Some Thoughts on the Oregon Tragedy

October 3, 2015

It has become too familiar a story in the United States. “Ten people are dead after a gunman opened fire at an Oregon community college Thursday, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin said.” [1] The shooter was also killed after an exchange of gunfire with police.

The immensity of the tragedy is plain for all to see, but proposed remedies are the subject of political wrangling. We need to do better, but the wise will be humble. Here are some suggestions.

I. Gun Control

Photo by Sjhcq
The proliferation of senseless mass killings in the United States is a life issue, of this there can be no doubt. But it is a very complicated one, since effective solutions are not readily apparent. It is also a highly charged political issue in the United States. What’s more, as Carol Glatz writes in an article appearing in the National Catholic Reporter, the “Catholic Church’s position on gun control is not easy to find; there are dozens of speeches and talks and a few documents that call for much tighter regulation of the global arms trade, but what about private gun ownership?” [2]

Self-defense against deadly assault is the reason generally given for allowing the private ownership of firearms, and the Catechism tells us that “it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow….” [3] Moreover, legitimate “defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life.” It should be added, however, that the Catechism authorizes only the force necessary for self-defense or the defense of others. “If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful.... Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.”

Now it would be nonsensical to authorize the defense of one’s own life, and, in certain circumstances, make it a duty to protect others against a deadly assault, but at the same time prohibit the means of doing so. Firearms cannot be un-invented, and there are certainly cases where the only means of defense against an assault by means of a firearm is by using a firearm. Thus, it does not appear likely that the Church would prohibit private gun ownership while there are people in the world offering deadly violence to others.

Photo by Antique Military Rifles
But that doesn’t mean that gun ownership can’t be regulated. Carol Glatz points out in her article that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has stated a position in the 2000 document “Responsibility, Rehabilitation, And Restoration: A Catholic Perspective On Crime And Criminal Justice.” There the bishops said this:

“All of us must do more to end violence in the home and to find ways to help victims break out of the pattern of abuse. As bishops, we support measures that control the sale and use of firearms and make them safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children or anyone other than the owner), and we reiterate our call for sensible regulation of handguns.” [3]

That statement is footnoted, and in that footnote the bishops go on to say:

“However, we believe that in the long run and with few exceptions (i.e., police officers, military use), handguns should be eliminated from our society. ‘Furthermore, the widespread use of handguns and automatic weapons in connection with drug commerce reinforces our repeated “call for effective and courageous action to control handguns, leading to their eventual elimination from our society.”’”

While this statement of the American bishops isn’t Magisterial in the sense that it binds Catholics to a religious assent, it is certainly entitled to respect. And the truth of the matter is that if handguns could be effectively eliminated from society, the need to use them for self-defense would be greatly diminished. Unfortunately, we seem to be a long way from being able to accomplish that, and the lack of success there has been in abolishing the illicit drug trade doesn’t inspire hope. Moreover, the recent Supreme Court decisions holding the private possession of a handgun to be a constitutional right under the Second Amendment are going to put off the removal of handguns from American society for a while. [4] [5]

Perhaps of more concern are certain long guns, specifically the semiautomatic variety with large capacity magazines, commonly referred to as “assault weapons.” There was a federal law against owning these that expired in 2004. [6] Although these weapons generally carry more powerful ammunition, with a larger ammunition capacity, than do handguns, their prohibition is even more constitutionally dicey (while the federal law survived a number of legal challenges, its constitutional validity under the Second Amendment was never litigated [7]). To understand this it is helpful to read the Second Amendment in its entirety:

Photo by Moriar on Flickr 
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The scope of the right protected by the Second Amendment has long been a subject of controversy, but the kind of weapon it refers to was settled in 1939 in the Supreme Court case of United States v. Miller. [8] In that case, two men, Jack Miller and Frank Layton, were indicted for transporting a double-barrel shotgun, with a barrel less than 18 inches long. The defendants asked the trial court to dismiss the case on the ground that transporting such a firearm was protected activity under the Second Amendment. The trial court agreed with them, and dismissed the case. The government appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed because there was no evidence to “show that possession or use of a ‘shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length’…has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia,” or “that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense.”

What the Second Amendment protects, then, is possession of the kind of weapon that would have a military application. But semiautomatic rifles are clearly in that category. In fact, automatic rifles and submachine guns fit in that category. While the technology has changed since the Miller decision (the semiautomatic M1, with a clip capacity of 8 rounds, had just replaced the bolt action M1903 as the standard service rifle [9]), the Second Amendment has not changed. With this history, there can be no confidence that an outright ban on so-called “assault weapons” can survive constitutional scrutiny.

What to do then? There is always repealing the Second Amendment, and that is precisely what was suggested in a 2013 editorial in America. As the article put it:

“The Second Amendment impedes the power of the government to regulate the sale or possession of firearms. Unfortunately, the grim consequence of this constitutional restriction is measured in body counts. The murder of 20 elementary school children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., in December was merely the latest in a string of mass shootings: Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek. In the last 30 years, there have been 62 mass shootings (each leaving at least four people dead) in the United States. Since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colo., there have been 130 shootings at schools; nearly half involved multiple deaths or injuries.” [10]

The Second Amendment, of all the Amendments making up the Bill of Rights, seems uniquely out of sync with contemporary conditions. How much sense can it make that the Amendment allows for the proscription of double barreled sawed off shotguns, but not rifles with high capacity magazines? The reason for this is that the pertinent social conditions of the late 18th century were markedly different than contemporary ones, and a full realization of the intent of the Second Amendment would actually look fairly strange and intrusive to modern eyes.

A “militia,” as that term was understood at the time of the adoption of the Second Amendment, was not a voluntary group. It referred to compulsory service, under state auspices, of every able-bodied male of a certain age (e.g., 16 to 45), who was required to provide his own weapon and ammunition meeting certain specifications. Moreover, there were periodic musters. In modern terms, this would be like every male citizen of the specified age range, and not a member of the regular armed forces, being required to join the National Guard, except that he would be required to provide his own weaponry. One can imagine the outcry if such a requirement was imposed today. But it was the right to maintain this institution that gave rise to the Second Amendment in the first place, a right that would not be viewed as such by most citizens of today’s more self-indulgent America.

What, perhaps, is required is not a simple repeal of the Second Amendment, without more, but, rather, an updating to meet the circumstances of today. This updating, which would come in the form of an amendment to the Constitution, would address the need of both a regulated militia and the natural right of self-defense. The amendment would (1) recognize the right and duty of every state to have its own militia, subject to being called into federal service under certain conditions, (2) recognize a right of every physically and mentally able citizen to be a member of that militia, and (3) recognize the right of every person to have arms that are suitable for his or her self-defense and the defense of those for whom he or she is responsible. The original purpose of the Second Amendment would be furthered in that it would protect against a federal monopoly of military force, military grade weapons would be accessible (though, perhaps, not owned or kept at home) to most citizens without discrimination subject to the requirement of militia service (which, it is hoped, would involve mental health examinations as a prerequisite), and every adult citizen of sound mind would have a more restricted access to firearms of the kind that would answer the legitimate needs of self-defense. Interestingly, double barreled shotguns (though probably not of the sawed-off variety) would pass muster for self-defense purposes, while large capacity assault rifles would not. A remedy like this should be sufficient to satisfy all rational sides of the debate, and there might even be room for the United States bishops’ hope to rid our society of handguns, at least of the semiautomatic variety with large magazines.

A remedy like this would go a long way toward protecting schools from visits by heavily armed persons who are mentally disturbed, since large capacity firearms would not be available to the general public. While individuals of the criminal underground would find a way to get their hands on illicit weapons, isolated and disturbed individuals of the kind that bring attacks like the one that just happened in Oregon, not likely to have sufficient underworld contacts, would find it difficult.

But there are other things that can be done.

II. Publicity

With reference to the individual who recently shot and killed a reporter and a cameraman in Virginia, the gunman in the Oregon shooting had previously blogged his observation that such individuals “are alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems like the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight.” It seems clear that the Oregon shooter was hoping to ease whatever internal anguish he was experiencing with the thought of the notoriety he would achieve through the spilling of blood.

In recognition of this motivation, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin has refused to mention the killer’s name. [11] This article is following suit (except, unfortunately, for the necessary links), and news outlets, writers, and commentators would do well to do the same. Convincing the public press, whether in print, the airwaves, or online, to adopt a policy of neither mentioning the names of such perpetrators, nor showing their pictures, should be an easy sell in a decent society. Historians might also consider taking up the cause. No one should be allowed to view mass slaughter as an escape from obscurity.

Photo by Commander Zulu
Still, there is more.  

III. Mental Health

While the Affordable Care Act has expanded medical coverage, universal coverage has yet to be attained in the United States. Added to this is the ignorant and superstitious shame we bring to bear on issues of mental illness. Access to healthcare for all, regardless of means, is long overdue in this country, and that healthcare should include mental healthcare. And it is not just availability that is needed, but desirability. Just as there has been the public promulgation of the dangers of smoking, so there needs to be a campaign to eradicate the notion that mental illness is somehow a reflection of a person’s character. When mental healthcare is accessible to all, and accessing that care is considered no more shameful than going to the doctor with symptoms of pneumonia, we will have gone a long way toward preventing the kind of tragedy that happened in Oregon.

And finally,

IV. Social Structures

Photo by Stephen Z
We wonder at the early days of our republic when it was a requirement for able-bodied men to own firearms. How was it that there were so many armed people, and no one was going to a school to inflict a massacre? True, there were no large capacity assault rifles in those days, but the fact that such actions are a continuous danger in our society today indicates that something critical has changed.

Liah Greenfeld, a University Professor and a professor of sociology, political science, and anthropology at Boston University, and Distinguished Adjunct Professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong [12], tells us that modern “humans—that is, people who live in societies such as ours, democratic, prosperous, relatively secure, and offering its members numerous life-choices, people like you and me, in other words—are different from humans who lived or live in other types of societies. We experience life differently from them: perceive reality differently and feel emotions that other humans did not have.” [13] This is a result of historical processes. As Dr. Greenfeld puts it:

“Human experience was revolutionized in the 16th century England. In the previous posts we have already discussed such new emotions as ambition, love, happiness, and their connection to the new form of consciousness, which came to be called “nationalism” and formed the cultural framework of modernity. Nationalism implied a special image of society as a sovereign community of equal members (a “nation”) and of reality in general. In its original, English, form it was essentially democratic. As it spread, it carried the seeds of democracy everywhere. Considering a living community sovereign (the source of all laws), it implicitly but drastically reduced the relevance of God and, even when combined with religion and presented in a religious idiom, which happened often, was to all intents and purposes secular. It was dramatically different, in other words, from the fundamentally religious, hierarchical consciousness which it replaced, and it shaped the way we live today. Among other things, the new consciousness made the human individual one’s own maker: it implied we had the choice to decide what we want to be; it dramatically increased the value of human life, encouraging us to realize it to the fullest extent—in other words, it gave us dignity and freedom. The society built on its premises of equality and popular sovereignty was an open society, in which the individual had the right to define one’s own identity, a society which made one’s identity one’s own business.”

But this social development came at a cost.

“The liberty to define oneself has made the formation of the individual identity problematic. A member of a nation cannot learn who or what s/he is from the environment, as would an individual growing up in an essentially religious and rigidly stratified, non-egalitarian order, where everyone’s position and behavior are defined by birth and divine providence. Beyond the very general category of nationality, a modern individual must decide what s/he is and should do, and thus construct one’s identity oneself.  Modern culture cannot provide individuals within it with consistent guidance, with which other cultures provide its members. By providing inconsistent guidance (for we are inevitably guided by our cultural environment), it in fact actively disorients us. Such cultural insufficiency is called anomie. Already over a century ago, it was recognized as the most dangerous problem of modernity. For many people, the necessity to construct one’s identity, to choose what to make of oneself, became an unbearable burden.”

The ramifications of this new situation have proved immense.

“At the same time as the English society was redefined as a nation, and ambition, happiness, and love made their first appearances among our emotions, a special variety of mental illness, different from a multitude of mental illnesses known since antiquity, was first observed. It expressed itself in degrees of mental impairment, derangement, and dysfunction, the common symptoms of which were social maladjustment (chronic discomfort in one’s environment) and chronic discomfort (dis-ease) with one’s self, the sense of self oscillating between self-loathing and megalomania and in rare cases deteriorating into the terrifying experience of a complete loss of self. Some of the signs of the new disorder were similar to the symptoms of familiar mental abnormalities. In particular, the new illness, like some previously known conditions, would express itself in abnormal affect—extreme excitement and paralyzing sadness. But, in distinction to the known conditions in which these symptoms were temporary, in the new ailment they were chronic and recurrent. The essence of the new disorder, however, was its delusionary quality, that is the inability to distinguish between the inner world and the outside, which specifically disturbed the experience of self, confusing one regarding one’s identity, making one dissatisfied with, and/or insecure it, it, splitting one’s self in an inner conflict, even dissolving it altogether into the environment. Sixteenth-century English phrases such as ‘losing one’s mind,’ ‘going out of one’s mind,’ and ‘not being oneself’ captured this disturbed experience, which expressed itself in out-of-control behaviors (that is, behaviors out of one’s control, out of the control of the self), and, as a result, in maladjustment and functional incapacitation.”

The anomie that Dr. Greenfeld describes has reached crisis proportions, and has resulted in the internal anguish with which the Oregon shooter suffered. While we have increased freedom, we have, at the same time, made our environment less human. For too many of us, the increased range of choices has brought us to the conundrum of selves that we desire but are impossible to attain.

But this is a result of circumstances that are exterior to ourselves, the societies that we have created. That being so, remedies must be sought in transformation toward more human social structures. Otherwise we will remain a society characterized by the abundance of consumer products, but deep internal suffering. We will continue to be a society that has gained the world, but has lost too many of its souls.

Jack Quirk