Easy Guns Plus Cultural Collapse: Recipe for Mass Shootings
Marina Abromovic, “Rhythm 0,” 1974, performance and installation. © Courtesy of Marina Abromovic.
This performance is considered, along with Chris Burden’s “Shoot,” 1971, one of the seminal art images dealing with guns as medium and topic.
I was returning to the parking lot at a whale-watching center in South Australia when I realized I’d left my camper van’s lights on, and the battery had died. It was summer 2016, and my partner and I were on a three-month road trip around the continent’s perimeter. I asked the center’s caretaker if he’d give me a jump, and he cheerfully obliged. “You Canadian, mate?” he asked as we hooked up the cables. “American,” I said. His face dropped. “Well, no wonder you’re in Australia. Back home they’ll kill ya.” It took me a second to realize he was talking about mass shootings. He proceeded to tell me how in his country, following a 1996 massacre that left 35 people dead, the government passed sweeping gun-control laws and instigated a gun buyback that resulted in the destruction of 700,000 firearms. It was 18 years before another mass shooting in Australia, and since then, there have been only a smattering more. Why was it, the man asked, that the U.S.A. refuses to take similar action? I shook my head.
Since returning from that trip, I’ve thought about the matter a good deal more, as the carnage from mass shootings and gun violence in general has only accelerated nationwide and my own hometown of Portland, Oregon, has devolved from a friendly progressive ecotopia to the shoot-’em-up capital of the American West, with homicides increasing 207% from 2019 through 2021 (the national average for the same period was 35%). As has been shown time and again, easy access to firearms leads to higher incidence of gun-related crimes, while curbing access to guns cuts down on violent crime. The phenomenon is similar to what has been proven with suicide prevention. The easier it is to kill oneself or anyone else, the more people make impulsive decisions to do so. When authorities make it harder to commit suicide — by installing nets on tall bridges and barriers on train platforms, for example — rates decrease. Making it difficult to cause harm decreases harm, in suicides and gun violence alike. This would seem to be a no-brainer, except to millions of N.R.A. card-carriers who insist their urge to kill a deer means just about anybody should be able to buy military-grade automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons.
Mel Chin, “Cross for the Unforgiven,” 2012, AK-47 assault
rifles (cut and welded), 54 x 54 x 3”. © Courtesy of el China
A simple arrangement of eight rifles into a Maltese cross, which references the Crusades. The Maltese cross symbolizes resistance to the West.
While there have been exceptions, the archetypal mass shooter is the alienated young white male, radicalized by actual or perceived slights, bullying, neglect, abuse, racial enmity, or, as in the case of “incels,” romantic and sexual inefficacy. When frustrated late-teen or twenty-something men at the peak of testosteronal aggression enjoy easy access to assault weapons, it doesn’t take much to set them off on fatal missions to avenge their grievances, often targeting those most vulnerable — schoolchildren, teachers, churchgoers, women, racial and sexual minorities.
I have come to believe there are cultural factors at play in our zeitgeist that are especially conducive to young males going off the rails.
Anila Quayyum Agha, “Let a Million Flowers Bloom,” 2022, installation view,
Columbia Museum of Art. Courtesy of Talley Dunn Gallery, Dallas, Tx.
The labyrinthine political culture may be close to collapsing under its own weight, but the beauty of all of the complexity is real and it is a compelling ongoing narrative. Agha provides us with crystalline visualizations of this conundrum.
In 2014 I covered a mass shooting in Southern California for The New York Post. The killer, a 22-year-old named Elliot Rodger, went on a rampage near the campus of U.C. Santa Barbara that left six people dead and fourteen injured. Many reporters focused on Rodger’s misogyny. My own essay, “A Selfie-era Killer: Social Media and Elliot Rodger,” examined his obsession with social media, which gave him a platform to air his toxic admixture of narcissism and hate. On Facebook he posed and preened while sitting in first class on an airplane and behind the wheel of his father’s Mercedes. “Damn, I look good,” his caption read. Elsewhere he crowed about his fast metabolism (“I could eat as much as I wanted without getting fat.”), showed off his Gucci sunglasses, and sported an Armani shirt “that made me feel particularly fabulous.” Mixed in with this consumerist navel-gazing were reams of woman-hating invective and sob songs over his protracted virginity. He was also partial to violent video games.
I bring up this ignoble individual not to posit causal links between social-media addiction and violence — billions of people use Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok without resorting to shooting sprees — but to suggest that when a culture that revels in vanity and celebrity intersects with a society devoted to unfettered access to AR-15s, it creates ideal conditions for immature, impulsive men to convert their persecution complexes into blazes of media glory. To such creatures, attention, whatever its source, whatever its nature, is all that matters.
Krzysztof Wodiczko, “Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC,” 1988-2018, slide projection.
© Krzysztof Wodiczko; courtesy of Galerie Lelong & Co., New York, NY.
The museum building itself is anthropomorphized by the centrally place bank of microphones. The projection went up the day before the Parkland, FLA shooting, after which it was removed.
As someone who pays close attention to words, I’ve noticed in recent years how commonly people misuse the word “notoriety,” stripping it of its negative connotations and construing it as synonymous with “renown.” I don’t think this is just a slip of the tongue; I think it betrays a worldview that makes no distinction between fame and infamy, in which norms of decorum have degraded to such irrelevance that any path to celebrity is valid, whether through scandal, the inanity of memes and reality TV, sex tapes intentionally leaked to the press, or, most extremely, heinous acts of violence. This is what we have come to in an America in which a carnival barker, steak huckster, racist, fabulist, and serial sexual harasser ascends to the Oval Office. From the top down, the decay of sociopolitical and behavioral norms, exacerbated by the metastasis of technology-aided narcissism, has been inculcated in generations of children and young adults. This is one reason we’re seeing mass shooters live-streaming their rampages, as the 18-year-old shooter did this May at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York, in turn emulating a 28-year-old shooter who’d live-streamed his own killing spree three years prior in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Rob Fischer, “Mirrored House on Water,” 2000-04,
C-Print, 36 x 24”. Courtesy of Engage Projects, Chicago, Il.
Do not occupy this house if you have a tendency to thrown stones. Or, in our particular era, AR-15. Don’t fire off your machine-gun if you happen to live in a glass house. Only an artist, who mainly wants to just see what it looks like, would go ahead and build one.
Image by Laurie E. Dickson. Willie Little, “In My Own Little Corner,” 2022, multi-media installation. Courtesy of the Oregon Contemporary, Portland, Or
It’s a long standing trope, a touching photograph of a child with a handwritten note, who turns out to be recognizable to the public (for better and for worse). But Little puts it to an entirely different use. So suggestive as the image is that we are probably looking at a shooting victim killed attending class at their local elementary school, Little’s exhibition is about something equally important: respecting our differences in order to allow each other space to live our best lives. The failure of most Republican partisans to honor this principle is the central moral issue that this generation is facing. Gun control reform is one of the major generational planks.
Video games such as those Elliot Rodger obsessed over also contribute to young men’s inurement, even addiction, to violence. Civil libertarians balk at this sort of suggestion, and I realize that pointing a finger at such games may seem schoolmarmish and retrograde, like second-wave feminists insisting pornography incites rape, or Tipper Gore railing against dirty words in rap and heavy metal. Still, I remain convinced that the widespread consumption of games in which players can kill hundreds of digital avatars during a single session has further desensitized young people to the act of murder.
After I wrote the New York Post piece, a social-media follower commented that the video games Rodger played eerily recalled gaming scenes in Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” a film inspired by the 1999 school shootings in Columbine, Colorado. He also mentioned a series of real-life X-rated videos on Pornhub in which a young man impassively pilots his way through violent video games as two women fellate him. I went to the website and watched it, and I can report it was one of the most bizarre and chilling things I’ve ever seen. There the man is, face outside the frame, not speaking, not moving except for fiddling with the controls as his alter ego onscreen uses swords, maces, and daggers to slay a slew of people and monsters — and all the while these two unsmiling women kneel between his legs, trading off. Nobody utters a word, nobody looks at one another, no one appears to take any notice, much less pleasure, in the robotic motions underway. This, I thought, was the perfect embodiment of the American problem: millions of young souls raised with no communication skills or empathy, weaned on vapid entertainment, staring at screens while nonchalantly killing fake people, bored out of their minds even by sex acts, chasing some evanescent fix in the hope it will make them feel something, anything at all. If you sit with a joystick for hours a day, drawing your virtual gun, firing into someone’s face and watching it explode, then getting points for the kill — if you set these kids loose with real machine guns and ammo, purchased on their 18th birthday just like the Uvalde shooter did — then you shouldn’t be surprised when they cold-bloodedly do to real victims what they’ve been practicing and perfecting since they were old enough to walk.
Kerry James Marshall, “The Lost Boys,” 1994. Photo: Sean Pathasema.
Marshall’s series memorializes the violent deaths of black youths by gun violence. “The Lost Boys” also refers to the band of youths lead by Peter Pan in the Neverland of J.M. Barrie story.
In a nation in which murder-a-minute games babysit young minds, internet stardom is the ultimate currency, standards of ethics have been debased from the West Wing down, and lines dividing virtual and real-life mayhem have disappeared, easy access to guns is the magic ingredient that lights the fire beneath a deadly stew. It is the kindling, the kerosene, and the match. If we were merely a populace plagued by superficiality and decadence, we would simply decline in productivity and global influence. That would be bad enough, but we are a nation plagued not only by those conundrums, but also by self-righteous, Second Amendment-worshipping, immensely profitable, and politically powerful forces that encourage and enable the accumulation and use of devices that can mow down twenty children in four minutes. We are a nation with 330-million people and 393-million guns.
We did not get here by accident. As Paul Waldman wrote in The Washington Post: “This is who we are.” We have created the ideal recipe for carnage and bedlam which could take down any one of us, and any of our family and friends, anywhere, any time. What will it take to wake us up? Pictures of children turned into hamburger, the much-discussed Emmet Till moment? That alone won’t do it. We need outrage, yes, but also spine, will, political resolve, leaders with integrity who will resist the gun lobbies, concrete enforceable restrictions, funds allocated to buy guns back as happened in Australia. Most importantly of all, we must evolve a cultural climate that emphasizes intellect, principle, and civility over violence, vanity, and spectacle. Only that can right the recipe, reset the table, and defang the monster that is eating us alive.