After the massacre of San Bernardino, a BBC reporter said with a stoic face, “Just another day in the United States in America, another day of gunfire, panic, and fear", providing a rare glimpse into how the rest of the world has come to accept mass shootings in America as routine and unsurprising. Every attempt at gun control legislation has crumbled like a house of cards made of dry sand. As of right now, a terrorist could buy a gun in America, but can’t get on a plane with it. Obama cried on national television over the death of twenty schoolchildren while NRA lobbyists clinked glasses.
America, the world’s greatest democratic experiment, is constantly adjusting itself to the future at the fastest pace possible, but have we reached the breaking point where common sense gun laws can’t be passed? According to USA Today, since Obama took office we have seen 162 mass shootings, more than the previous four presidents combined. A mass shooting happens every two weeks. Like a long fuse, have we reached the decline of our prosperity with the powder keg that is mass shootings? What about America makes us so susceptible to their frequency?
When I was a kid confined to the passenger seat on long rides, my dad, knowing full well I wasn’t going to jump out of a moving vehicle, taught me every valuable life lesson he knew. One of the lessons that stuck the most was that immigrants flocked to America because “the streets were paved with gold.” The siren call of the red, white, and blue American dream- that all you need is a good idea and hard work, then your wildest dreams will come true no matter your religion, your race, or your education- was so alluring that it convinced generations of Irish, Italians, Germans, and Mexicans to leave their friends and family behind to go to a country where they didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anybody, and had only heard stories of. Through a game of international telephone, the hype of the American dream was blown to proportions of grandeur reminiscent of the Roman Empire. While without doubt I can tell you America is the most powerful country, I’ve had to admit to myself we are not the greatest, not anymore.
This realization is the same epiphany immigrants who failed to achieve the American dream had to deal with. These heights of indulgence we've created for ourselves cannot be enjoyed by all who flock to our country and those who can’t achieve it are mocked every day by the successes of those who do.
Imagine living on the streets of New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles begging for change while your existence is ignored by the masses who never have to worry about food on their plate. Now imagine being an outcast, failing again and again at school or work with no friends, a dysfunctional family, looking for a sense of meaning in your life while everyone around you seems to be happy. This enhances your anger and your plans of revenge against those who slighted you from your supposed pedestal of success and fame you feel you deserve.
This is the delusion of reality mass shooters suffer from before they take two or three guns into a public place and shoot it up. To understand why they do what they do, we must understand the world we live in and how the “losers” see this world. Almost every mass shooter was, in the most banal of terms, a loser before he was a shooter. Excluding internal struggles such as depression or mental illness (which at least 60% of mass shooters suffer from) let us look at the external factors-- such as our gun culture, violent media and our desire for fame-- and how these factors enhance the urge inside aspiring killers, making them more likely to commit mass murder. Jeffrey Swanson, professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University, said it best: “What I do know is that violent behavior, whether it’s violence or minor violence in populations, is never just one thing. It’s not a one thing problem. It’s going to be an accumulation of things, kind of a whole cocktail of factors.”
From the American Revolution to the Wild West to Hollywood, guns have left bullet holes all over American culture. There are more guns than people in America, according to a Congressional Research Service in 2009. The Washington Post estimated in 2013 that there are 357 million guns while there’s only 310 million people. We have 42 percent of the world’s guns. Yemen, embroiled in civil war, is the next closest in gun ownership. (It’s interesting to note we’re also host to 31 percent of the world’s mass shootings.)
A major reason for this is the rural lifestyle of more than half of Americans, where owning a hundred guns isn’t unusual. When living on 40 acres of land, waiting for law enforcement is not an option if your livestock or livelihood is threatened by wildlife or deranged beings. Having a hundred guns is overkill, but if I was in that same situation I’d rather have more than I need than not enough. This life of paranoia is what drives the culture of honor permeated in the American rural lifestyle. Not to mention, we supply and arm three quarters of the world’s weapons; it’s a big business and asking weapons dealers to give up their careers for the moral high ground is like asking a farmer to give up his weapons for a liberal agenda.
Guns aren’t just a tool of defense, but a lifestyle in America. For example, they have been directly tied to masculinity. When guns started going out of style in the beginning of the 20th century, advertising found a way to project guns as part of the cowboy, roughneck lifestyle. A real man isn’t afraid to defend himself; a real man isn’t afraid of guns, he embraces them. Moreover, every year we see murder cases sensationalized in the news from O.J. Simpson to Casey Anthony. Every year a summer blockbuster filled with explosions and guns tops box office records. If guns look real in Hollywood movies that’s because they are, they’re modified to shoot blanks.
From our television, where we keep guessing who is going to die next, to our video games that tell us who we have to kill to save the galaxy, we’re fixated on murder as a plot line; we’re trapped in a mindset where someone has to die to advance the plot of what we’re watching, listening to, playing or reading.
We’re a nation founded, sustained, and celebrated on war. From the revolution, to the toppling of Saddam’s regime, guns have played a part in every aspect of America’s glory. The feeling of conquering our enemies is intoxicating and it has been repeated every chance we could get. It’s an inside joke here in America that when we drop bombs on another country, we tell ourselves “democracy is here.”
So when that frustrated loner is tired of being pushed around, being called a weakling or feels like a failure in general, visions of revenge seep into his conscious. He wants to feel powerful, he wants to prove to the world that has slighted him that he is indeed a man, capable to defending himself against the masses that has brought him nothing but pain. His visions of being the strong one are accompanied by the empowering feeling of a loaded clip and gun in his hands pointed at his enemies. When guns outnumber people in the third most populated country in the world, and are directly associated with power and masculinity, it’s no surprise they’re the chosen weapon for mass murders.
What's worse, we’re obsessed with fame in America. Not only does revenge promise a sense of relief. but being famous, rich and loved, seems to be the answer to all of our problems just the same. Yet, we no longer admire talent like we used to and we’re seeing more and more of people being famous for being famous. In the words of Jon Hamm, “Being a f**king idiot is a valuable commodity in this culture because you’re rewarded significantly.”
In the past ten years we have seen the likes of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Justin Bieber, and, of course, the Kardashian family (whose closest doppelganger is the multi-headed dog of Hell, Cerberus, or more appropriately Hydra, the monster from Hercules who grows two heads when you cut off one). Anyways, the temptation of fame is unrivaled here in America. A 2007 Pew Research Survey said that half of people aged between 18-25 said that getting famous was a top priority for their peers. Our generation sees attaining fame as one of our top priorities. We have the world’s biggest desire to be famous.
Being famous and infamous are now the same thing. Reality television promotes fame as a tangible value to be attained much like wealth. Music lyrics have become increasingly narcissistic. College students today show less empathy than their parents of the late 70’s. Researchers surveyed the cover of People Magazine from 1974 to 1998 and found that bad behavior- drug problems, cheating, scandals, crime- have been increasingly featured much more than good behavior. Adam Lankford, an associate professor at the University of Alabama department of criminal justice, said “We know that a lot of public mass shooters, particularly when they’re young, have admitted that they really want to be famous and that killing is how they’re going to do it.”
Imitation is the name of the game. For every five school shootings that happen, at least one has been inspired by another. It’s a fame-at-any-cost mentality. Mary Muscari, a forensic nurse who studies mass shootings, said “Especially some of the younger ones, they want attention, that’s why you see them wanting to have a bigger head count, a bigger body count, to try to outdo the last one or to do something that is going to cause more of a rise.”
When a reporter and a cameraman were killed on live television, the shooter was wearing a Gopro camera and posted the video to social media. He then sent a 23 page manifesto to ABC news. He claimed to be inspired by the church shooting in Charleston and the Virginia Tech killer because “He got nearly double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine) got.”
The shooter behind the Isla Vista murders wrote a 137 page autobiography he knew would be discovered. Mass shooters have constantly cited Columbine as an inspiration to top.
“I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are, a man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in in the limelight,”
wrote Christopher Harper-Mercer, the shooter behind the Umpqua Community College shooting where he killed nine people to be famous.
Adam Lanza, shooter behind Newtown, made note when Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in Norway, that someone finally “topped” Woo Bum-kon who killed 56 people in South Korea.
The news media creates celebrities out of mass shooters. The public, of course, does not see them as celebrities, but as monsters. But to the monsters lurking among us, that fifteen minutes of fame raises the bar a little bit higher, and within that silent community the shooter is a celebrity. Creating more of a temptation, aspiring killers know full well that if they do carry out their mission, they will be on every screen from here to Cairo. It’s a feeling of achievement they could never get from their families, school, or work. Among aspiring killers, they study their predecessors in honor of them and in interest of surpassing them like trying to break a world record. In interest of preventing this exhilarating feeling, we should turn off the television, but we’re just as captivated as we are disgusted by it.
Besides all these factors affecting our culture and changing the way we think about those around us, there is one aspect that remains untouched: relative deprivation. Relative deprivation is the discontent one feels when comparing oneself to someone who has it better. Since everyone naturally compares themselves to others, this isn’t a remarkable fact, but it is enough of a push in the wrong direction for someone who is angry and alone with homicidal tendencies.
Relative deprivation is illustrated in the fact that the happiest countries in the world have the highest suicide rates. In an article by Time magazine, economists examined life satisfaction and state suicide rates. Utah, for example, ranks highest in life satisfaction but also has the ninth highest suicide rate in the U.S. The No. 2 happiest state is Hawaii, which comes in fifth for suicides. New York, in contrast, comes in 45th in life satisfaction but has America’s lowest suicide rate, which is not just a coincidence. It’s tougher to be depressed around happy people than it is to be depressed around other unhappy people. It’s a comfort to be welcomed and to be comprehended by those who know what you’re going through. Also, with that acceptance, they’re more likely to get the advice and help they need.Our backyards are the foreground to the most guns in the world, the most action movies, and the most money and indulgence, and we pretend these American "losers" are victims of their own ineptitude-- merciless caged animals, the American nightmare-- when it's our very own "dream" culture that bred them.