We’ve gotten used to violence as background hum, yet we are unprepared to recognize and live alongside people who have been hurt.
When ardent defenders of gun rights don’t want to talk about what’s wrong with guns, they talk about what they think is wrong with the people who make the news for using guns the way they’re made to be used. Often there’s a quietly intense litany of curses — “crazy,” “nuts” — meaning the individuals in question do not count among the “normal.” During this part, they always spit the word “sick” as though there is nothing more wretched and strange than being mentally unwell. Being me. Being among what is actually an enormous and ordinary population.
A disdain for those deemed abnormal is animating the conversation. After the massacres in Las Vegas and Parkland, the idea of bringing back asylums has found new support, in thoughtless one-offs but also in serious proposals in trustworthy outlets. A few Parkland survivors, too, suggested targeting the mentally ill for increased surveillance by law enforcement. There is a troubling desire to deal with the disorder that is gun violence by putting people on notice for their diagnoses.
It can be hard to define disorder, both in the clinic and in talking about what we will and will not put up with as a society. It takes nuance to distinguish disorder from wellbeing on a continuum of possibilities and amid the deep inflections of culture and social context. (Are you depressed, or going through a rough patch? Are you fasting because of anorexia or a religious observance? Is an unlivable minimum wage a spur to betterment or a sign of breakdown?)
But carefully defining disorder is core to grappling with the U.S. gun problem — and envisioning a less disordered, more just world. What do we admit into the fold of normal? What do we map to the edges? And what are we seeing all upside down?
For all the people who marched and spoke out for gun control, there may remain as many with a stoic, fatalist understanding that tragedies like gun violence are to be expected. But this understanding coexists with the idea that the various kinds of hurt seen as the causes and effects of gun violence — mental illness as well as the wounds that follow the path of a rifle round — are not a part of ordinary life. We’ve gotten used to violence as background hum, yet we are unprepared to recognize and live alongside people who have been hurt. We’re caught in a chilling dynamic of hurt disseminated and then obscured.
It must be said again up front that the link from mental illness to gun violence is far from straightforward. So entwined are our ideas of mental illness and shocking violence that the question of whether a violent individual is mentally ill is often answered by the fact of their behavior. It is true that reports of mental illness are common among those who carry out some of the most devastating mass shootings. But there remain many mass shooters who do not have an established diagnosis; and among perpetrators of smaller-scale violence, who far outnumber mass shooters, rates of mental illness are unusually low. Even severe mental illness is not enough to explain the pronounced patterns of gun violence unique to the U.S., because concomitant disadvantages are part of the picture. Using the single variable of mental health as a net for identifying danger captures far too many people who were never going to violate the social contract.
The wrongful dread of mental illness as this seed of unthinkable acts makes it difficult to conceive of mental illness as an ordinary characteristic, found abundantly among friends and neighbors and maybe even in ourselves. When I was struggling to get a handle on my major depressive disorder, I understood the concept of “needing help” to mean possessing shortcomings terrible enough to require professional intervention. I shrank from crucial medical care because accepting it would have felt like admitting monstrosity. I did not realize how common my illness was. Nor did I realize that monstrous tendencies inhabit every human being, not just the ones we would make outcasts.
The unseen ordinariness of mental illness, and other illness, can explain gaps in care. Sickness is implicitly seen by too many lawmakers as what happens when you have done something wrong, not a quotidian fact of numerous lives regardless of how they have been lived. If serious illness were seen as truly ordinary, it would not be so hard to afford. Nor would disability be so often a sentence of poverty. Workers would have the right to get sick yet stay employed. Swaths of public life would not still be inaccessible to people with disabilities, and the Americans with Disabilities Act would not be at risk of getting fundamentally undercut.
The people who survive gunshot wounds are no exception to this neglect. The tens of thousands who die every year in the U.S. because of guns are staggering enough, but these dead represent only 20% of those who have gone through the trauma of being shot. Many of the survivors deal with chronic pain and posttraumatic stress combined with health-care insecurity, as detailed by sociologist Jooyoung Lee. Many are uninsured or underinsured and struggle to control their pain, and some may become desperate to find relief; one leapt into traffic in order to be admitted to a hospital for pain treatment. “In addition to feeling victimized by their shooters, gunshot victims also felt victimized by a health care system that did not continue to care for them,” Lee writes.
Even more numerous than the dead and wounded are those who care about them. Some time ago, a rare dear friend to me gained access to a gun, and left us. They were 17, I was also 17. I still dream about it. Impossible to trace the immense shape of the loss. But here is a fragment of it: Not long afterward, I sought out a doctor and asked for a new prescription for an antidepressant. I am trying to say a gunshot has a long echo.
Each of these hurts is elided by inaction. Despite a richness of resources we are at least adjacent to, the threshold at which our current leaders begin to pretend to want to address the health and safety of the hurting, including those with mental illness or physical wounds, is a critical mass of tragic headlines and town hall callouts where constituents beg for access to medicine or for protections from weapons that will continue to inflict injury. The rest of the time, the everyday fact of hurt is, it seems, too atypical to acknowledge through meaningful action at high levels.
“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship,” wrote Susan Sontag. “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” If only Sontag’s view were more widespread.
Next to the refusal to see illness as ordinary is the reluctance, especially among those whose foremost sympathies lie with a couple lines on a centuries-old document, to see current levels of gun violence as disordered. Gun deaths in the U.S. have been repeatedly excused as the price of our exceptional freedom. These deaths now threaten to outpace those from car crashes. Few of the records of people shooting each other are defensive or can be in any way justified; far more incidents are murders or suicides. The violence is absolutely beyond a passing side effect of patriotic or honorable necessity.
Yet the prevailing understanding has been that this violence is impenetrable and inevitable. This violence is not to be challenged, but accommodated. For all the dismay felt across the ideological spectrum after every tragedy, there remains a current of deference. There is a greater willingness to carve out gun-shaped spaces across the lives of the potentially vulnerable than to, say, reinstate the ban on assault weapons. School shootings are to be met with backpacks that are bulletproof or see-through, behemoth panic rooms wedged beside students’ desks, something something CPR, calls for more empathy not from potential shooters but from potential victims, and buckets of river rocks in every classroom for dispatching threats by stoning. Believing violence to be inevitable also looks like increasing the presence of police in schools, which brings further risks of violence toward and criminalization of students of color and students with disabilities.
These measures are sometimes called hardening the target. They amount to a crouch that braces against onslaughts of our own making as against the uncontrollable weather. It is imaginatively flat.There is a greater willingness to carve out gun-shaped spaces across the lives of the potentially vulnerable than to, say, reinstate the ban on assault weapons. Click To Tweet
All these imaginative shortfalls converge in the worst way. The costs of gun violence, from physical to financial, are immense, yet numerically murky. These wounds not only are seen as inconvenient outliers but also have not been adequately quantified, thanks to the ongoing inability of federal agencies to research gun violence. This lack of clarity on consequences muffles the urgency of acting on the problem.
The rhythm of violence inflicted while its effects are obscured is often wielded by the privileged and powerful. We see this with sexual predators. We see this in the increasing permanence of war and the failure to care for veterans, or to reckon with the damage left behind. We see this as the right of the police to freely execute black people, made normal every time yet another officer responsible is released without charges.
And it’s in privilege and power that we might begin to find an explanation for the seeming inability of a nation to connect the dots from gunshot to wound. Gun laws in the U.S. have long operated in service of white supremacy. The majority of mass shooters are white men, and about half are domestic abusers; and men constitute the vast majority of shooters overall. But the group most vulnerable to gun violence is young, working-class black men.
Many noted the contrast between the widely cheered protests spurred by the well-off white neighborhood of Parkland and the less-popular movement for black lives, rooted in Ferguson. Gun violence as it most often occurs elicits so little material response because the aggressor or the injured can often be subsumed into structures of oppression. If those who remain in that imaginative crouch shifted the landscape of their sympathy, perhaps the violence we have come to know as everyday would seem more strange. The people who have been hurting the most could finally make their way from the periphery to the focus.