Ending mass shootings: It's not just about more or better laws

Do me a favor: Save this op-ed in a folder somewhere and promise to open it up in five years. Let's see how many of us remember what today we're calling the "Navy Yard Shootings" — and, more importantly, whether we as a society decided to do something about the mass killings that increasingly are a part of life in the United States.

If we can summon the will to make a change, whether it's enacting new laws or (I hope) trying new tactics that take into account the cultural norms that promote violence as a way to solve problems, real or perceived, what does that look like? In five or 10 years, will a mass shooting be just an anachronism of our age — the equivalent of a hijacked plane and ransomed passengers from the 1970s?

Having gone through more than a decade of gun massacres, we have come to expect the predicable banter among journalists, experts, politicians and representatives of different organizations with an agenda. Collectively, they tend to focus on the anomalies: odd things about the perpetrator, the victims, the frequency and circumstances of this kind of shocking violence. Trumping all else, the story is always about the difficulties of passing laws that would curtail various weapons and public access to them. Let's face it — it's become a routine.

But mass shootings are not routine for this country — not yet, anyway. On the other hand, all kinds of violence, including homicides and suicides by gun, are. We simply live with it: Somehow, murder is a by-product of freedom. You can't fight City Hall, but you can sure fight your neighbor, your ex, your parents, your children, your co-workers, or even random strangers in the street. Get a gun or a knife or a club and take action. Everybody knows this, everybody watches TV and movies and experiences this kind of "resolution" at a safe distance. You have to wonder if a certain level of violence is acceptable because it is part of what makes us American. Disturbing thought, isn't it?

I believe it's a dangerous generalization to declare that we are numb to what is happening around us. The victims of violence and their loved ones certainly bear the damage. The emotional costs reverberate throughout society. What we're left with, after the makeshift memorials are left untended and the conversation has moved on to other issues, is a sense that we have lost our way. After the Navy Yard, after Sandy Hook, after Columbine, after the daily news about another murder, where do we go? And if we find that place, what solace can we take from it?

It's possible that as we stumble along trying to understand violence, we're going to reach an undeniable conclusion: The constitutional provision for the right to bear arms, the National Rifle Association and gun manufacturers, and our cultural history all work together to make it impossible to achieve a legislative solution. No matter what the polls say, there are some very strong lobbies in the U.S., and they run this side of the conversation. So, while we can tweak the gun laws we have, any new sweeping federal law intended to stop the next mass killing is doomed to fail.

Does this mean that we give up? That we become inured to disturbed loners strafing parking lots and office buildings, for whatever reason? No. It does not.

What it means is that we face reality. Consider this: No matter what laws we enact, any person with intent to harm others can do so. If a gun is not available to him, a determined killer — certifiably insane or simply fed up with his life — can get behind the wheel and inflict a lot of damage. He holds a driver's license, has car insurance, and no outstanding tickets. But one day he snaps and speeds down a crowded sidewalk. No law can stop him.

The truth is, all law is designed for reasonable people. Law and reason go hand in hand, and for millions of us, that's enough. We're responsible drivers, rational employees, caring spouses and parents, and play-by-the-rules gun owners. We live and let live.

It's a little sad to consider it this way, but I believe our ability to reason can encourage us as a society to become more mature in our views about violence. Call it a reckoning, or a simple admission that we're tired of the bad news and have little belief in a legal solution.

So, in five years, perhaps we can say this: When it comes to curbing violence, and saying no more to mass shootings, it's not about more laws, better laws or heightened law enforcement. It's a matter of figuring out how to establish a culture that does not resort to violence, whether it's to settle our differences or to satisfy some bizarre fantasy. We've figured out the real consequences of violence, and we're working on the social, psychological and cultural questions that will allow us to do better.

Absolutely, what I'm imagining has consequences in the law. You can't have a safer society without enacting improvements to security, and that means giving up certain things we take for granted. Does it bother me that my kids go to a school with metal detectors? Not at all — that's a small price to pay for keeping weapons out of the building. And so on.

Beyond this time of uncertainty we're in now, I'm predicting a big change in attitude. I think we're going to look for solutions that are more creative, more focused, more about spotting a troubled person and taking steps to stop him from committing violence. If we invest more resources in providing better mental health screening, counseling and mediation efforts in our schools and communities, including research on their effectiveness, and then if we recognize that one size does not fit all (i.e., tailor resources to specific circumstances), we can go a long way to minimizing the carnage that we see far too often.

It's time to start. We owe that to every victim, from the Navy Yard all the way through every street, every house, every office and every single place where an act of violence has taken place in our country. Embrace the issue, and strive for solutions. All sides. All citizens. Now.

Jeffrey Ian Ross is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice, College of Public Affairs, and a research fellow of the Center for International and Comparative Law at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of "Encyclopedia of Street Crime in America." His website is http://www.jeffreyianross.com.

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