The Causes of Violence in America

The airwaves and the opinion columns continue to discuss the terrible December 14 school massacre in Connecticut and have brought us additional stories of senseless multiple murders in places like Oregon and western New York. Much of the discussion is now focusing on renewed calls for more gun control. As I go on to say, there are certainly some serious public policy issues that must be debated. There are, however, other deeper questions that are being raised by a few commentators, but are unlikely to receive much attention in the media generally—even though they represent the crux of the problem.

Within a couple days of the Connecticut massacre, the secular left raised their predictable demand for gun control. While most people would have thought that respect for the dead—even more so because most of them were children—and their families would have inhibited political commentary and clamoring for legislation so soon, the left was not deterred. It seemed to be another situation of not letting a crisis go to waste; it was a prime opportunity to promote an ideological and policy agenda. To its credit, the major organizational opponent of gun control, the National Rifle Association, held its tongue for a week before stepping up to call for armed security guards in all public schools. Even then, it seemed reluctant to get a full-scale debate going that soon after the tragedy by refusing to answer media questions at its press conference.

Indeed, it seems as if gun control is the left’s singular solution. Yet, they never seem to address the question of why this should be in light of experience. American cities with the strictest gun control ordinances, such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., have some of the highest rates of violent—including gun—crime. Countries with the toughest gun laws have seen increases in gun crime. Such columnists as Thomas Sowell and Joseph Farah recount various cases in the news in recent years where armed citizens stopped murderous criminals and mass murders in the making.

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With all this, one asks the question: Why does the left fixate on gun control? Part of the reason may just be groupthink. This has been the position of the left for decades, so this is what a “progressive” should believe. At a deeper level, the readiness to blame guns for shooting rampages reflects the left’s general tendency not to view people as responsible for their actions. Just as corrupted and unenlightened institutions are the cause of all evil and human problems, so guns are seen as the cause of murders instead of the person using them. It also represents a domestic version of the attitude that the great international politics scholar Hans J. Morgenthau said typifies the simplistic, abstract-type thinking of many people about the problem of international peace. Just as some think that abiding peace will follow merely if certain changes are made to international law and organizations and if social science principles are properly refined and applied, so others think that gun violence and criminality will largely cease with good gun control legislation. If we—in our unlimited human wisdom—just tinker with things enough, we can solve even deep-seated, perennial problems.

While we can never truly understand evil—the eminent priest-sociologist Paul Hanly Furfey spoke of “the mystery of iniquity”—it is not difficult to pinpoint the basic, broad causes of outrages such as the one in Connecticut. Five sweeping cultural developments of the past fifty or so years are crucial: the rejection of traditional religion, the subversion of sound morality, the breakdown of the family, the dissolution of solid communities that provided reference points and restraining and helping forces, and the proliferation of destructive, illicit drugs. During that period of time in America, mass murders—although not unknown before that—have become all too frequent occurrences.

To be sure, mental illness is also in the mix. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I speak only as a layman, but there are issues that logically present themselves. The young adult mass murderer in Connecticut was supposed to have serious mental problems. We will never know if he realized what he was doing, or if he truly had no control over his actions. Circumstances can often push a person who is mentally “on the edge” over the cliff. Was the fact that he was from a broken family, with his parents having been divorced, a significant factor in aggravating his mental condition? Would he have gone over the cliff if he had not grown up in a secular, amoral or immoral culture? Would he have engaged in brutal violence if he had not been influenced by  nihilistic, violent, destructive elements in popular culture through his absorption in playing violent video games?

Is it unreasonable to think that the above cultural developments and the personal insecurity and social dislocations resulting from them might be factors in triggering mental illness in some cases?

As mentioned, the tendency nowadays is to look for a policy response. Maybe this reaction is another aspect of the beliefs that: institutions and their accoutrements instead of the condition of the human soul are what determine good or evil, and that government can be the solver of all problems. What the secular left needs to do—along with the secular right (it exists) and the masses of people simply caught up in our secular, consumerist, amoral, me-centered culture—is to put ideology and conventional ways of thinking aside for a moment and consider seriously and objectively if, just possibly, the above cultural developments—or certain of them—might not have something to do with tragedies like the one in Connecticut. They might want to ask themselves if, say, the “non-judgmentalism” and moral pluralism in education and other contexts that they have long championed may not have been part of the problem.That takes humility, to be sure, but don’t such events as these necessitate that?

While deep-seated cultural decay, of course, is not easily or quickly addressed (even when there is a broad agreement about its causes), I do not want to imply that legal and public policy changes should not be part of the equation. While governmental action alone cannot change culture, let’s remember the important role that Aristotle, Aquinas and other thinkers said that law can play in helping to rightly form individuals and culture. As far as concerns gun laws, there may be an argument for more regulation. Second Amendment rights, like all rights, are not absolute. Still, it should be recognized that already considerable restrictions are in place and an objective assessment of their effectiveness is necessary (the gunman in the western New York murders was an ex-convict and killer who was forbidden by law to possess firearms, but he still had them). Secondly, a renewed debate is obviously needed about security in schools, college campuses (remember Virginia Tech), and other public buildings—including the question of self-defense measures. While I am inclined to think that firearms do not mix well with the academic atmosphere, teachers and other school personnel shouldn’t have to be sitting ducks. Catholics, by the way, should not believe that they are somehow in opposition to Church teaching if they don’t support gun control initiatives. This is a matter of prudential judgment, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2264-2265) emphasizes the traditional teaching that one has a right to use the amount of force necessary—though not excessive force—to defend himself and those he is responsible for protecting.

Next, it has been apparent for some time now that the mental health policies put in place around the country after the 1960s—and based on the same abstract thinking that gun-control enthusiasts engage in—must be changed. It is time to reconsider deinstitutionalization, extreme confidentiality laws, and standards for commitment (while there were perhaps abuses in institutionalization policies in past times, the current “only if the person is a threat to himself or others” standard simply has been inadequate). At least one state even had the foolish policy of allowing a minor to “sign himself out” of a mental health facility that his parents placed him in once he turns fourteen. The Connecticut gunman’s mother apparently had a difficult time trying to get him into a facility. This may have been particularly crucial, since there is some indication that he had become schizophrenic—a condition that often begins to appear in early adulthood. On the other hand, once a person is under treatment, greater care must be taken in decisions about the use or non-use of powerful psychotropic drugs, as a wrong choice can lead to destructive behavior.

Finally, other public policy changes that would get more to the heart of the matter will not even be raised, such as stemming the tide of family breakdown by restricting divorce and undertaking intensified initiatives to discourage cohabitation and out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the outright banning of gratuitously violent video games and movies. I argue in an essay in my book, The Public Order and the Sacred Order, for the restoration of a sensible regimen of censorship that would clearly distinguish the cops-and-robbers, old war movies kind of violence from the ugly, vivid brutality and gruesomeness that many young people get heavy doses of today. Obviously, most people so exposed—even heavily—to such gratuitous violence do not go out and commit murder, but a small number of those “on the edge” do. Something like the Connecticut massacre helps make a strong case for the restoration of the old legal standard of censoring materials on the grounds that they could adversely affect the most vulnerable among us.

It’s time for some serious, deep reflection and questioning by both decision-makers and the public.


  • Stephen M. Krason

    Stephen M. Krason is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

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