After a maniac shot up a packed movie theater in Colorado last week, the prognoses were quick to arrive: Ban guns. Don’t ban guns, but ban assault rifles. Ban violent movies. Ban midnight screenings of popular movies. It is ungentlemanly to censure anyone’s reactions to such a painful tragedy, but it is in times of crisis that we most need sound ideas, and what we got after the Aurora shooting has been utter drivel.
To prove the point, here’s a thought experiment: Let’s assume that one year before James Holmes stepped into the Century 16 multiplex and fired off hundreds of rounds, killing at least 12 people and wounding 58 others, the United States had banned all guns. In that scenario, Holmes is still a budding psychopath, his mind gradually consumed by violent visions. He still wants to make a name for himself by taking the lives of innocent people. But he can no longer step into a store or go online and buy himself an AR15, a Glock .40, a Remington 870, and 6,000 rounds of ammunition.
What does Holmes do now? One of two scenarios. In the first, with weapons now unavailable, Holmes abandons the whole massacre thing as just too darn difficult and channels his bad vibes into other pastimes, like mountain biking or Zumba. In the second scenario, Holmes remains just as committed to planning and executing an attack on this scale and finds a way to carry out it, regardless of legalities. Drugs, after all, are against the law, and they are easier to procure in some New York neighborhoods than fresh fruit. Even without access to assault rifles, how easy would it have been for Holmes to simply build a makeshift bomb and blow up the whole movie theater, killing many more than he did?
But even before police sappers cleared Holmes’ apartment of its devious explosive devices, our national newspapers, politicians, and religious movements were ready with their requisite illogic: Guns did it, guns are bad, guns must go.
Those, sadly, were the thoughtful responses. It takes a second reading to realize that Anthony Lane, The New Yorker’s film critic, wasn’t writing satire when he called for a moratorium on midnight screenings. “Those screenings,” he wrote, “starting when most people are in bed, often have a crazed and hallucinated air, which is all part of the game to those who enjoy them.” So do high-school and college parties; we might as well argue that an effective way of protecting our kids from school shootings is to ban schools altogether.
Let’s be more serious than this. Rather than be distracted by piffles, we should take concrete steps that might actually solve our problems. Providing readily accessible mental-health services is one good first step—as underscored by another absurd reaction to the shooting.
On a radio interview on Friday, Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert, from Texas, opined that the shooting was the result of “ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs.” Gohmert’s reasoning was too muddled to follow, so allow me to offer some interpretive help the congressman will probably find most unwelcome. We can soundly say that the Aurora shooting happened as a result of ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs if by ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs we mean our ongoing refusal to provide the sort of access to health-care professionals who might be able to do something about the fact that while 9,484 people were shot to death in homicides in 2008, 18,735 turned the gun on themselves that year. Rather than suggesting that they might not have done so had they been denied access to guns, the real Judeo-Christian thing to do would be to make sure these troubled souls always have someone they could talk to, no matter what their financial situation.
Indeed, a day after the shooting, a chart began making the rounds on Facebook, citing the statistic that while the United States lost 9,484 people to gun violence in 2008 (the last year for which comprehensive data are available), Finland—where, by the way, guns are easy enough to come by, with 32 privately owned firearms per every 100 civilians—lost only 17. In Finland, there are inpatient and outpatient programs designed to accommodate anyone feeling anxiety or distress, as well as 24-hour emergency services provided free of charge. The government also provides occupational health care, which, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health’s website, “supports the maintenance of mental health, prevention of problems and early identification of problems among the working-age population.” Visit the website of the Colorado Department of Human Services, and you’re told that if you happen to be uninsured, you should seek “family members or close friends who can provide financial assistance.” Which approach do you think is more effective if we’re trying to stop a deranged young man from reaching the point of no return?
The other Judeo-Christian thing to do would be to dramatically revise our drug policies. With drug-related homicides currently accounting for nearly half of all murders, it is time we realize—as virtually everyone who seriously considered this issue has—that our buffoonish “war on drugs” is a miserable failure. If you want to reduce gun fatalities, change the drug climate that produces so many of them. Rather than pass draconian laws that snuff the futures of so many underprivileged and desperate users and do absolutely nothing to weaken the thriving drug cartels, we should exercise common sense and compassion, legalize those drugs that are absolutely harmless—if you’re in the mood for a trip, compare the potential dangers marijuana poses as opposed to, say, the risks posed by alcohol—and invest in helping those people who are most prone to falling prey to drugs to enjoy the sort of life in which drugs aren’t seen as the only refuge. How Judeo-Christian would that be?
For those slain in Aurora, we can offer nothing but prayers. But to those who are dying every day because of our negligence, narrow-mindedness, bad policies, heartless and misguided interpretations of religion, and childish adherence to empty catchphrases, we owe much, much more.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.