Memorial to Sandy Hook victims. Credit: Wendy Mitchell
In the Wake of Sandy Hook, Who is Responsible For Making Us Safe?

I found myself profoundly moved by the horrific school shooting in Connecticut.  As a criminologist I’ve looked closely at the details of many of these shootings going back to the Columbine massacre of 1999, the year I started teaching at Brooklyn College. I’m not sure if it was the terrible scale of the violence, the ages of so many of the victims or, more likely, the fact that I now have two young children myself, that undermined my usual scholarly detachment, but undermined it was.

Like so many parents, my first impulse was to worry about the safety of my own child’s school. Could better security have made a difference in this case? Should we consider adding metal detectors and armed guards at more schools? Would hardening the target help deflect some of the murderous violence experienced by school children? The temptation to go this route is strong. How can we justify not pursuing any approach that might increase the safety of our children?

But does this approach really make our children any safer and if so at what cost? It seems unlikely that a highly motivated attacker will be deterred by such measures. It’s possible that their rage might be temporarily displaced to a public park or shopping mall, but the end results might be no less unbearable. And what about the implications for our children going to school in an armed fort? Does this really communicate safety to them? Or does it instead add a sense of insecurity and confusion: “Daddy, why are there men with guns in my school?”

Perhaps if we had more effective gun control, such as in Great Britain or Japan, these kinds of attacks would at least be less lethal? While I strongly support most efforts to reduce the availability of guns and ammunition, this seems unlikely to be a viable solution. A spate of knife attacks that killed18 school children in China in 2010 has shown that rigid gun control alone is not enough. Further, in many cases the guns used had legitimate hunting or sporting uses that make it unlikely they will ever be totally eliminated from an America governed by the Second Amendment. 

Even if we could pass substantial laws restricting new guns and buying back those already in circulation, as was done in Australia, America’s culture of violence would remain. Our political leaders thrive on the use of violence to solve problems. Foreign policy through war, drone strikes, and the mass incarceration of millions have been bipartisan staples of American politics. Our corporate controlled entertainment industries reap huge profits from torture films, gangster rap, and a never ending glut of violent video games aimed at children and young adults. The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, who ushered in reforms there wrote:So deeply embedded is the gun culture of the US, that millions of law-abiding, Americans truly believe that it is safer to own a gun, based on the chilling logic that because there are so many guns in circulation, one's own weapon is needed for self-protection. To put it another way, the situation is so far gone there can be no turning back.”

If target hardening and gun control are inadequate on their own, what else could be done to prevent this kind of violence? Do we need stronger laws with greater penalties to convince would be offenders to think twice about shooting up a school? Tragically, so many of these incidents end in the death of the perpetrator. Either through direct suicide or indirectly by forcing police to kill them, few of these killers ever stand trial. And even if they did survive, many of them suffer from profound mental illness or are children. Besides which, the very nature of the act is so irrational as to undermine any likelihood that a rational weighing of the potential consequences of their actions is likely to occur, making the threats associated with deterrence irrelevant. 

If mental illness plays such a central role in these attacks, perhaps we need to dramatically shift our approach to these problems in society? There is no question that social stigma and ignorance have isolated the mentally ill and by extension has made us unwilling to put in place the costly therapeutic infrastructures that might help prevent these kinds of attacks. The inadequacy of school counselors and unwillingness of employers and state governments to pay for mental health treatment have left millions without adequate diagnosis or treatment. And for every one of them who commits a mass killing there are thousands more who kill themselves or others in less dramatic ways. 

But is this really the whole story? Can we medicalize and psychologize away these kinds of tragedies? Psychiatric efforts may help with early interventions and long term treatment of the potentially violent, but that doesn’t address the growing frequency and intensity of these attacks in the last generation. The prescribing of pills to millions of adults and children has brought some relief, but the effects are sometimes temporary and not without their own costs in terms of side effects, dependency, and the muting of personalities. What social forces are at work that produce the levels of mental illness we see in society today and draw them towards the use of guns to commit mass murder? In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. in his eulogy for the 4 girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing pointed out that "We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers."

For the last 40 years we’ve experienced a steady erosion of social stability in so many spheres of our lives. Our families are in decline. Single parenthood, high divorce rates, and absent parents have become more and more common. While same sex marriages and creative caregiving arrangements are signs of progress, cuts to quality childcare, long hours worked by parents, and the inability of many young people to earn enough to create a stable environment for their children are all major concerns. 

Our communities are struggling. As more and more people are forced to work more and longer hours, little time is left for community development. The insecurities of the housing market as it gyrates between rapid price increases and disinvestment and abandonment have made us all nervous about our economic futures. The recent spate of foreclosures has added to this as we worry about both our own ability to pay the mortgage, and also those around us. Government disinvestment at all levels has further undermined the physical and social infrastructure of local places; shifting the burden onto individuals. 

This disinvestment is rapidly spreading to more aspects of our lives. Growing attacks on public employees have driven down wages and benefits; shrinking the middle class. For those already in a tough place, declining government support for education, housing, and even basic nutrition have made the least well off even more insecure. Constant calls to cut Social Security and Medicare have eroded the confidence of retires. Private sector employment is no better. The guarantee of long term employment with good benefits has been eliminated for all but a few. Freelancing, intermittent unemployment, reduced wages, and diminished benefits have become the norm as outsourcing, deindustrialization, and the dismantling of successful companies by voracious corporate raiders have taken their toll. 

Our schools face a terrible dilemma. Just as the social problems of children are increasing, funding is being cut. One of the first things to go is school counselors, who are central to identifying problem children and arranging for their care and supervision. Many students are left to fend for themselves as teachers are forced to engage in damage control, trying to preserve a meaningful learning environment for as many as they can. 

It is in this environment of powerlessness and humiliation that mental illness and murderous rage are allowed to fester. Some have turned to more intensive religious observance, while others have pursued an ever changing regimen of self-help efforts. Many more have turned to drugs and alcohol to try to tame the fear and heartbreak that comes with failures and insecurities at work, home, and school. None, however, are truly successful in restoring a sense of control over life. Sometimes it seems the harder we struggle, the more the quicksand pulls us under. 

President Obama has pledged that complacency can no longer be accepted and action must be taken. But what action? Yes we need greater restrictions on weapons. Assault rifles, 50 cartridge magazines, and on line sales of ammunition, as well as the easy availability of millions of handguns should be stopped. Yes, we need new investment in mental health services from school counselors to long term care. But these efforts by themselves will not stop the culture of violence or the pain, humiliation, and fear that contribute to explosive outbursts of violent rage. We need to take concrete steps to restore a sense of order, rationality, and well-being to our society. 

We can start by acknowledging the challenges so many people face in cobbling together a decent living capable of supporting a stable family. We should stop the attacks on workers and their benefits. We can’t let every job in this country be reduced to wages so low that workers, like those at Walmart, are eligible for food stamps and Medicaid. We must take head-on the problems of racism and economic inequality that are tearing apart our social fabric—dividing us into hostile camps with declining regard for others. While government can’t solve all of our problems, there is more it can do to reign in the worst abuses of economic actors and their single-minded pursuit of profit at the expense of all else. President Obama’s recent reelection holds out some hope for this, but Obama, himself has liberalized federal gun laws, cut the pay of Federal workers, and continually favored the financial health of banks over that of homeowners and the unemployed.

As parents we must love our children and strive to protect them. But in a global world full of insecurities we must do more. We must find ways to work together to demand that our children inherit a world that is more stable and secure than the one we live in today. We must take more responsibility for holding our political leaders accountable for their failures. We cannot wait for them to act on our behalf. We cannot be satisfied that our candidate wins reelection every few years. We must act as if our lives and our children’s lives depend on it—because too often, they do. 

Alex S. Vitale is Associate Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. You can follow him on Twitter at @avitale.