Another shooting, another misguided debate


When Navy veteran Aaron Alexis, 34, opened fire at the U.S. Navy yard in Washington D.C. on September 16, the job had practically been laid out for the media and the broader public discussion. One could already see the battle lines drawn long before Alexis ever picked up a gun.

On every side of the divide between reporters, commentators, politicians and other public voices in the debate, there was an explanation. Some are simple, some are complex. Most have only a limited scope. Before those are addressed, however, the facts bear repeating.

Alexis, a Navy reservist on active duty who had been discharged for misconduct and had a long history of anger management problems, used his own valid security clearance to enter the Washington Navy Yard in the nation’s capitol. Armed with a shotgun and handgun, Alexis shot his way into the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters, killing 12 civilians before exchanging fire with police. It is uncertain whether he was killed by the police or took his own life.

The divide occurs along predictable battle lines. On one end, there are gun control advocates, while on the other are the gun rights advocates. Then there is a collection of those who will go off the beaten path, blaming mental illness, violent media, and a plethora of other supposed indicators of violence.

Guns seem to be the major scapegoat in the debate. However, most gun-owners will never use their guns on another human being. Access to weapons, as a recent Harvard study pointed out, does not seem to correlate with an increased risk of violence. In fact, Russia, which has a blanket ban on gun ownership, has a higher murder rate than the United States.

Most of those murders never even create a blip on the radar compared to the bigger spree shootings. They may be reasonably represented as drug-related, robberies, or crimes of passion, reflecting problems elsewhere in society.

In fact, if you tally up all victims of spree killers in the United States, it’s a drop in the ocean. According to Matt MacBraidagh’s excellent article in Bloomberg, at least 81 people died as a result of mass shootings. Car collisions caused by deer result in 200 deaths per year in comparison.

Such incidences are even less intimidating when you know that nationally, murder rates have been on a steady decline for years. According to FBI statistics, murder by firearms decreased from 10,129 in 2007 to 8,583 in 2011. This is part of a larger downward trend in all murders, which dipped about 15 percent over the same span of time.

Mental illness undoubtedly plays a role in shootings, but one must also keep in mind that this is also a matter of perspective. Most shooters are mentally ill, or at least undergo stress significant enough to spur them to lash out. However, the debate between psychologists often divides into “nature” versus “nurture,” and inborn traits are not the sole determinant any more than guns. In fact, the mentally ill as a group are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

When you look at Alexis, it becomes apparent that mental illness alone is not responsible. Reports from friends and family painted Alexis as a man who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and subsequent fits of rage as a consequence of his experiences on 9/11, when he participated in rescue and clean-up work, and frustrations in his push to receive government benefits.

There is something doubly tragic but morbidly poetic about Alexis’ history. A collectively traumatic event may have instilled a private but common wound in the mind of Aaron Alexis, one borne by many others. Under a perfect storm of circumstances, further trauma which was avoided by most others affected by the attacks had a disastrous effect on Alexis. Nurture took precedence over nature.

I cannot offer definite conclusions on why Alexis chose to lash out. Guns are the vehicle for violence, but not the catalyst. Mental illness plays a role, but it is not the sole predictor. Instead, the adverse situations and perceived alienation they face can warp their minds into something akin to a suicide bomber, vengeful and desperate. When less help is available, be it social or therapeutic, more frustrations mount, leading them to seek solace for themselves by punishing others.

Misguided and evil? Absolutely. Incomprehensible? Probably not. Paradoxically, as the United States gets safer, insecurity remains high and the vulnerable become enemies to others and themselves. That, I submit, might be the problem.

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