On Sunday, a man walked into a spa in Brookfield, Wis. and opened fire. Three people were killed and four were injured before the suspect, Radcliffe Haughton, turned the gun on himself. The Brookfield shooting comes just three months after the shooting at a Sikh temple in nearby Oak Creek. A rash of gun violence always leads to discussions about gun control laws, and these are good discussions to have. But by stopping the conversation there, we run the risk of obscuring the deeper societal factors that can lead people to see violence as the only solution to their problems. It is understanding and combating this perspective that will lead to reduced gun violence, not heaps of legislation.
In terms of shootings, the Sikh temple tragedy is an anomaly: a white supremacist expressed his intolerance in the most literal way possible. We hear about it in the media precisely because of the racist element, as well as the unexpectedness of the shooting in a community not typically characterized by violent crime. What we don’t see in the press are details on the 76 homicides that occurred in Milwaukee last year, according to crime statistics from the city’s government. We don’t see the shooting of Galesburg resident Terrell Allen on August 27 making national news. We don’t see the violence that, for many in our own communities, has become as regular an occurrence as a fire alarm at Five-Name.
It’s unrealistic, of course, to expect the media to cover every shooting with the same tenacity as it has for Oak Creek, Aurora and Virginia Tech. There are simply too many stories to write. So don’t blame the press for not doing more to keep routine violence in the public discourse. Instead, ask why some communities have become almost desensitized to violent crime by virtue of its frequency. Ask why national discourse on violence almost always comes back to gun control rather than the patterns of shootings or the environments in which they occur.
Because shootings don’t happen in a vacuum. There will likely always be people who use violence to achieve racist or other unpalatable and intolerable objectives. There will always be people who snap, as may have been the case with Haughton, due to domestic troubles. But it is the rare act of extreme violence that has not been meticulously considered, that has not arisen out of an extended period of pressure and discontent. For those in disadvantaged areas with few economic or educational opportunities, a bullet can seem like the only way of expressing a viewpoint. For those struggling with depression or other mental disorders, a gun can seem like a weapon of clarity when they cannot find help cutting through complex emotions. This in no way condones violent acts, but it does create a propensity towards it — a propensity which, in many cases, is entirely preventable.
If we want to address shootings, we do need to talk about gun regulation laws. But we cannot let that dominate a conversation that is also about social structures and stigmas concerning mental health. Policymakers would do well to advocate investment in education in underprivileged communities, and we would all do well to consider our attitudes towards those dealing with mental issues.
The key to decreasing gun violence is to provide legal, easily accessible venues through which to express grievances or unhappiness, to make people aware that those venues exist and to encourage their use without judgment. Only then will fewer people see the answer to their problems while staring down the barrel of a gun.