For complex, societal problems, including school shootings, there are no easy answers. We explore this concept through a historical prism.
No Easy Answers
In Lars Brownworth’s Lost to the West, The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization, the author describes the Roman Empire of the late 3rd century CE, “The chaos of nearly continuous civil war made it hard to tell who the emperor actually was, but the tax collectors came anyway with their unceasing demands for more money. The desperate shadow emperors tried to save money by reducing the silver content of their coins, but the resulting inflation crippled the economy, and most of the empire reverted to the barter system.” Yet Rome did not fall in the late 200s CE; it was to endure for another 200 years in the West and nearly 1200 in the East. The author and history provide an easy answer. “Salvation came unexpectedly from Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia). A tough soldier named Diocletian from that backward and rugged land of craggy peaks and lush forests rose to claim the throne.”
Yet it was not as if Diocletian completed his work in a year or five. After two years, Emperor Diocletian, in a bold move, acknowledged that the work as emperor, with the territory so vast, was too much for a single person and raised a fellow officer into the rank of co-emperor. Later he was to appoint two more junior emperors. Diocletian separated and enlarged the empire’s civil and military services and reorganized the empire’s provincial divisions, establishing the largest and most bureaucratic government in the history of the empire. He established new administrative centers in Nicomedia, Mediolanum, Sirmium, and Trevorum, closer to the empire’s frontiers than the traditional capital at Rome. Bureaucratic and military growth, constant campaigning, and construction projects increased the state’s expenditures and necessitated a comprehensive tax reform. From at least 297 on, imperial taxation was standardized, made more equitable, and levied at generally higher rates. Merely destroying his rivals and proclaiming himself in charge was not enough, not nearly enough. Complex problems entail complex answers, something understood by Diocletian.
This is not to say that it cannot be simple guiding principles that set up beacons upon which we navigate. Diocletian’s was simple. Preserve the empire and restore peace, and it took him decades to do so. But what if that guidepost is wrong, and when confronting the most vexing issues of a day, the light to which we are being guided in the wrong one. Recently I read a biography of Franklin Pierce written by Michael F Holt. Pierce was one of the three ineffectual presidents who presided in the ten years before the civil war.
Pierce was bookended by Millard Fillmore before and James Buchanan afterward. All faced the increasingly wrought issue of slavery in the Southern states, and all managed to bungle opportunities to heal the nation. But, Holt notes of Pierce, “the primary factor bringing Pierce to grief was his obsession with preserving the unity of the Democratic Party.” Holt contends that Pierce believed that what united a party was strong opposition. But with the Whigs failing, the Republican Party not even created, and the apparent descent into sectionalism posed by having Northern Democrats with their beliefs aligned against Southern Democrats, unification of the party was the ultimate goal. This meant that Pierce made concessions to party unity at the nation’s expense. However, when strong executive leadership, especially by a New Englander such as Pierce, was needed, compromise for the party won out, especially in the case of the Kansas Nebraska act.
In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois proposed a bill to organize the Territory of Nebraska, a vast area of land that would become Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and the Dakotas. Known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the controversial bill raised the possibility that slavery could be extended into territories where it had once been banned. Its passage intensified the bitter debate over slavery in the United States, later exploding into the Civil War.
Douglas needed proslavery votes to pass his “Nebraska Bill,” as it was known in 1854. To get them, he added an amendment that repealed the Missouri Compromise and created two new territories, Kansas and Nebraska. Settlers in each territory would vote on the issue of whether to permit slavery or not, according to the principle of popular sovereignty. Pro- and antislavery activists flooded into the new Kansas territory, and each side sought to turn popular sovereignty to their own advantage. As the two sides traded outbursts of violence and intimidation, “Bleeding Kansas” would generate national headlines, further inflaming sectional tensions over slavery’s future.
The bill sounded the final death knell of the Whig Party but also ended in splitting the Democrats, and Stephen Douglas would never become president, and Pierce did not even garner the nomination for a second term.
Karl Marx once said history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. But, as with so much of Marx’s belief system, this is stupidly, dangerously, wrong. The recent shooting at the Robb Elementary School was a repeat of a kind ranging from Columbine to Red Lake, Minnesota to Newtown to Uvalde. In response to this, former President Barak Obama stated, “Nearly ten years after Sandy Hook—and ten days after Buffalo—our country is paralyzed, not by fear, but by a gun lobby and a political party that has shown no willingness to act in any way that might help prevent these tragedies.” He added, “It’s long past time for action, any kind of action.” Obama, who, in lieu of the ineffectual nature of President Joe Biden, seems more and more to carry on the mantle of spokesperson for the left.
His supposition is clear. If the National Rifle Association did not exist, these shootings would not happen. Additionally, the argument would be that if the GOP supported the same gun restrictions as those advocated by Obama, again, no shootings. One of the great political myths of our time is that Barack Obama is a great thinker. That his mind is supple and possessed of a vision that exceeds most others. There is little evidence of a towering intellect during his previous terms in the statehouse in IL, in the US Senate, his two terms as president, and his post-presidency.
Instead, he is beloved by the left for the perception of this magnificence rather than any substantive evidence of his vast intelligence. And by the fact that he will tow the party line when push comes to shove. The man who was supposed to lead the nation to a post-racial society became Trayvon Martin’s father and the condemner of half the country.
To blame the National Rifle Association as the only problem is a case in point. According to Open Secrets, the Teacher’s Unions annually spent $32 million on campaign donations in 2020. Compare that to the $4.3 million spent by the NRA. To put that into perspective, look at the spending in the two Georgia Senate races from that year. The race between Republican Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff is the most expensive Senate contest ever, with the candidates and outside groups spending nearly $470 million through Monday. The special election featuring Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rev. Raphael Warnock has drawn nearly $363 million, good for the No. 2 spot. Those figures — which include spending in the primary and general elections — will increase when the candidates file their post-election spending figures with the Federal Election Commission. And keep in mind that the NRA spend was spread out over hundreds of candidates.
But what is especially insulting is not the blow-up of the NRA into a national bogeyman but the concept that there is an easy, simple answer out there – Obama’s stock in trade even more than his two successors. And what is worse is that “any action” will suffice.
I get it. It is nearly impossible to watch almost two dozen small children killed and not want an immediate reaction, something that will do something. Those children will never grow up, never fall in love, or enjoy the incredible fruits of this life and this nation. Writing that is hard. But well thought out, considered answers are hard as well. The easy path is to blame a small lobby and conflate their aims with the American people. The NRA has been around for decades, but American support for the 2nd Amendment has actually been enhanced since school shootings began about 20 years ago, “Two recent polls show the shift. Gallup pins American support for more gun control at a tick above 50 percent, the lowest mark since 2014. At the same time, Quinnipiac polling pegged the number even lower, showing just 45 percent support stricter gun laws – a drop of nine points since April this year.
The data includes that 54 percent of self-described Independents oppose enacting more gun laws. This reflects firearm industry survey data from the past two years showing first-time buyers broke the molds of traditional gun owners. That number reached more than 8.4 million in 2020. That also reflected hikes in African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-American gun buyers. More than 3.2 million Americans bought their first firearm within the first six months of 2021.
That shift isn’t in the shadows either. ABC’s The View guest host Sherri Shephard defied the routine call for increased gun control and admitted she purchased a gun. “I felt very empowered when I bought this gun. I took lessons, I took the test, I go to the range with my girlfriends like every other week, and it just makes me feel like at least if something happens, I can protect my child.” That is not the NRA; that is something deeper.
The Washington Post, not a source to be confused with Fox News or the NRA, in an article about gun control law effectiveness, stated in a Glenn Kessler piece posted on May 27, 2022, “The short answer is that many proposed laws probably would not have much impact on curbing the mass shootings that dominate the news. But they could lessen their severity and might also bring down overall gun violence. Most mass shooters are very determined individuals, and even with an average of seven or eight mass shootings a year, new laws might only reduce the number by one a year. But he said stricter gun control laws would be “the right thing to do for a different reason” — they might help reduce overall gun violence.” Reducing incidents from eight to seven, and the word “might” are not exactly encouraging.
One of the best political commentators of our time, Kevin Williamson, goes a little further. In a fantastic piece entitled While We Panic about Sharks, the Bees Keep Stinging Away posted on May 25, 2022.
Williamson’s title is not just an eye-grabber but lays out that we have more to fear from bees than sharks, but it is the latter we worry about. Williamson writes, “Kristof also writes that we might reduce crime by more rigorously enforcing laws against “straw purchases,” which are used to get around background checks — but he never asks why it is that we do not rigorously enforce those laws already. Kristof and New York Times–reading progressives want those laws enforced, or so they say; so do the National Rifle Association and many other guns-rights defenders, myself included. But in Democrat-controlled cities in Democrat-controlled states, these laws go unenforced and the offenders unprosecuted. At times, the federal government publicly refuses to enforce these laws unless it is part of a larger organized-crime investigation, as in the case of the US attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. Why?
Kristof writes a great deal about guns but very little about shooters. He might consult his own newspaper’s reporting, which has found that four out of five of the murders committed in New York City are committed by offenders with prior arrest records. In many cases, these include prior weapons offenses. The same has held true in studies of crime in other high-crime cities. Statistically, the number of homicides that are committed by means of semiautomatic rifles is negligible: All rifles together account for only about 2.5 percent of homicides. But Kristof and others like him would rather focus on the maybe 1 percent of murders that involve culturally resonant “assault style” rifles than the 83 percent that involve prior offenders. As it turns out, crime is committed by criminals.”
I am not always a fan of Wikipedia, but in this case, the site has proven horrifically useful in providing a grisly catalog of school shootings. A few things stand out. First, the mass shootings of Uvalde are an anomaly compared to the one-offs on this list. Here is an example from Des Moines, Around 2:42 P.M. CST, shooters from multiple vehicles opened fire on a group of teenagers in front of East High School in a drive-by shooting. Three teenagers, a 15-year-old targeted male, a 16-year-old female, and an 18-year-old female, were shot and transferred to hospitals where they were reported to be in critical condition. The targeted victim died from his injuries shortly after that. Six teenagers were arrested in the following hours and were later charged as adults with murder.
And another from WI, a 19-year-old man (suspected to be Amaree Goodall) shot and killed another 19-year-old man, Jion Broomfield, in the parking lot of Beloit Memorial High School. The victim was admitted to a nearby hospital around 9:07 P.M. CST with a gunshot wound to his leg and died shortly after. Goodall, a native of Madison, was not captured until March. The other piece is that they are always young males down to a person. And one final point, 75% of the mass shootings and a disproportionate number of the shooters grew up in a home without a father. In a posting by Emilie Kao for the Heritage Institute, Kao states, “In the wake of the Parkland massacre, the age-old question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has a newfound relevance. As another mass school shooting stuns Americans, it is time to talk about how to protect students from shooters and what must happen so that fewer students become shooters in the first place. In addition, it is crucial to discuss how more American children can grow up with the emotional, psychological, and spiritual security that comes from relationships where one is deeply cared for, connected, and known.
What lies inside so many school shooters is a deep void of identity and relationship that they tragically seek to fill through nihilistic violence. In addition, there is a sobering theme repeated repeatedly in the biographies of school shooters—the fatherlessness of a broken or never formed family.
Among the 25 most-cited school shooters since Columbine, 75 percent were reared in broken homes. Psychologist Dr. Peter Langman, a pre-eminent expert on school shooters, found that most came from incredibly broken homes of divorce and separation and infidelity, substance abuse, criminal behavior, domestic violence, and child abuse. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, scholar Brad Wilcox called attention to the work of criminologists Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, which found the absence of fathers to be one of the “most powerful predictors of crimes.” He explained that fathers are role models for their sons who maintain authority and discipline, thereby helping them develop self-control and empathy toward others, key character traits lacking in violent youth.”
Simple question: Texas’s gun laws have been relatively unchanged for 60 years. Guns have been a factor in America, to a greater extent than in other nations, for centuries. Yet why, only in the past 22 years, beginning in Columbine, have we seen the targeting of the innocent, and not coincidentally, the one place where shooters know two things are evident, a lack of armed personnel and guaranteed notoriety. Shooters do not target police stations or army bases.
And the easy answer reaction is present on some rightist platforms as well. Arming teachers or installing a cop in the school might help, but this is not the only issue like gun control. Williamson writes, “Though shark attacks happen, as a practical matter, we don’t have a shark problem — we have a bee problem: ordinary, undramatic social pathologies related to family breakdown, misgovernance, deficient law enforcement, an ineffective criminal-justice system, shockingly dysfunctional schools, etc. But we don’t pick the policies that are likely to prove lasting solutions — we pick the villain who suits us best politically and proceeds from there.”
Is this a screed against all gun control laws? No. I believe in the 2nd Amendment but do not believe in unfettered permissiveness. I believe we should consider raising ownership levels to 21. I believe there should be stringent background checks and long waiting periods. I feel certain weapons be off the shelves. Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal wishes that tech companies be employed to provide red flags upon online discussions of murder. Not a prohibition but rather a tiered approached to lead our law providing authorities to possible perpetrators before they happen. Tech algorithms could do this today. And as for privacy protections? I cannot drive a tollway or purchase a donut without the state of IL knowing where I am. We are already living with some curtailment but is this the right cause? Again, something to consider.
I do not think that somehow these initiatives will lead to a slippery slope of 2nd amendment retraction. There is simply too much bulwark against a revocation of an existing amendment.
But of raising the age limit, further background checks or red flag laws, I would also note that these measures may curtail, but will not prevent these shootings. As the editors of the National Review note, “It is not true, by contrast, that to remove AR-15s from the shelves of America’s gun stores would do anything useful at all. The worst mass shooting on a college campus in all of US history — the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech — was carried out with a couple of handguns. The attack at Columbine High School in 1999 occurred while the Biden-written “assault weapons ban” was in place. Even today, handguns are more commonly used in massacres than rifles. Abhorrent as it is to contemplate such things, it is difficult to imagine that the shooter in Uvalde would have been less able to wreak havoc in a classroom full of unarmed people had he been in possession of a pistol, a revolver, or a shotgun.”
Chicago crime is currently sky-high. Through the end of April, 178 people have been killed in Chicago this year, a number of the teens killed by other teens, according to Chicago Police Department data. The number of shootings is 714 shootings this year compared to 830 through the end of April 2021. Last month alone, there were 49 homicides. Now, as gun control experts are quick to point out, 60% of the guns used in these crimes were purchased out of state and then moved into the city (that still leaves 40% purchased within the city). But as we have seen with drugs coming into the country or illegal immigration, and sometimes the two are conflated, supply will follow if there is a demand.
As I was writing this piece, some news came forth that the police might have acted too late as some of them held back for unexplainable reasons. Though this is undoubtedly important in the context of this incident and the final death count, it is not relevant to the simple issue that an 18-year-old male planned and executed this crime.
And that is where we come back to a Roman who lived millennia ago. There are no easy answers to this. I would borrow from both sides. Consider stricter gun laws but understand this is not the only answer. The posting of police may seem easy as well. But consider that there are over 132,000 K-12 schools in the United States. Will Cori Bush in St. Louis or Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in Brooklyn advocate for the hiring of the additional thousands of officers necessary to meet this challenge? There are things we can do to the entrance of the school. And there is one reform highly opposed by gun control advocates. Two well-trained teacher marshals in each school. Both are highly vetted, and both are armed. As I noted, shooters go for schools because they think they will succeed in their terrible carnage fever dreams. It might give some would shooters pause to consider that someone will shoot back in a very short time when they begin shooting.
But Diocletian was not just changing laws. He recognized some underlying problems with how the empire had been governed. Though his successor Constantine moved the capital from Rome to the East, it was the Dalmatian Diocletian who began the process. This was a different way to look at things. One of the hallmarks of the great Ronald Reagan was his tax reform act of 1986. Signed into law by Republican President Ronald Reagan on October 22, 1986, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was sponsored in Congress by Richard Gephardt (D-MO) in the House of Representatives and Bill Bradley (D-NJ) in the Senate. The act is commonly known to be the second of two Reagan tax cuts, the first being the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981. Three things stand out. Note the letter after the sponsors. Reagan was arguably the most conservative, and unarguably the most successful Republic president of the past 90 years. That did not preclude him from actually (as opposed to the fakery extolled by Joe Biden) of working across the aisle. The second is the complexity of the thing. The third is that it was first and last a legislative piece, not one where blanks are to be filled by the executive or final determinations made by the judiciary.
In 2022, we have legislators far more interested in clicks and likes than a true reform bill. They are more concerned with getting on TV for 30 second sound bites that taking the necessary months, or a year, to craft a truly effective answer to anything whether it be immigration, crime, taxes, inflation, foreign treaties and certainly prevention of school shootings. And yet, with an issue of no easy answers, diligence, thoughtfulness, wisdom and determination are the attributes necessary to solve our most vexing problems. The answer is not TV reality stunts such as Robert Francis O’Rourke, self styled Beto, showing up at a Texas Governor Greg Abbot press conference to yell and perform. Of all the complexities inherent in an answer to school shootings, none should ever involve O’Rourke.
And one of those answers involves a reexamination of our culture. For 70 years, we have seen a cultural change in which the concept of single-parent homes went from rare, to common, to celebrated. Barack Obama’s campaign itself created the infamous Life of Julia montage in which a woman’s partner is not a man or a woman but the government itself. No need for a helpmate when the government will serve in that role. Only it doesn’t. We have to confront whether it is single-parent homes, video game culture, lack of spirituality perpetuated by the decline of religion, or a certain nihilism inherent in our politics, something poisonous seeps through our society. We can try to prevent gun purchases and post police officers in schools, but that will not save the alteration of our teen males that is at the root of these tragedies. And solving this issue will be no easy answer.