It is a deeply uncomfortable fact that inside some humans lies the ability to rationalize the decision to walk into a Walmart or a crowded bar and start firing a wildly lethal weapon indiscriminately, with the goal of ending as many lives as possible. The act of premeditated mass murder – of strangers no less – is something that 99.9 percent of Americans cannot even fathom. But as these slaughters – from Newtown to Orlando to Las Vegas to El Paso and Dayton – continue unabated, we need to start asking questions about what within our own makeup explains this mass shooting epidemic, and what control society has over these outlier actions that seem, with each new mind-bending massacre, less like outliers. The answer is that violence is inside us, but so is the ability to end this epic-scale carnage.
First, we must face a foundational fact – humans are uniquely hardwired for violence. From the beginning of our species, we have shown a propensity to hurt each other at rates to exceed almost any other animal. Our rates of violence over the millennia have gone up and down, but long ago, humans figured out that violence was an effective means of social and economic advancement. Inside our brains are built-in circuits of rage and aggression that trigger under certain circumstances. Some people – like many of these mass shooters – have brains with triggers that flip more easily.
Here in America, our legacy of violence is even more pronounced than the rest of the world. Once Europeans landed on the continent, violence as a means of social order became standard order. First, it was the settlers wiping out the local tribes, then it was slave owners using massive scale violence to enslave African-Americans, and then ethnic groups turned on each other, using violence to contest economic and social space in America’s crowded cities. Along the way, it was the guns that made it easy for the dominant groups to control the subordinate groups. One historian suggests that without the flood of weapons that came with America becoming the early home of the global arms industry, America would be 50 percent less murderous over our long history.
Humans, and Americans in particular, are biologically and historically predisposed for violence. But what is just as clear, over the long course of civilization, and the short story of our own nation, is that the ability to control our violent instincts is just as human as the rage and aggression circuits themselves. If you want to feel good about the future of the human race, read Steven Pinker’s magisterial history of human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature. In it, he charts the long, consistent downward trajectory of human-on-human violence as our species developed emotions, habits, and governments that effectively discouraged violence. Here in America, we are nowhere near as violent as we were in our early years, in large part because of government intervention. It is not a coincidence that the two steepest periods of decline in the rate of murder in the United States occurred right after passage of the two most significant gun laws in our nation’s history – the first national firearms control acts in 1934 and 1938, and the background checks and assault weapons ban bills in 1993 and 1994.
The success of those two legislative efforts to significantly depress violence levels in the United States should give us hope as we grieve over these most recent American mass shootings. Laws that keep weapons away from dangerous people, and keep uniquely dangerous weapons – like the AR-15 – away from everyone, work. Data shows that states with tougher gun laws have lower gun murder rates. At the federal level, during the 10 years of the assault weapons ban, America’s mass murder rate was almost half that of the following 10 years.
There is no doubt these laws save lives. But something else happens, as well, when government passes major laws with a clear moral message. As the minds of these mass shooters descend into a dark place, unimaginable to you and me, where they rationalize the decision to exorcise their personal trauma through mass violence, I believe they take note of the silence at the highest levels of their nation regarding the choice they are contemplating. Yes, presidents and governors and senators send out statements condemning each mass shooting, and offer “thoughts and prayers” to the victims and their families. But these are empty words, and everybody knows it, especially after no actual policy changes are enacted as the mass shooting era continues to grip America.
When Congress passes a major change in law, it is a legislative action and a moral action. Individuals look to leaders—yes, even leaders in government—for cues about the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and adjust their actions accordingly. And tragically, it works in the opposite direction as well. The absence of any interest in passing laws to condemn mass shootings sends a signal of unintentional endorsement to would-be mass murderers. This is to say nothing of the gun violence the takes the lives of 100 Americans a day – suicides, homicides and domestic violence, all of which are aided and abetted by our inaction.
As I received news on Saturday of the El Paso massacre and awoke the next morning to the news of the slaughter in Dayton, I took small consolation in knowing that at the exact same time, 2,200 anti-gun violence activists were gathering in Washington, D.C. to receive training on how to become more effective advocates. They are part of a gun violence prevention movement that was shocked into action after Newtown and has swelled in numbers and power since Parkland.
When it comes to the instincts that lie inside humans, this weekend’s shootings represent one side of the coin. But on the other side is our ability to stop violence. It’s our choice which side lands face up.