In the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., a cry has gone up for gun control and ways to keep guns from people with mental illness. What we really need is to address the causes of these shootings – issues of mental health and social isolation.
By 4:30 p.m. on the Friday of the Newtown, Conn., shooting, the Internet was awash with calls for action from pundits and citizens to prevent similar tragedies from recurring. These calls centered on gun control – an unfortunate, but not surprising, reaction that, despite its best intentions, steers the conversation away from meaningful reforms in the United States by merely restricting gun rights.
Ultimately, a firearm is a mere tool – an inanimate piece of metal incapable of action without human intervention. Any real solution attempting to prevent future mass shootings must focus less on the gun, and more on what factors drive people to pick up that gun and engage in indiscriminate killing. In particular, preventing future mass shootings requires a frank look at underlying, and often unaddressed, mental illness and social isolation in America.
Even in the 21st century, stigma surrounding mental and emotional health persists. It is an uncomfortable topic that consequently receives little public discussion. Even in the wake of Newtown, one line of questioning asks: “How can we keep guns out of the hands of those with mental illness"? What we should be asking, however, is what avenues are available to help those individuals, and to what extent society is responsible for assisting them.
American society has painted itself into a corner on mental illness: Many individuals hesitate to seek help for fear of the attached stigma and ostracizing; their families refuse to inform the authorities for those same reasons, while schools and employers can often do nothing because of “privacy” concerns (a.k.a., fear of litigation). Another issue is access to treatment and cost.
Even addressing these root problems, though, is no panacea. Hand-in-hand with the conversation about how to help those struggling with mental illness, must come an examination of social isolation in American society. Among mass shooters in the US, a striking pattern is emerging: troubled, adolescent males, and middle-aged, often white, males as the perpetrators. The adolescents are often intelligent and quiet, but also described as “weird” and aloof. Many of the middle-aged men carry the bitterness and helplessness felt in a society from which they are increasingly isolated through divorce, layoffs, and rapid advances in technology.