Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The reactions to the Florida school shooting have been so predictable that most commentary starts with some variation of “here we go again.” The usual “solutions” to the problem are trotted out, each with its varying degrees of weakness, and none able to achieve what everybody expects––no more massacres of kids at school. But more interesting than this fossilized debate are the unspoken assumptions behind the various recommendations, and our culture’s inability to talk meaningfully about the most consequential phenomenon in history: human evil. That’s why it’s easier to ritually repeat the same failed decades-old “solutions,” or to politicize the bloodshed for partisan gain.
The left, of course, thinks “smarter” gun control is the answer. They want to ban “assault rifles,” a scare-term that confuses semiautomatic with automatic weapons, the sale of which is already strictly limited. Then they sell the bait-and-switch by highlighting sinister-looking add-ons like silencers or high-capacity magazines. But if anti-gun nuts were concerned with gun deaths rather than the relatively rare but more politically fungible multiple-victim school-shootings, they’d know that very few murders involve rifles. In 2016, murderers were 19 times more likely to use handguns than rifles. And more murders were committed with hands and feet than with rifles. Demonizers of “assault rifles” forget that they were banned from 1994 to 2004, and that the ban was ineffective, failing to stop the Columbine shooters in 1999, or even to reduce firearm killings.
Other talking points are equally useless for anything other than partisan gain. Like the “assault rifle,” the NRA has become the bogeyman Dems reflexively trot out for a two-minute hate after every high-profile shooting. Politicians who gobble up billions of dollars from public employee unions and tech plutocrats condemn the comparative pittance the NRA spends in lobbying to defend a Constitutional right. Confiscation of guns, along the lines of Australia’s program a few years back, runs afoul of the Second Amendment, not to mention being practically impossible given that there are about 300 million guns in circulation, five million of which are the dreaded AR-15 “assault rifles.”
A bipartisan solution calls for raising the legal age for purchasing rifles from 19 to 21, the age for buying pistols. That restriction would be as porous as the legal age for buying alcohol, which generations of underage teenagers have easily circumvented. Like other calls for restricting gun purchases, in a free and open society people who really want something will figure out a way to get it. Our trillion-dollar, multi-generational “war on drugs” has not kept teenagers in America from getting whatever illegal or legal drug they want. And the number of dead from the current opioid epidemic is bigger than those killed by guns and cars combined.
Demands that social media be surveilled and censored are another non-starter. Violent blog posts are generally protected speech, and are so numerous that law enforcement can investigate only a fraction. Police and the FBI certainly dropped the ball with the Florida shooter, who has a record of numerous contacts with law enforcement, and warnings from family and acquaintances about his erratic behavior and arsenal of weapons. But for every such person who ends up on a shooting spree, there are millions more who don’t. Again, there simply isn’t enough manpower to investigate every one and sort the credible threats from the run-of-the-mill losers.
A potentially more useful fix are the calls to fortify schools and multiply the number of armed security guards, including teachers. But it’s politically improbable that we will turn schools into virtual prisons, with armed teachers in the classroom. And the efficacy of armed guards depends on the quality of their training and their personal courage, as we learned recently in Florida when sheriff officers on the scene did not enter the building even as the students were being shot. Improving the data-bases used for background checks also would be useful, but yet again, the tools are only as effective as the people who use them. Like all large publicly funded institutions staffed by flawed humans, law enforcement is vulnerable to the iron law that somebody always blunders, as tragically happened with the Florida shooter.
The loudest solutions, also bipartisan, are focused on our mental health system. We need to do a better job at identifying the mentally ill, and giving families and the state the power to commit those who are a danger to others. But how do we know which mental illnesses are likely to lead to mass murder? Who diagnoses these illnesses? Based on what criteria? Is strange behavior or a fascination with violence a sign of mental illness? Given the subjective nature of making these judgments in the absence of physical dysfunction, many diagnoses of symptoms are often based on subjective, vague, or scientifically dubious interpretations. The result of putting such people on a no-buy list would be numerous violations of civil and Constitutional rights. Imagine a battered wife or rape victim diagnosed with PTSD prevented from buying a gun that may save her life from her psycho attacker.
And don’t forget, the problem we are trying to solve with more money and more government power is one that involves a relatively low number of victims. During the past 25 years, about 250 students have died in shootings at a few of the nation’s 100,000 schools, an average of ten a year. Compare that to the average of 100 kids a year killed while riding their bikes or walking to school. And the biggest danger to all of us is not death from being shot by a stranger, which happens in only one in five gun murders, but from car accidents, which kill more than twice as many of us each year than guns do. And 60% of those gun deaths are suicides. Are some unnatural deaths more important than others?
The common denominator of all these useless or ineffective solutions is our reductive understanding of human nature and its innate potential for destructive acts. We moderns live in a world created by materialist determinism, the notion that all reality is material, and so all problems and their solutions come from the environment or psychological states created by the environment––poverty, bad parenting, broken homes, inadequate self-esteem, a violence-saturated popular culture, or a lack of counselors and therapists to treat elastically defined mental illness. When destructive behaviors result from these conditions, we then turn to the “human sciences” and their techniques to give us solutions, and we expect the state to apply the cure though policies and laws reflecting the knowledge of experts. After all, isn’t that what the modern state is supposed to do, solve all our problems and free us from pain, risk, and suffering?
That’s why everyone thinks that the problem of school shootings is one that the so-called “human sciences” can explain and solve through government law and policy. But “evil,” the go-to word when we have nothing to say in the face of such horrible crimes, is a spiritual, not a material condition. Evil results from human free will, our ability to choose whatever we think will satisfy us, and our flawed human nature that will always keep us from creating the perfect world.
In Christianity, for example, crimes like mass murder, while horrific, are not “senseless.” They make perfect sense given humanity’s fallen condition, its inability to rein in the forces of appetite and passion and self-will. But we are created with free will, and aided by the grace of God, we are free to choose Him or to choose ourselves. When we choose ourselves, we remove ourselves from accountability to God, we make of ourselves a god, and we worship our own self-gratifying lusts, including the lust for power. And what greater power is there for a human than to kill another human?
Nor need there always be material or rational causes of killing. As Dostoevsky understood, we need no other reason to choose evil than the mere fact that it exists as a choice, and that making that choice affirms our freedom and demonstrates our power. Such choices are part of the mystery of human good and evil, as inexplicable by a material science as are unconditional love and self-sacrifice and redemption. As Dmitri Karamazov says, there is eternal war between God and Satan, and the battleground is the human heart, where every day we must choose to worship God or to worship ourselves and thus aspire to be god.
Indeed, isn’t this wretched, teenaged murderer now the closest thing to a god our mass society recognizes? His face and name are everywhere, adults and officials now hover around him, he is the subject of incessant attention and commentary and curiosity, and his life and actions are now scrutinized with the same morbid fascination with which we examine the lives of celebrities, our modern divinities. Are we so naïve as to think that for some, death or a life spent in prison is not worth such fame and attention?
Yet religion and theology are dismissed by our official wisdom as mere superstition and irrational obfuscation, the biggest obstacle to creating heaven on earth. Good, evil, free will—haven’t these last few centuries of secularist domination taught us that those are all chimeras, that our unique selves are mere bubbles floating on great oceans of economics, genes, evolutionary selection, environment, or unconscious forces? That is why the theologians, philosophers, novelists, and poets who for twenty-five centuries in the West have meditated on the stubborn mystery of human good and evil, are conspicuous by their absence from our official explainers.
The determinists have carried the day and have, as Hamlet put it, torn the heart out of our mystery. And then we are surprised that some commit atrocities just to prove that they are not piano keys played by inhuman materialist forces.
But is anyone really satisfied with the chatter of the determinists? Does anyone think that their reductive explanations get at the horror of such acts? That science can ultimately say anything meaningful about what we are, and why we do what we do, that doesn’t in the end depend on radically simplifying the complex, intricate, unpredictable, quirky reality of our individual humanity?
The politicized flawed “solutions” that follow every shooting and never solve anything suggest that we aren’t satisfied, that the answers recycled from the last shooting can satisfy us only on the level of ritualistic formulas, rain-dances that by day’s end still find us in our spiritual drought. Meanwhile, twenty-five centuries of powerful, imaginative meditations on the human condition from theologians to poets––the best of whom respect our mysterious complexity––are ignored. And that, ultimately, says more about our world and its discontents than does murder in a high school.