Opinion: The violence paradox

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)

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.


9 responses to “Opinion: The violence paradox”

  1. Scott Vetare


  2. RayJ

    Well spoken Chris Murphy

  3. Peter Franz

    If you want to protect your home, do you lock your windows, then leave your front door wide open?

    This, effectively, is what uninformed commenters refer to as “Strict Gun Laws” in Chicago.

    More than 60% of guns recovered from committed crimes were found to come from outside the city. There was nothing stopping someone from driving a few minutes outside the city and getting a gun, and even in the days of Chicago’s “strictest” gun laws, all present owners of guns were grandfathered in to keep their guns.

    One quick note: Criminologists use the homicide rate for determining the comparative danger of life in a given location. By this commonly used metric, Chicago, sadly, doesn’t even make it into most dangerous cities list in America. Not even close. It barely makes it into the top 10, and in other violent crime studies, not even in the top 20.

    Don’t get me wrong. That’s a damnation of how insanely dangerous plenty of our other US cities are, not a defense of Chicago. Chicago, like many US cities, has a massive gun-related crime problem. Here’s a bit of data that illustrates this point. Chicago, compared to NYC, recovered six times, yes SIX TIMES the number of guns per capita and nearly double that of L.A.

    Does that sound like a city with tough gun laws?

    Obviously, this sounds like a case for “see gun laws don’t work, they just take guns from law abiding people and keep them in the hands of criminals.”

    Cases could be made for comparing two American cities: NYC and LA to Chicago. Cases involving the two costal cities having had decades of efforts to remove guns from the streets and making gun purchases outside the cities themselves more difficult… and delivering a substantial lower homicide rate to NYC and LA compared to Chicago, which they once paralleled. But let’s cut to the chase and compare two other cities: Chicago and Toronto.

    In Toronto, guns are legal, but they are heavily controlled by law. Gun owners must be licensed. Guns must be registered. Owners must take a safety test. Owners must pass this safety test. Most importantly, guns are not allowed to leave the home, unless specifically licensed for use in a security or similar job.

    Now, here’s the fun part: guess what the homicide rate is in Toronto vs. Chicago? And remember, Chicago is barely in the top 10 US cities. Is Chicago double? Triple? Quadruple?

    Chicago has more than 9X, NINE TIMES the homicide rate of Toronto. That’s a recent spike. Just back in 2012 Chicago was 15X that of Toronto. I was just in Toronto for a wedding. Beautiful place. You know what? Canadians think of Toronto as their “Chicago” because the homicide rate is so high there compared to other Canadian cities. Laughable right? Why is the homicide rate high in Toronto? Because of its physical proximity and high travel rate to the US and guns get through. Another Canadian city I was just in, Montreal, has half the homicide rate of Toronto, and far less US visitors and lesser proximity to US cities.

    That’s why, if you hear someone say “Chicago” when they attempt to refute the logic of safe gun laws, you’ll know they really don’t know what they’re talking about.

    Let’s please stop using tired uniformed one-liners in trying to solve the US’ violent gun culture.

  4. Piberman

    We might want to ask why we hold “vigils” for random gun shootings. But not for the annual 12,000 killed by gun violence (half in the inner cities), 30,000 killed by autos and 50,000 + reportedly killed with Opiods, illegal drugs. Last year the FBI reported 16 million “background checks”. Obvious no panacea.

    Those who study America’s unusual gun violence focus on our 300 million guns owned by civilians (100 million reportedly illegally). No other modern nation has anywhere that number of civilian guns nor our gun violence. Since half of American adults own guns it’s understandable why our Congress has been reluctant to move forward here.

    Finally where are the vigils for the nearly one million Americans (no misprint) killed and grievously wondered defending nation from WWII forward. Where are the vigils here ? A nation that shops for sales during Veteran and Memorial Days can hardly be expected to tackle horrendous domestic gun violence.
    Those of us who have lost friends, family members and comrades serving our nation hold vigils daily. Ask us.

  5. Niz

    I think thoughts and prayer are important, as is the family and communities ability to recognize a person in pain that is angry and needs help. laws are good, but we cannot deny the good 99.9% over a few.. that is no different than giving in to terrorism. mental health issues are becoming broader in the is country and the way it which it is treated and medicated work for many… actually most, just not all. I do not have answers I just have thoughts and prayers.

  6. Steve

    It’s silly to argue that it’s ‘wrong” to hold vigils for mass violence because we don’t hold vigils for veterans injured in Wars. That’s nihilism and a do nothing policy. Because people shop for bargains on Memorial Day doesn’t mean that Congress can’t pass laws restricting weapons intended for warfare. Likewise the argument that we have to do a better job addressing mental illness doesn’t mean we can’t also pass reasonable gun laws, like several taxing ammunition (a la Daniel P. Moynihan). Our rates of mental illness are not qualitatively different than other developed societies, nor our use of violent video games etc…the one area where we eclipse every other developed country in the world by an incredible multiplier s gun violence. In my life, I’ve known in the range of a dozen people killed by guns, in most cases they killed themselves. I’ve never known a person who was saved by a gun. I’ve never known another person who “knows” another person saved by a gun. This isn’t to argue that no one should have the right to a gun, for self-protection (though statistically it’s far more likely that the gun will injure or kill a family member or friend than an intruder…but we know that most people don’t pay a lot of attention to statistics since 90% of drivers think they are better than average) or for hunting, though I would be far more impressed by someone who can kill a chipmunk at 100 yards than a deer that’s as big as a St. Bernard. Keep your Luger’s and hurting rifles…give up the AR-15s. 80 years ago the country banned machine guns, there’s no right in the Constitution to own a military style weapon…the Court has spoken on that over and over again. If that’s not the case, then I should have the right to the same tanks, aircraft and wmds that the Fed. Government has

  7. Bryan Meek

    30,000,000 lives were lost to save Europe from totalitarians, yet our Senator has the stones to sit here and continue to berate our country. His team has passed laws to make sure lunatics and criminals have more rights than victims. His team rallies together to protect foreigners who break our laws, even violent and dangerous ones. Then his team exploits activities of the very mentally ill people and criminal gangsters crossing over our border to pass more laws against those of us who abide by the laws and ethics in our society. Then we have his supporters who actually believe the bogus research out there that says 80% of mass shooters are mentally defective. If you believe anything short of 100% of mass shooters are not mentally defective, I’d say you need an exam yourself.

  8. Jim McGuire

    Bear with me, this is going to be long:

    As a newcomer to the United States of America, this “Opinion” by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy calls me to comment.
    I was born in Canada, a country I still love and respect; which many acclaim to be the Holy Grail of health care, health insurance, gun control and social justice. In the year 2000, I accepted a job offer and became a “non-immigrant” guest worker in the United States.
    It is vitally important that you notice the term “non-immigrant”. I knew from day one, and I learned more the longer I was here, that the simple act of crossing the border does not make a person an “immigrant”. Most new arrivals to the USA come with Visas as Visitors, Family, Employees or in some cases Refugees. Only after arriving in the United States in one of those (and more) status levels, can you apply TO BECOME AN IMMIGRANT. For me, the day my Adjustment of Status was accepted, we held a party.

    Words matter. You are not an immigrant for arriving. You are an immigrant when your status is legal, you apply, and you are approved for application. My journey started in September 2000, and ended with my Naturalization in June 2017.

    Why my diatribe about immigration on a gun control story because words matter?

    To obtain Citizenship, I had to prove a solid understanding of the United States Constitution. I had to know more about “Civics” than every single one of my friends could remember from their High School days. I proved the ability to read and write English, I identified my Congress and Senate Representatives, and I had to accept every inoculation and injection that an American child would receive (at the age of 45!). I chose to be here, I took a decade to get through the system, I love what America stands for.

    Words matter. Today, I read my US Senator say:
    “Here in America, our legacy of violence is even more pronounced than the rest of the world.”


    “Humans, and Americans in particular, are biologically and historically predisposed for violence.”

    Sir, with all due respect to your office, I completely disagree with your opinions. I am quite sure that the villagers who saw the Hun coming across the Asian Steppe killing everyone who did not submit, or peasants watching Romans spread across Europe, or even the Poles, Jews and Gypsies of Europe who experienced WWII Germans slaughtering countless millions, would not see Americans as more violent.

    Please don’t make America out to be the “evil” that I have seen several from the political left do. It’s not. There has been evil in the world. There is evil in the world. America is NOT evil in the world.

    I leave you with this simple thought. If America is so wrong, so wrought with violence; why are people “immigrating” by the hundreds of thousands or millions ? If things are so wrong, why do people flee war and violence to come here ?

    There was a time that American Exceptionalism was accepted thought, ESPECIALLY by our own elected representatives.

    /end rant


  9. john flynn

    The Dayton shooter recently passed a background check and Adam Lanza stole a gun demonstrating that gun laws don’t stop anyone. Restricting the law abiding citizens in a sanctuary city where Police don’t enforce federal law is causing problems.

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