issues but continue to have legal access to guns, or have fallen out of the care of trained mental health professionals? This suggests to me that our legal procedures and our health care system are failing. These are structural problems, not solely individual or family failings.
Another puzzle for me is that in the popular discourse (here I refer to banter and asides on CNN or similar news stations, Twitter, and Facebook, etc.) there are often references to, or significant time given to questions about how such ‘evil’ could occur. I saw references to ‘evil’ on Twitter, on CNN coverage, and in the USA Today. Finally, President Obama on Sunday night (12/16) referred to the shooting as an example of “unconscionable evil” and told a national audience that “no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world.” Evil is a term we hear a lot, but it is never really defined. I understand it to refer to a supernatural force outside of human agency, that might possess an individual so that his own responsibility for the act might be questioned – like Flip Wilson’s famous “the Devil made me do it” bit. Research in sociology of religion suggests that this really isn’t very different from common sense understandings of evil among a lot of American Christians, and Mike Huckabee quickly attributed the Sandy Hook shootings to the systematic removal of God from schools. As a social scientist, I find evil or the absence of God to be messy concepts when I try to explain social acts. While it can be helpful to know what religious traditions teach, and people believe, about evil or gods as beliefs, I don’t know what these are as mechanisms in the social world, and I’d much prefer our explanations focus on social networks, institutions, and documented patterns of our culture.
A quick analysis of President Obama’s speech from Sunday night (12/16) was, from this perspective, troubling. President Obama did not use the word gun at all, and he did not mention the assault weapons so often used in this type of mass shooting. He did twice use the word shooting in his 1672 word speech, but he made much more frequent mention of the supernatural than of human agency. The speech featured 6 mentions of God, 4 mentions of heaven, 1 mention of prayer, and a 91 word passage from the New Testament. As mentioned above, the president twice made references to evil, once to suggest that we are ultimately powerless against its force, “No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.”
There was a 33 word passage which I would consider a direct reference to our political and social institutions that must be considered when we attempt to explain and reduce the acts of mass violence which are disturbingly frequent: “I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this…” While these words are encouraging, they include no reference to changes in our laws about assault weapons, and indicate little if any recognition of the degree to which our culture praises aggression and violence (see for example this collection of responses from those upset that Obama’s speech preempted the commodified violence that is the NFL).
Barely 3 days out from the shooting is too soon to pass final judgement on how it will be understood or affect change, or how leaders will ultimately frame the emerging issues. I would say that I have seen, primarily on Twitter, clear calls for stronger federal gun control and improved mental health care. That, however, is Twitter and there is a lot of work to be done to frame mass shootings as a function of human life in society, and something that we can reduce with policy choices and changes in our social networks, institutions, and culture. At this point I would not say that President Obama or any other political or social leader I’m aware of has made steps to mobilize an effective movement for federal gun control, increased awareness of mental illness, and increased availability of mental health care.