On a day when people in South Carolina are mourning yet another vile instance of innocent lives cut short by a deranged white supremacist, obviously I'm not the only one who's going to take to the laptop and write something to try to make some sense of it. Because it doesn't make sense--storming a prayer meeting because blacks are going to rape all the white women is such a blazingly revolting (not to mention tired) excuse for a shooting spree that it might as well have come from a guy named Augustus P. McSlaveholder circa 1852. But one context that does make the tragedy a bit clearer for me is the fact that we're absolute shit at talking seriously about race relations, guns, and mental illness in the United States.
I know I'm not the only person who has entered a discussion about American violence that has left me convinced I am in the Twilight Zone, in which perfectly sane people insist that racism is largely solved, mental illness is all in your head (pun intended), and that gun violence in this country is about a few bad apples and not, you know, guns. I've had people tell me that you can decide not to have depression, that it's a choice. I've had people say that violence is way worse in other countries, and American violence is rare (which is actually not a very good reason to ignore the problem of American violence, since a July 2014 report concluded we had witnessed more than 100 mass shooting since 2009 alone, a stat I didn't have ready to hand at the time). In fact, I have had these conversations so often that now I have a list titled People You Should Never Talk About R, G, or MI With Again, which largely solves itself since they block me on Facebook (thank you for that, Facebook blockers). But let's talk about it today, because people are dying. Shall we?
Let's start with guns. The Founding Fathers, May They Forever Shine Down Upon Us in Bewigged Intergalactic Wisdom, said we had the right to bear arms. I agree with them. So far so good. Let's have guns. Three quarters of the guns used in mass killings were obtained legally. Awesome. The Founding Fathers, May They Eternally Bless Our Cheeseburger-Stuffed Crust Pizzas From Sea to Shining Sea, were talking about flintlock rifles. How many people exactly do you think you can kill with a flintlock rifle? The Founding Fathers, May They in Glorious Perpetuity Hail the Epic Fireworks of Liberty on Our Cookouts, did not have access to assault weapons. Here is an excerpt from a Mother Jones article regarding mass killings, which almost exclusively are accomplished with guns rather than, say, poison gas:
The arsenal included dozens of assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines. Just as Jeffrey Weise used a .40-caliber Glock to slaughter students in Red Lake, Minnesota, in 2005, so too did James Holmes, along with an AR-15 assualt rifle, when blasting away at his victims in a darkened movie theater. In Newtown, Connecticut, Adam Lanza wielded a .223 Bushmaster semi-automatic assault rifle as he massacred 20 school children and six adults.
Now, I'm no gun expert, but I am a historical novelist, and I'm pretty sure this isn't the weaponry George and Ben and Thomas et al had in mind when they were discussing our right to defend ourselves against British occupation. I'm also not a hunting expert, but I'm reasonably certain you don't need that kind of firepower to kill a deer.
Next: mental illness. Whoooooo boy. I recently posted a blog about my own struggles with PTSD, anxiety, and panic attacks, and the fact I finally actually ponied up and got myself brain meds, because I was torturing myself for no clear reason and I couldn't take it anymore. Since then, dozens of people have contacted me to say they felt similarly, or knew someone who'd hid it for a very long time, and that I was brave to admit in public that I was sick.
I thanked all those people individually for their kindness, and the more of them who came out of the woodwork, the more angry I felt that it's perceived as brave to talk about mental illness. Because in a sense, they were absolutely right--mental illness is so stigmatized that many people never get help or never tell others they got help (the latter is better but still rather tragic). To be clear: I wasn't being brave when I wrote the blog post, because I know that sick brains are no different from sick kidneys or sick tonsils, though it was extremely generous and supportive of people to suggest I was. The brave part was going to the doctor and admitting I needed help and couldn't hide it anymore, because I felt like there was an electric bagpipe convention going on inside my head.
But if we keep up this ridiculous stigma, more mental illness will remain untreated, and if we fail to have honest conversations about ways of getting medical help to people who are in essence ticking time bombs, we will continue to be threatened in our schools, our churches, and our workplaces. Period. I'm not suggesting that every mass shooter needs sympathy, hugs, and meds, and all will be well--the component of twisted morals and evil intentions aren't lost on me. But a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center reported in 2014 that a University of North Texas investigation into 30 mass killings concluded:
Twelve perpetrators had psychotic symptoms at the time of the killings and another 8 individuals "exhibited behavior suggestive of psychosis;" thus 20 of the 30 perpetrators (67%) had definite or probable psychosis. The most common diagnoses were schizophrenia, delusional disorder, and major depression.
Now, I'm no doctor. But I find that figure...compelling. The rest of the article contains numerous further examples of other studies that supported this one's findings.
Finally, a word about race. Two years ago, Chief Justice John Roberts calmly told us, "Our country has changed," before striking down the Voting Rights Act. I'm not getting into the sort of things I wanted to do to John Roberts following that decision, though it involved restraints, honey, and fire ants. But the deaths of so many African Americans at the hands of the militarized police who are meant to protect and serve that led to the #BlackLivesMatter movement proves Roberts wrong if not batshit insane, and this latest crime was a hate crime committed by a white supremacist, so for god's sake, let's pull our heads out of our asses when it comes to this subject. Here is a graphic of American assault deaths by region from the Washington Post:
Now, I'm no sociologist. But I am a historical novelist, and South Carolina's Confederate flag is still flying on the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, and if you can't draw any conclusions from this pair of facts, then you were probably raised in an Antarctic isolation chamber.
So let's talk about these things. Really actually talk about them. Because people are dying, and we are a nation that helps each other, and the world is watching. And it's the right thing to do.