If You Want Fewer Shootings, Ask Politicians To Back Off
It took years to break our society; we’ll be a long time making repairs.
Headlines feature grim reports of senseless violence, including the wounding of Ralph Yarl in Kansas City, Missouri, the killing of Kaylin Gillis in Hebron, New York, and shootings of Payton Washington and Heather Roth in Elgin, Texas, and of 6-year-old Kinsley White and her parents in Gaston County, North Carolina. We'll learn more in days to come, but the incidents seem the results of irrational fear and rage.
These incidents feed the usual debates, with "reformers" promoting gun restrictions or criticizing "stand your ground" self-defense laws. But while the impulse to do something is understandable, these eruptions of violence come after decades of plummeting crime that coincided with increasing firearms ownership and eased laws. Something changed: us. Boosted by bad pandemic policies, already agitated Americans became nuttier and more prone to conflict. Politicians and laws can't fix that.
"In an era of frequent mass shootings, Americans know all too well that tragedy lurks nearly everywhere: schools, churches, offices, grocery stores, movie theaters. But these three incidents in the span of just six days have deepened a gnawing sense that no place is truly safe," NBC News's Daniel Arkin reported this week. "The incidents have renewed and intensified calls for stricter gun control legislation" and "have also put scrutiny on 'stand your ground' self-defense laws."
Arkin captures the horror of such incidents, but he also neatly distills misunderstandings behind our debates. Of the incidents he describes, none really invoke stand your ground laws, under which people have no duty to retreat before defending themselves in public places. Yarl and Gillis were at their shooters' homes which, if the shootings were justified, involves the common-law castle doctrine right to defend yourself at your dwelling. Washington and Roth (and White and her parents, whose case came after Arkin's piece) were chased by their assailants, which isn't self-defense by any understanding. Whatever the principles, and no matter the legislation, states allowed self-defense and people purchased firearms over the course of decades during which crime declined.
"Both the FBI and [Bureau of Justice Statistics] data show dramatic declines in U.S. violent and property crime rates since the early 1990s, when crime spiked across much of the nation," Pew Research Center noted in November 2020, less than three years ago.
If we were well-armed and had wide freedom to defend ourselves while enjoying 30 years of plummeting crime what, if anything, changed?
"In the eyes of some observers, the shootings point to a more fundamental sickness in American life: the toxic brew of paranoia, distrust and suspicion that poisons so many of our day-to-day interactions," Arkin adds. Unfortunately, the data supports his point.
"Nine out of 10 adults said they believed that there's a mental health crisis in the US today," CNN reported last October of a poll conducted jointly with the Kaiser Family Foundation.
"Nearly 8 in 10 psychologists (79%) said that they had seen an increase in the number of patients with anxiety disorders since the beginning of the pandemic, and 66% saw an increase in demand for treatment for depression. Nearly half (47%) said they had seen an increase in demand for substance use treatment (up from 43% last year) and 64% saw an increase in demand for trauma treatment, (compared with 62% in 2021)," the American Psychological Association reported just one month later.
It's easy to find evidence that people have become nuttier since we first heard the term "COVID-19." Fear of illness and death, added to forced isolation and economic disruption, made people very antsy.
Pandemic Policy Broke Us
"My colleagues and I conducted a review of all of the studies on mental health conducted during the first year of the pandemic," social psychology Professor Gery Karantzas of Australia's Deakin University wrote last year. "We found that overall, social restrictions doubled people's odds of experiencing mental health symptoms… Those who experienced lockdowns were twice as likely to experience mental ill health than those who didn't."
"Societal and lifestyle disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic may have triggered brain inflammation that could affect mental health," Harvard researchers found. "Brain imaging revealed that people tested after pandemic restrictions had elevated levels of two markers of neuroinflammation—translocator protein and myoinositol—compared with those tested prior to restrictions."
That's not to say that we were doing great before the pandemic. America's social and political divisions are the stuff of modern legend.
Well, Pandemic Policy Broke Us More
"Do Americans hate each other too much to find common ground?" the Los Angeles Times asked in 2017. "Large majorities of Americans say the tone and nature of political debate in the United States has become more negative in recent years," Pew Research noted in 2019.
Two years later, Pew found that "a large majority of Americans say there are strong political and strong racial and ethnic conflicts in the U.S. and that most people disagree on basic facts."
These conflicts came amidst collapsing trust by Americans in institutions and in each other. By this year, the Edelman Trust Barometer reported that only 30 percent of respondents would help those with whom they strongly disagreed; 20 percent would be willing to have them as coworkers or neighbors.
People have turned against one another and become more fearful. More than half tell pollsters they believe crime increased where they live. The data isn't as ominous so far, finding "violent and property crime remained consistent between 2020 and 2021" as the FBI put it in December. But those numbers are old and at odds with headlines about senseless shootings, as well as reports of shoplifting, muggings, and businesses abandoning city centers. People act on what they see, not on aging crime statistics.
Spare Us Another Dose of Policy
Some lawmakers and activists see a nuttier and more conflicted country as requiring tighter control. But even before we grew more anxious and hostile, Americans were never prone to obey restrictive laws. New York's registration requirement for "assault weapons" drew maybe 5 percent compliance not quite a decade ago. Today's Americans who distrust government and each other aren't going to submit to new dictates or put themselves at the mercy of a world they view as dangerous.
Let's not forget that disagreements over the means of control—our political institutions—were already sources of division and conflict well before COVID-19. Tighter laws in the form of pandemic lockdowns exacerbated those tensions, made us all crazier and more hostile, and brought us to a moment dominated by headlines about senseless shootings and other crimes.
What we might need is less top-down control and fewer restrictive laws in order to reduce the points of conflict. But I doubt that improvements will come easily or quickly. It took years to break our society; we'll be a long time making repairs.