In 2017, two of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history happened within two months of each other—the Las Vegas Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting and the Southerland Springs, Texas First Baptist Church shooting. Five of the worst mass shootings, in terms of casualty—ranking 1st, 2nd, a tie for 4th, and 8th—all happened within the past five years. With these statistics ever worsening, it’s not hard to see that the United States has an appallingly significant problem with mass shootings. The question is this: why have mass shootings become the new normal?
Let’s start with the technical first mass shooting in modern U.S. history—Howard Unruh’s “Walk of Death” in Camden, New Jersey. On September 6th, 1949, Unruh killed thirteen people and injured three others with an easily obtained Luger P08 9mm pistol. Living as a gay man in a socially and legally unaccepting mid-20th century America, Unruh had been ridiculed and prejudiced against. A World War II veteran with issues of isolation and rigid temperament, this frustration provoked Unruh, and as Patrick Sauer put it in the Smithsonian article about Unruh’s rampage, “Unruh thought the world was out to get him, so he decided to enact revenge on his little corner of it.”
What does this technical first mass shooting have to do with the current regularity of mass shootings in America? It provides an outline for us: Each characteristic of Unruh’s “Walk of Death” connects to some problem that contributes to the frequentness of mass shootings.
The ability to obtain guns is one major reason why mass shootings have become so constant. As said by true crime author Harold Schechter in the Smithsonian “Walk of Death” article, “There have been notorious killers since America was founded, but you didn’t have the mass shooting phenomenon before Unruh’s time because people didn’t have access to semi-automatic weaponry.” Semiautomatic weapons have been easily obtainable in modern times, and despite some legislation to make it more difficult for these guns to fall into the wrong hands, there likely hasn’t been quite enough. According to Kate Taylor of Business Insider, it is still fairly easy to buy a gun in most states despite some attempts at stricter regulation: “Gun laws vary significantly based on the state. Nine states, including California and Rhode Island, impose waiting periods for the purchase of some or all firearms,” but in almost all other states, such as in Virginia, buying a gun is much quicker. Taylor explains:
In Virginia, you can buy a semi-automatic gun ‘in 15 minutes,” Roanoke Firearms owner John Markell recently told the New York Times’ Michael Barbaro. Roanoke Firearms is where Seung-Hui Cho — who killed 32 in a shooting spree on Virginia Tech’s campus — bought a Glock, after passing two background checks and employees’ own gut checks.
And, although a waiting period in gun purchases sometimes keeps guns from falling into the wrong hands, there’s no guarantee that this will affect any potential future violent incidents. Republican Senator of Wisconsin Van Wanggaard claims that “There is no statistical evidence that [the waiting period] reduces violence” (Kertscher).
The ability for firearms to be bought quickly is just one flaw in the gun regulation system. Another flaw is the continuing lack of proper background checks and other requirements. The “gun show loophole” is a major problem; this allows guns to be easily purchased and sold at gun shows, for three reasons, according to Politifact.com:
- Not all gun sellers are required to be licensed, and many of these unlicensed sellers sell at gun shows.
- Most gun purchases at gun shows do always not require background checks.
- There is usually no waiting period for gun purchases at gun shows, allowing guns to be bought without proper licensing and permit.
These issues also apply outside of gun shows—even after mass shootings have become so common, many states do not utilize some basic requirements such as background checks. While many believe that this “gun show loophole” is rarely connected to mass shootings, it does factor into the easy accessibility of guns and thus links to mass shootings’ frequentness.
Another factor in the mass shootings crisis is the temperament of the mass shooters themselves, but many believe that the problem is simply mental illness. Though “Walk of Death” shooter Howard Unruh was honorably discharged from the military after WWII without a diagnosis or records of mental instability, psychologists today have confirmed that Unruh could have had schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression; moreover, that he definitely had issues with temperament (Smithsonian.com). However, according to a study authored by Jonathan M. Metzl, MD, PhD. and Kenneth T. MacLeish, PhD., “fewer than 5% of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness” (National Center for Biotechnology Information). Many who believe that the motives for mass shootings most often link to mental illness call for better mental health care, but Dr. Michelle Heyland of The Hill declares that this is not the answer, even though mental health care would indeed help many Americans besides the fact:
While improving access to mental-health care might help lots of suffering Americans, researchers who study mass shootings doubt it would do much to curb tragedies like these. According to their work, the sorts of individuals who commit mass murder often are either not mentally ill or do not recognize themselves as such. Because they blame the outside world for their problems, mass murderers would likely resist therapies that ask them to look inside themselves or to change their behavior. (Heyland)
Mental illness has often been thought to be a major problem in mass shootings, but it seems to be that the problem is more about shooters’ temperament and general attitude toward the world around them. Instead of blaming mental illness for mass shootings, it’s possible that we can look to political and moral rhetoric that has turned inflammatory in recent years as a reason for many recent mass shootings. Howard Unruh was not only the instigator of violence and hatred—he was a victim of prejudice and homophobia, which caused him to want to bring his pain to other people, a hundred times over. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia have been the subjects of great debate in America for decades, but as of the past few years, especially surrounding the 2016 Presidential Election, the conversation about these problems has expanded and grown louder. It’s no mystery that the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting in June 2015 was motivated by racism and bigotry—the mass shooter, Dylann Roof, was a known white supremacist, and the victims of his violence were all African-American. The massacre at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando, Florida was declared a hate-crime against the LGBTQ+ attendees at the club that night, showing another example of the pure hatred that usually motivates mass shootings. Maybe mental illness isn’t always the motivator behind mass shootings. Maybe Americans simply need to go after the growing hatred and prejudice of their country and defeat it once and for all.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact, overall reasons why mass gun violence has become so common in America. However, it’s easy to see why Americans have made it the “new normal”: we’re so used to it. The more shootings that occur, and the more the casualty numbers go up, the more immune we become to the grief and frustration that come with it all. We, as a country, need to remain angry and shocked and allow our hearts to continue to ache in order to motivate ourselves to make change, to do something to end these ever-repeating tragedies.
“Gun Rights vs. Gun Control.” OpenSecrets, The Center for Responsive Politics, Oct. 2017, http://www.opensecrets.org/news/issues/guns.
“More than 50 Years of U.S. Mass Shootings: The Victims, Sites, Killers and Weapons.” The Washington Post, WP Company, Oct. 2017, http://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/mass-shootings-in-america/.
Heyland, Dr. Michelle. “After Mass Shootings, Mental Illness Is Always the Scapegoat.” TheHill, Capitol Hill Publishing Corporation, 3 Oct. 2017, thehill.com/opinion/healthcare/353674-after-mass-shootings-mental-illness-is-always-the-scapegoat.
Kertscher, Tom. “No Statistical Evidence That a Waiting Period for Handgun Purchases Reduces Violence, Lawmaker Says.” Politifact.com, Politifact, 27 Apr. 2015, http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2015/apr/27/van-wanggaard/no-evidence-waiting-period-handgun-purchases-reduc/.
Khazan, Olga. “Why Better Mental-Health Care Won’t Stop Mass Shootings.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 4 Oct. 2017, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/10/why-better-mental-health-care-wont-stop-mass-shootings/541965/.
Metzl, Jonathan M, and Kenneth T MacLeish. “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, Feb. 2015, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318286/.
Politifact.com , Tampa Bay Times; Politifact, 27 Apr. 2015, http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2015/apr/27/van-wanggaard/no-evidence-waiting-period-handgun-purchases-reduc/.
“The 10 Worst Mass Shootings in the U.S. .” New York Post.com, New York Post, www.nypost.com/2017/10/02/the-10-worst-mass-shootings-in-the-us/.
Sauer, Patrick. “The Story of the First Mass Murder in U.S. History.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 14 Oct. 2015, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/story-first-mass-murder-us-history-180956927/.
Sherman, Amy. “PolitiFact Sheet: 3 Things to Know about the ‘Gun Show Loophole’.” Politifact.com, Tampa Bay Times; Politifact, 7 Jan. 2016, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/jan/07/politifact-sheet-3-things-know-about-gun-show-loop/.
Taylor, Kate. “Here’s How Easy It Is to Legally Buy a Semiautomatic Gun.” BusinessInsider.com, Business Insider Inc. , 7 Oct. 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-buy-a-gun-2017-10.