Americans are hyperpolarized on a range of cultural issues–and these issues are often interrelated. Few more so than the country’s handling of guns.
Tragically, America is a conspicuous outlier in the developed world in its preponderance of mass shootings, the cycle of highly partisan media coverage of the issue, and the politicization of gun ownership. The set script following a mass shooting has become unsurprising both to outside observers and Americans themselves, as if it were preprogrammed.
Democrats and political progressives find it simple: It’s the guns, so ban “assault weapons” or “weapons of war,” namely, the AR-15. Republicans and political conservatives fault their critics for overlooking mental illness and wanting to “abolish” the Second Amendment to the Constitution, arguing that it’s more realistic to make “soft” targets like schools into “hard,” secure ones. Politicians typically respond to mass shootings with a generic tweet calling for “thoughts and prayers,” phrasing that has long surpassed self-parody and has become a target of mockery by the Left.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
Former President Barack Obama lamented to CBS’ Nate Burleson how gun ownership in America had become “ideological and partisan in ways that it shouldn’t be” and a “proxy” for various other culture battles. And despite President Joe Biden signing the most bipartisan, if modest, gun measure bill in decades last summer, the pattern of reaction and commentary is so routine by now that nobody in the United States believes there will be any fundamental change or solution that will stem the slaughter for good. As Tara Sonenshine, a contributor to The Hill, wryly noted, “Guns. Guns. Guns. That is what America looks like to outsiders.”
Columbine wasn’t the first mass shooting in U.S. history, but in many ways it set the standard for the acutely horrifying nature of this crime this century. The news coverage footage of SWAT teams lined in procession with their rifles raised; of frightened and sobbing survivors being led out with their arms raised; of spectators and family members behind the police partitions, anxious and collapsed onto the earth in grief. In 2015, a group of researchers concluded, “On average, mass killings involving firearms occur approximately every two weeks in the United States, while school shootings occur on average monthly.” According to the nonprofit group Gun Violence Archive, the United States has already seen two hundred and fourteen mass shootings since the start of 2023. Whatever remedies there may be for this phenomenon, the media seems little interested in inquiring about the traumatic implications for a society where such unfathomable incidents are so common.
Inevitably, coverage and commentary come to the question of “why.” America is a country where citizens possess more guns than in any of its peer democracies; such a concentration makes the occurrence of crimes by firearm statistically more frequent than in America’s European counterparts. Gun violence has garnered travel advisory warnings from foreign governments to their citizens thinking of visiting America, so it’s natural that Europeans might share American progressives’ confoundment over, if not aversion to, the Second Amendment.
Supreme Court rulings in modern times have upheld the right of individual Americans to keep and bear arms. But the debate about constitutional rights distracts from the core need to understand where this violence emanates from and why it occurs so often. In 2015, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a provocative essay in The New Yorker citing sociological studies investigating the “thresholds” for “daring masculine acts” that convey “status.” It stands to reason that the style and tone of the media coverage of shooters, who tend to fit the profile of lone young males, can provide the “status” sought by disaffected and troubled potential offenders.
Elizabeth Skewes, professor of journalism at the University of Colorado, argues that the current media paradigm is counterproductive and only serves to “contribute to the noise level” surrounding the shooters and the gun debate, whereas a better focus would be on the victims and community resources for easing fears and anxieties. The surge in rates of depression and anxiety, particularly associated with young Americans, owes to many different causes. The worry many feel about possibly being at the place of the next mass shooting, a crime that has penetrated every conceivable intimate public space, could be one of these threads knitting the unsettledness and restlessness of contemporary American unease.
For understandable reasons of shock value, mass shootings dominate news narratives to the noticeable neglect of stories of daily gun homicides in American cities. By early May 2023, the Gun Violence Archive had tracked almost fourteen thousand deaths from gun violence in the United States, a rough average of one hundred and fifteen per day. The bulk of gun violence, however, was in connection with suicide, averaging sixty-six per day. Does this not warrant mainstream news attention also? Is this no less a tragedy or symptomatic of psychological and emotional stresses that should be talked about in the American public sphere? The lowering of American flags at public buildings out of respect for the latest burst of carnage is the quiet, forlorn symbol of intractability. The lack of deeper conversation has prevented Americans from learning if this is because of individual choice or factors more difficult to untangle.
In act 3, scene 4 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the titular character reflects on his actions thus far in the play—the slayings of King Duncan and his companion, Banquo—in the pursuit of his macabre ambition, musing, “Iam in blood / Stepped in so far that should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er.” The pitiful collision of whatever complicated social, economic, or digital factors perpetuate America’s gun violence, along with the ceaseless media partisanship covering the crimes, allows the transcendent numbness of that excerpt to be applicable in this distinctive American recurrence.
Furthermore, there is the frustration that derives from the unbridgeable divide over gun legislation, with guns themselves becoming default representations of cultural identity. That frustration is coupled with the sense of resignation and dread that these horrors have become part of the culture, so “fixing” the problem is beyond the reach either of legislators, civic leaders, businesses, or individual Americans. If this attitude seems strangely passive for a country so preternaturally boisterous and dynamic, then it is emblematic of this uniquely American predicament of violence that defies the powers that exist to make actionable, incremental improvement.
Exhaustive opinion columns have been inked dissecting state and federal gun legislation every which way imaginable. Countless individuals have expressed arguments for where loopholes can be closed at gun shows or at the state level, and for which individuals should be prohibited from purchasing certain types of firearms. On the opposing side, countless arguments have been advanced for how to “harden” schools and other low-risk targets from offenders with padded security and arms for employees. A national conversation can’t be avoided among the parties and many fair points must be conceded in the debate, though few on either side are prepared for this.
Until then, what else can be done and where can we look? Members of the broadcast media choose what they report, but they aren’t free of responsibility for how they report on stories of magnitude. The shootings awaiting the country are chances for the media to change their reporting, to omit mention of the shooter or their perfunctory “manifesto.” To abjure the expectant images and footage outside the sites of the crimes and the frozen stills of pain and trauma. Network studios can be places of stoic compassion and calm, and they can invite guests who, rather than adding to the polarized climate, are there to offer guidance and direct people to resources for overcoming anxiety, fear, and grief.
None of these suggested changes in presentation are guaranteed or empirically proven to change anything. But if the divided and chaotic media ecosystem in the United States breeds unhealthy dialogue, a calmer, more purposeful tone must at least stand a chance of being helpful to viewers and therefore to the broader culture.
Much of this may be pure speculation, yet it must be part of a greater conversation among Americans about guns and what can be done to make a difference. The sight of half-raised American flags swaying sadly in the wind shouldn’t be the endpoint of our civic and moral acceptance of the country we want to live in.
Jesse Inman is a Missouri resident who writes on politics, foreign affairs, and culture.
Image: Floral arrangement resting on marble steps. (Unsplash: CA Creative)
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