As the United States is seemingly plagued by gun violence and mass shootings, helpless cries ring out from all over the country from victims and their families through the president himself. These acts are truly despicable and they cause an unstable, emotional legislative environment after many. It is important that we take these emotions and trauma into heavy consideration when writing new legislation to help control and prevent these acts from ever happening again, but it is more important that we don’t let these emotions cause ineffective reactionary legislation and news coverage post-shootings. This trend of reactionary legislation, or the process of “passing or proposing laws subsequent to any instance of violent crime,” was first acknowledged by Congressman Michael Grimm who urged his colleagues not to resort to such measures in the aftermath of the 2012 shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona.[i] Unfortunately, many gun control laws in the United States originated out of reactionary legislation and as a result are not as carefully crafted or as efficiently carried out as they might be.[ii]
The willingness of citizens to relinquish their Second Amendment rights in response to a perceived public threat goes back to the 1930s.[iii] The fear of organized crime and the aftermath of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre set the stage for the ratification of the National Firearms Act, which required registration of all firearms and an excise tax on the transfer and manufacture of machine guns and other destructive devices.[iv] These happenings, events, and Acts have growingly increased over time since the 1930s–but more recently–have dramatically increased with the massive amount of coverage of these gruesome events and political battle cries and fingers being pointed to blame.
Mass Shootings are now occurring at alarming rates, despite continued legislative attempts to prevent gun violence throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century.[v] Each time a large-scale incident makes national headlines, gun control and gun rights activists alike weigh in on how each of their respective causes could have prevented the incident.[vi] In response, legislators have continued the trend of reactionary legislation started in the 1930s- meeting no more success in curbing gun violence than previous attempts did.[vii] In many instances, these legislative fixes fail to address the major issues with pre-existing gun control legislation, including the legislative inefficiencies or loopholes which allowed the perpetrator to access firearms in the first place.[viii]
From the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, to Sandy Hook Elementary School, to Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, these horrible events, covered by the media, politicians, and the president, time and time again pointless legislation has been passed, when instead, attempts should have been made to correct the already enacted legislation to prevent more Americans from being harmed. Passing new legislation could be helpful if done correctly, however, most of the time the problems with it are not actually identified and solved. The difficulty with using the law to restrict gun use and prevent criminal activity is that it assumes that criminals will follow the law as they commit their illegal crimes when in fact “there is an obvious gap between using the law to restrict gun use and the cessation of criminal activity.”[ix] Enacting legislation in this manner serves only to prevent law-abiding citizens from committing violent acts.[x]
Rather than looking at preventing firearm homicide by making it more difficult to legally own a firearm, American’s who truly wish to prevent horrific events, such as mass shootings, should look to two factors; the flaws with the current system; and the dangers caused by the media and societal response to mass shootings.
Andre Simmons, an FBI behavior analysis expert, notes a common mindset amongst active shooters for whom shootings bring “a moment of omnipotent control and domination.”[xi] These mass shooters have created a narrative and have persuaded themselves to believe it, they use their spoken warnings, taunting words to victims, or public manifestos to tell the story to others.[xii] Our ritual response to mass shootings, then, is the implementation of their final desire–to be memorialized as an anti-hero, or broadcast as a victim of circumstance and thus vindicated.[xiii]
Media coverage highlighting deviant and dangerous behavior–including that exhibited by mass shooters–inspires copycats to follow suit and even compete with the perpetrator.[xiv] By including the name of a shooter, his characteristics, the details of the crime, a tally of victims, and comparisons with other notorious shooters, the media serves to encourage this trend.[xv] The media’s impact on society in the wake of mass shootings is not limited to the possibility that reports will inspire future shooters.[xvi] Media reports chronicling the disturbed mental state of the perpetrators also contribute to the public association of mental illness with violence.[xvii] Because people fear what they cannot understand, and because mass shootings are particularly good examples of this sort of random, senseless, and unpredictable violence, the public looks for an explanation and the focus on mental illness provides a good scapegoat.[xviii]
By changing the perception of mental illness from something that is to be feared, to something that requires assistance and understanding, we can reduce the stigma of mental illness, encourage persons in need of help to seek it, and ensure public safety by working to understand and prevent the risk factors that make individuals susceptible to violence.[xix] In accurately portraying mental illness as a condition that is neither desired, nor caused by fault on the part of the patient, we can advocate for appropriate treatment both of the person and of their mental illness.[xx] Although it may seem counter-intuitive to some gun control advocates, the system of faulting and stigmatizing individuals with mental illness is not effective and public safety would be better served by openness and understanding.[xxi]
The problem with current gun control legislation is not that Americans are discussing the political implications of gun ownership and mental illness, the problem is that these discussions overlook the root cause of gun violence and fall “into predictable patterns: the left blaming the right for inflammatory rhetoric, the right blaming the left for unfairly singling it out.”[xxii] As with many ongoing policy discussions, the problem of mass incidents of gun violence calls out for a Band-Aid and a cure.[xxiii] Because of the increase in the frequency, scale, and impact of these crimes, it is necessary for us to act quickly and effectively–the problem is one that calls out for immediate attention in the form of long lasting, effective change.[xxiv]
That change may be brought about through informed and carefully considered legislation that avoids the historical trend of quick and ineffective reactionary legislation.[xxv] By closing loopholes and enforcing legislation to its full potential, changing our societal approach to violence to deter would-be anti-heroes, and reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness to encourage effective treatment, we may truly do something to ensure that mass shootings do not continue to rise in frequency and severity.[xxvi]
[i]. Aimee Kaloyares, Article: Annie Get Your Gun? An Analysis of Reactionary Gun Control Laws and Their Utter Failure to Protect Americans from Violent Crimes, 40 S.U.L. Rev. 319, (Spring, 2013). See also, Michael Mcauliff, Grimm: No ‘Reactionary Legislation’ to Arizona Shooting, N. Y. Daily News (Jan. 10, 2011), http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/dc/grimm-reactionary-leigislation-arizona-shooting-blog-entry-1.1661207.
[ii]. See discussion infra at Parts II, III.
[iii]. Kaloyares, supra note 3, at 326.
[iv]. See Kaloyares, supra note 3, at 326; 26 U.S.C.A. § 5891 (1987).
[v]. See infra Part III.B.
[vi]. See infra Part II–III.
[vii]. David Olinger, Following the guns, Denver Post (Aug. 1, 1999), http://extras.denverpost.com/news/shot0801.html.
[viii]. David Olinger, Following the guns, Denver Post (Aug. 1, 1999), http://extras.denverpost.com/news/shot0801.html.
[ix]. Flaherty, supra note 76, at 46.
[x]. Flaherty, supra note 76, at 46.
[xi]. Patricia Romano, Opinion: Society’s Attitudes About Violence Are At The Root of ‘homegrown terrorism’, Montreal Gazette (Nov. 6, 2014), http://montrealgazette.com/news/national/opinion-societys-attitudes-about-violence-are-at-the-root-of-homegrown-terrorism.
[xiv]. Joseph Grenny, The Media is an Accomplice in Public Shootings: A Call for “Stephen King” Law, Forbes (Dec. 13, 2012), http://www.forbes.com/sites/josephgrenny/2012/12/13/the-media-is-an-accomplice-in-public-shootings-a-call-for-a-stephen-king-law/.
[xvi]. Lewis, supra note 17, at 151.
[xvii]. Lewis, supra note 17, at 151.
[xviii]. Lewis, supra note 17, at 151.
[xix]. Id. at 748.
[xxi]. Id. at 747.
[xxii]. Richard Stengel, After Tucson, TIME (Jan. 13, 2011), http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2042356,00.html.
[xxiii]. See Kaloyares, supra note 3, at 320.
[xxiv]. See Clark, supra note 62.
[xxv]. See Kaloyares, supra note 3, at 320.
[xxvi]. See Shulman, supra note 139.