Mental Health and Gun Violence in the U.S.

Mental Health and Gun Violence in the U.S.

Gun Violence and Mental Health

In the wake of the latest school shooting at Newtown, we are beginning to hear a new form of spin in the U.S.: the tired ‘guns do not kill people, but people kill people‘, has been replaced by “people do not kill people, but crazy people kill people“.  What is so admirable about the new slogan is that it is large enough to encompass both those on the left and the right. For after all, who can deny that these serial shooters are not mentally ill?

But on a second look, it is not only well recognized that the term mentally ill is never used precisely, but if we take seriously the slogan that guns do not kill people, but people kill people, then two more difficult questions should be asked that involve the so called normal:

1) it is not simply people who kill people with guns, but with regard to the recent mass shootings, the shooters have been most often white, fatherless, suburban, males inflicting violence against the helpless.

2) if we listen to a bank of world statistics, Nation-Master[4], it is not simply people who kill people, but the most self-determined and happy people who kill people with guns.

Why aren’t the dominant medias and psychological theories asking such questions? Can a refocus of atttention from the ‘crazy shooters’ to the all too normal give us a glimpse of what is at stake in the recent gun violence? 

What follows is the first part of a three part series focusing on a response to this question. The first chapter will deal explicitly with the problem of defining what and who could be considered ‘mentally ill’ in the use of a gun. The second chapter will respond to the question of whether the profile of the ‘white fatherless son’ holds any validity in isolating the cause of the recent mass public shootings of the helpless.

I – Gun Violence and Insanity


Besides those in the U.S., there are other serial shooters in developed countries: Breivik, in Norway, or Merah, in France, who were just as murderous and evil. But what is the distinguishing characteristic of these shooters and what makes the mass European serial killers different from their American cousins?

At first glance, one may well suspect that the modern European mass murderers  passed to the act with intent, that is to say, in the use of a political or religious ideology; whereas the American mass murderers, if they do not kill themselves at the scene, have no coherent speech on how or why they committed such heinous acts.

If we were to try to define insane gun violence, in terms of irrationality, then it would have to be said that the murders of the U.S. are ‘insane’ because they lack any intent or distinguishing rationale; while those in Europe are, on the contrary, ‘sane’ acts punishable by the law of courts, and not the laws of a mental institution and psychiatrist[1].

Today, the level of the debate on violence and society is governed by the underlying assumption that insanity = irrationality and that insane people should not possess guns[2]. It is difficult, however, if not impossible, to show how an appeal to the mentality of the shooter can be effectively be used to regulate the misuse of guns. In each instance the attempt to ‘screen’ against a possibly mad shooter not only is exceedingly difficult to carry out, but it bypasses what is at stake. For to define insanity as a form of abnormality – ‘irrationality‘, ‘bizarreness‘, ‘a-sociality’, etc. – then correlate this with gun violence does little to identify either the potential murderer or the problem. In short, psychological theories of the ‘crazy shooter’ provide neither our families nor the society with the means to effectively identify the causality of mass murder or establish a plan of preventative action with regard to future gun violence.  At least it is the task of this article to bring out such problems while leaving to a future investigation a proposal of solutions that go beyond the superficial psychological and technological alibis.

                                               Insanity = Irrationality ? Gun Violence

Today, counter the dominant insanity = irrationality hypothesis of a more naïve age, we are faced with a decidedly modern form of rationality that thinkers, from Freud to Einstein, have attempted to decipher.  On the subject of the cause of war and science, Einstein wrote Freud to ask why and how such terrible weapons of mass murder could be orchestrated by politicians with the help of a rational science whose goal is the good and prosperity of society[3]. Is it simply that a society or group of individual creates the evil, while science itself may be considered to be in a purely intelligible realm cut off from such bastardizations?  Or is our technological science, at least at some level, already involved in the very destruction of the Man who claims to be its Master?  Freud’s response to Einstein’s question is well known: humankind, both its culture and science, is involved with a ‘death drive’ that the clinic of psychoanalysis was just beginning to reveal.

Though such a heady correspondence may seem to offer little pragmatic help in understanding the mass shootings in modern society, it will have sufficed for our purposes here if it serves to open up our interrogation in a way that gets beyond the habitual psychological presumption that insanity = irrationality.

For as difficult as it may be to understand, nothing could be further from the truth: what may be defined as psychotic, at least with regard to defining the causality between shooter and gun, is the modern day person who has absolutely nothing wrong with them, but who is rational and overjoyed about owning a combat weapon in the defense of their happiness and freedoms.  Without stopping here to examine exactly what such ‘happiness’ and  ‘freedoms’ may be – real or imaginary? – it only takes a cursory comparison of the statistics between nations to discover what is at stake.

II– Happiness is a Warm-Gun


                                                                                      Notice the laughter of the woman standing next to Schwarzenegger

According to the statistical surveys of the site Nation-Master[4], Venezuala is a country  where the population is the happiest, yet most likely to be murdered by a gun; Nigeria is the second happiest and most murderous place to live, while the United States has the seventh happiest population and is ranked fourth among nations in which you are most likely to be murdered by a gun.

As an initial probe, and paradoxically, let us name not irrationality or bizarreness, but ‘happiness’ as the primary candidate motivating the free production, distribution, and use of weapons of mass murder: automatic machine guns, AK-40s, Gloks, etc.  Each weapon, if used properly, can with lethal precision determine the scope and the limits of the individual’s self-interest, power, and pleasure.  It is difficult to know where to draw the line when listening to the reasons of someone who owns automatic or semi-automatic weapon made uniquely for killing people: is the response an inspired example of patriotism and freedom guaranteed by the Second Amendment or a delirium on individual power and liberty?

The two most recent public shooters that lived to face the courts, J. E. Holmes (Colorado theater shootings killing twelve) and J. Loughner (Arizona political rally shootings killing six), did not simply look ‘happy’, but viewed themselves as sorts of ‘jokers’, the former even going as far as to dress up as the character of the Joker in the Batman series.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider these images to be the faces of irrational and a-social psychopaths, since we can find some of the highest leaders of the United States government bearing the same grimaces and jokes about mass killings through gun violence.

Hilary Clinton, while addressing the press about war against Iran (10/3/12), the killing of the foreign leader Kadaffi (10/21/11), and  the killing of U.S. soldiers in Bengahzi (10/21/12), began laughing and joking on each occasion. When responding to CBS news about the entry of the U.S. into the war with Libya and the killing of Colonel Kaddfi, Vice President Clinton stated, ” We came, we saw, he died!”, then laughs.

What is the Hilarity of the Clinton cackle indicative of ? Just a good sense of humor to be humorously commented upon yet again on the Jon Stewart Show? Or is it the sign of something far more insidious. Let us forget about ‘gun-control’ for just a minute and ask ourselves about the larger picture: with regard to war, health care, education, and the economy is there really anyone in control? When is the last time you heard a politician make sense of any of this beyond a platitude? Or is all we can do is laugh about our lack of courage in assuming the consequences of freedom?

Without mentioning the civilian causalities or the possible loss of life by U.S. soldiers (which she laughed at again in a later interview), no major U.S. network called attention to what goes far beyond Hilarity’s lack of states-woman-ship. Though she never actually pulled the trigger, she acted as a U.S. representative who laughed about killing not simply political leaders, but civilians in mass as if she were watching a sports match. Yet, nobody asked if Hillary had played too many video games; nobody asked about her mental health, or if she had been shy at school, had a face-book page, or if she was prone to spasms.  In fact, it was as if nothing happened at all, no guilt, no shame, just business as usual with the occasional joke.

As uncomfortable as such comparisons may make some feel, with a tighter grip, they can be used to get a hold on how such acts of de-humanization have not only entered into everyday life and become part of the norm, but are signaled by laughter and happiness.

*** Gun Violence, Gun Violence, Gun Violence, Gun Violence, Gun Violence!!!!

Today, the attempt to regulate gun violence and shooters by appealing to a problem of mental health is like trying to put a condom on the pope. For even if the problem of gun control could be carried out with better screening, testing, gun locks, etc., the problem is not there. It is not simply – or primarily – a technological question of protecting people against guns or insane people, but a question that is being avoided from the beginning by our politicians and leaders. For it is this new form of rationality that is so difficult to detect in any screening procedure: psychosis is not found primarily in the grimace of the insane behind the bars of an asylum, but it has entered into our mores; it is on the streets and in our institutions.

It is important that we begin to read these almost invisible signs of everyday psychosis, that we discuss their mask of sanity with our children and families in a way that goes beyond the parade of Hollywood films, the political elite, and the prophylaxis of experts.

Ask your children to imagine a world without shame or guilt, no matter how lazy they may feel or be. Imagine a world so free that their pleasures would not be encroached upon by others who differ from themselves. Imagine how happy and protected they would be.

Now, ask them what a symbol for this happiness would be.

Then ask a politician if there are any technological devices that would be capable of screening against the happy use of such symbols in a passage to the act.

The question that must be put to any politician or expert today is not whether we should reexamine mental health screening procedures and make mental health services available to everyone, but how such procedures and services have let us down: how they systematically bypass and take for granted the very problem they are called upon to resolve. Of course, it can be claimed that if one cannot prevent every mass gun murder that one can at least make it harder for the bad and crazy people to get the guns. But are such pragmatic and technological responses to the problem inevitably a way of avoiding a response to the hard questions?

The investigation that follows proceeds on the premises that an effective solution to the problem of gun violence cannot be premised on the distinction between the sane and insane users of guns, when a culture itself glorifies violence as the means to achieve its self-interests. Instead, what the tragedy of Newtown shows us today is that there is a problem of subjectivity and a delirium of liberty that is not being addressed and is only revealed in repeated acts of gun violence and laughter.

Gun Violence, Gun Violence, Gun Violence, Gun Violence !!!!!!

Gun Violence, Gun Violence, Gun Violence, Gun Violence

By R.T.Groome

Winter 2012
Santa Monica


Part II – The Modern Origins of the Psychotic Killer:


[1] While the first psychiatric report on the mental status of Breivik concluded that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, the second report criticized this first report and found him not psychotic, but suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder. In the case of the latter, he was found sane enough to stand trial.

[2] The first explicit use of the hypothesis ‘insanity = irrationality’ with regard to distinguishing judicial responsibility was put forward by Kant who, unlike Descartes, supposed that it was possible to loose one’s reason, thus, not be culpable of a crime. See Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Viewpoint and Michel Foucault’s introduction to the French translation.  The latter would serve as a support for Foucault’s celebrated work on the asylum (The History of Madness in the Age of Reason) and the prison (Discipline and Punishment). Though Kant made the philosophical hypothesis of ‘insanity = irrationality’, he did not delegate the judgment of determining who was insane or not on the capabilities of medicine, but the philosopher. If he had, Kant would have encountered the insanity hypothesis in Foucault’s reformulation: madness looses its truth, unreason, when the psychiatrist is able to determine insanity not as a deviation of reason, but nature. Thus, the transformed equation: insanity – irrationality = naturalized disease.  For a Freudian refutation of both the philosophical and psychiatric-humanist definitions of insanity, see Part II: The Modern Origin Of The Psychotic Killer.

[3] Freud-Einstein Correspondence (1931-32).