The School Shooting Script: Our Immunocompromised Body Politic

The American flag, made of bullets. Image Description: The American flag, made of bullets.

Summary: It’s the same old script. Mass shooting occurs. Thoughts and prayers fly. Declarations are made. Fingers point. There’s something more insidious at play in this nation than just easy access to weapons and ammunition. Our propensity toward gun violence is indicative of a deeper illness. Like many difficult issues, it’s never just one thing, but a confluence of deadly issues that plague our country. To fight for the “soul of the nation,” one has to first ask whether we ever had one to begin with.

No amount of outrage from basketball coaches, Democratic lawmakers, parents of slain children, or even Beto O’Rourke, will alter the reality that America’s gun culture is pervasive, sick and out of control. The fact is there are as many guns as people in the United States, so to say the horse has left the barn would be the understatement of the century.

What continues to confound everyone is why we use them as frequently as we do. If you compare the U.S. to the countries closest in terms of guns per capita, the homicide rates aren’t even close.

So, it’s not only the fact that we possess the most firepower among our citizenry, it’s that our propensity to violently brandish them far exceeds other gun owning nations.

If anything, that’s the biggest thing missing from the discourse surrounding gun violence in America. By every metric, we’re sick. We have a diseased culture. Before we unpack the data further, let’s rip through the all-too-familiar script that accompanies every horrific new account of mass shootings in schools.

On the left:

We need universal background checks. We have to limit the number of guns on the street and eliminate semi-automatic assault weapons. We must break the back of the NRA. Pass legislation to protect children in schools. Raise the minimum age to legally acquire a firearm. Limit the amount of ammunition sold at one time. Create a more robust database of potential threats on social media. Do something. Anything.

On the right:

We can evaluate legislation to increase the time between purchase and possession of assault weapons without infringing on our Constitutional right to bear arms. This isn’t a gun issue, it’s a mental health issue. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Increase security in schools. Limit the number of entrances and exits. Tighten security at the border. Arm teachers. Place police outposts inside every school. Inner city, black on black violence is the real culprit.

There are a lot of memes and figures being shared on social media and quoted by corporate media, as we once again recount the horrors of yet another massacre on school grounds. In total, 19 children and two teachers were murdered in the most recent shooting at the Robb Elementary School in Texas. It was the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook, and even exceeded the massacre in Parkland.

The broader picture is more difficult to track, so after combing through a number of sources, I settled on figures from EducationWeek, which set about the unfortunate task of tracking shootings since 2018. From their most updated report:

“There have been 27 school shootings this year. There have been 119 school shootings since 2018, when EducationWeek began tracking such incidents. The highest number of shootings, 34, occurred last year. There were 10 shootings in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018.”

I have a moderate vocabulary so, quite frankly, I’m struggling to find a word to describe the nature of these statistics.

Beyond the unimaginable toll within our schools, according to a CNN report:

“The number of U.S. deaths from gun violence was about 4 per 100,000 people. That’s 18 times the average rate in other developed countries. Multiple studies show access to guns contributes to higher firearm-related homicide rates.”

That seems fairly obvious, but it doesn’t help us understand the problem relative to other countries. Of course, you cannot commit a violent act with a gun if you don’t have fucking access to one. But, what the fuck is it about us that makes four in every 100,000 people so willing to pull the goddamn trigger?

There are only a couple of consistencies that I can find in the data. And, please feel free to correct me or add to it, if you have any insight into this. The first relates to who is pulling the trigger.

According to the Violence Project, an organization that compiles demographics and characteristics of mass shooters, including gender, location, mental health and gun access, there’s only one number that jumps off the page to me. That 98% of so-called mass shootings were carried out by men.

Okay, so American men are violent assholes. But what else.

According to multiple indices laid out in the World Population Review, the United States doesn’t come close to cracking the Top 10 on any index that measures standard of living. Not in the Numbeo Quality of Life Index, U.S. News, the CEO Report or the United Nations. Not a single organization lists the United States in the top 10 when it comes to quality of life. Even the United Nations Human Development Index has the United States at number 17, despite having comparable income per capita, life expectancy and expected education. It’s the top 10% of income earners, by the way, that blow the curve when it comes to measuring financial well-being.

So, what are we to make of this? Too many guns. Easy access to assault weapons and ammunition. Toxic masculinity. A violent culture seething with hostility fostered by a fractured media culture that thrives on conflict.

I’m not laying equal blame on the left and the right, mind you. The right is undeniably more culpable than the left when it comes to gun violence, because we know the one fundamental truth is that gun violence would decrease if there were fewer of them or they were harder to get. We can argue the 2nd Amendment another day, and I’ll quote chapter and verse from the Federalist Papers to blow up arguments related to it, but it doesn’t alter the reality that we’re already armed to the teeth in this country.

As far as the other talking points are concerned, let’s go through them:

It’s a mental health issue. No. That’s a cheap argument. A so-called insane person is one who acts irrationally in the moment and is volatile. School shooters plan. They often signal their intentions. You can lazily diagnose a violent person as mentally ill, but the act of carrying out such an atrocity is more than someone just snapping. And, if mental illness is your accusation, then why don’t mentally ill women carry out these atrocities?

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Again, this belies the facts. This particular shooter had already murdered 21 people by the time the police arrived. It’s that way every time.

Increase security in schools. The vast majority of schools are underfunded as it is, and yet we want to increase budgets for armed security, surveillance systems and technology protocols? Close off every entry point to the school? Like that will somehow preclude a student with a concealed weapon from gaining entrance to a school that’s even harder to get out of? Arm teachers with weapons when we can’t even give them WiFi, books and supplies? Do we want history teachers or firearms instructors? Police outposts in every school? There are 137,000 schools in the country. Please. Stop.

Years ago, during my newspaper days, we produced a lengthy series on autism. We did dozens of incredibly researched stories on the prevalence of autism in young people and the inability to pinpoint causes. Vaccines. High tension wires. Corrupted food supply. Recombinant Growth Hormones in milk. Antibiotics in meat. Over prescribed antibiotics in infants and children. Cell phones. Environmental toxins.

I posed the same question to the editor of this series as I did to my physician friends and the multiple sources for these stories, and the answer was always the same. Of all of these factors, what do you think is the most likely cause of the increase in childhood spectrum issues? Every time, the answer was “yes.” All of these factors are likely contributing to a change in our genetic code. And it will affect children differently. Some will have the genetic fortitude to withstand the onslaught of modern challenges presented by the sum of these factors. Others will not. And it’s likely that we’ll never fully understand the specific sequence of events and biological determinants to provide a clear answer.

But, we do know this. There are pieces of the larger equation that we can control. We should work to eliminate toxins from the environment. We should be wary of overprescribing pharmaceuticals to children. We should strive to ensure a cleaner and more natural food supply. Study the long-term effects of living near high tension wires, screen time, cellphone radiation, etc. Because these are sensible things that a healthy society does when it cares about its population.

One of the writers I greatly admire is Spencer Ackerman, a respected foreign affairs reporter. After the Robb Elementary shooting, he published a piece on Substack that really resonated with me. Allow me to quote from it:

“Over the years, when a slaughter happens in a school somewhere like Sandy Hook or Parkland, I’ve heard some of these people remark that they don’t understand this country anymore. Those with deployment experience occasionally observe that they’re reminded of what they saw over there. They understand over there to be a place of intractable hatreds and casual violence that a reluctant America must sort out. They understand this country to be the only fit candidate to perform the sorting.


“But there is only one United States of America. What America does abroad is what America does at home. Only the scale of it changes.”

Ackerman has seen firsthand what America has the capacity to do abroad. And it’s just as horrifying as what we allow to happen on our own soil. And he’s right. We have a sickness. A disease. Something about us prevents that part of our collective brain from acknowledging that the lives of children are more important than your right to acquire assault weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. The answer to why is the same as the one I got from my editor, all those sources and the physicians that I spoke with. Yes, all of the above.

Should we have background checks? Should we have a cooling off period between applying for a gun permit and being able to acquire a gun? Should we ban the sale of assault weapons and large scale purchases of ammunition? Should we provide better social safety nets that improve the quality of life in this country so that millions of people aren’t living on the fucking edge? Should we combat toxic masculinity and a culture that promotes violence as a proper resolution to conflict? Should we have cops in schools, or counselors that provide mental health services to at risk youth? Should we ensure that children have access to early childhood education and food security?

Yes. All of the above. Because it’s never a thing. It’s not just the gun. It’s not an individual mental health issue. It’s all of it, mashed together inside a diseased body with a compromised immune system that is our government. The wake up call that just rings and rings and rings with no one answering isn’t just for gun reform. It’s for a wholesale revolution of thought.

Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).