Free: Gun Violence Goes Deeper Than Guns

By Dennis Free

I wish there was a simple solution to mass shootings, but there is not.

I spent my whole adult life in law enforcement. I have served during all the previous weapon bans since the 1968 ban on the “Saturday Night Special” to the Assault Weapons and High Capacity Magazine Ban in 1986. They were well intentioned but they all shared one common factor: none of them worked.

America has always been an armed society. The weapons used in these horrific acts have existed since the turn of the last century. Powerful semi-automatic weapons have been around since about 1920. The weapon used in the Virginia Beach mass shooting was invented in 1905. Up until 1934 anyone could purchase a Thompson submachine gun with a 100-round drum magazine. Mass shootings were virtually unknown until the 1960s and have been on the rise since then.

The much deeper question and one more difficult to easily solve is to see how we as a society have changed. We must also face a realization that societal changes may be contributing to mass shootings.

Mass shooters tend to share some common traits. They are males, frequently coming from a home without a father, who view themselves as victims who have been unfairly treated. They seek notoriety, tend to go to places where they know their victims are unarmed, believe they have a right to be the final arbitrator to correct wrongs, seek to cause harm and pain, and they are unfazed by the personal consequences of their vile acts.

What contributed to these common traits?

While I do not excuse the actions, I believe that our society contributes to some of the underlying conditions that contribute to the mass shooter. It appears to me changes began at about the time that mass shootings began in the turbulent 1960s.

Our first major change was related to how we treat those with mental illness. Virginia and America used to institutionalize many of our mentally ill. When I became a police officer in 1978, Virginia had about 10,000 mental health beds in three state-run facilities. Now Virginia has about 1,000 beds.

This reduction was part of a national good-faith effort to try community-based care instead of institutional care. Community-based care is the better route but it is much more expensive. Without proper funding, jails have become the largest provider of public mental health care services. Virginia needs to properly fund community-based care so that interventions, including involuntary interventions, can be made in a timely fashion.

Since the turbulent 1960s, there has been a decline in marriage and a rise in divorce. As a result, many more children are raised in single parent homes. Single parent homes frequently lack a father, and young men need a father figure to set the standard of acceptable conduct. In a larger sense, every child deserves a father and a mother. Children need to know that they are loved and valued. From loving parents they also learn acceptable conduct, something lacking in mass killers.

America is becoming a less religious society. Those who continue to practice their faith find their experiences meaningful in a much deeper way then I will speak about. Religious persons believe in a power greater then themselves. It also contributes to a sense of belonging and community. Most importantly, like the parent, religion establishes absolutes in conduct, lines that cannot be crossed. Mass shooters reject the belief of absolutes. Their justifications for their actions center around themselves exclusively.

Nationwide there is a real decline in a sense of community.  e used to view our country as a melting pot where people came from all over to meld into a brotherhood of fellow citizens who share some common core values. Now it is common to view our society as more of a salad with different groups that keep separate identities. This Balkanization of our society is now coupled with a palatable disrespect between groups. Many of the mass shooters feel hostile groups conspire to keep them down and prevent them from obtaining what they deserve.  They seek revenge on groups they have judged as oppressive.

There is a growing acceptance in society that the ends justify the means, coupled with an acceptance that violence can be an acceptable means. Mass shooters are frequently the last act of the killer, his reckoning upon a society he views as justifiable revenge upon others who have mistreated him.

In conclusion, it is not the instruments that contribute to violence including the horrible acts of mass shootings but rather the individual. Until we correct the root causes that contribute to mass shootings, we will never be rid of this horror.

Dennis Free serves as chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia’s Second Congressional District.