Beyond guns, we must look at rotten core of society to reduce violence

I’ve authored more than my share of columns on the issue of gun violence, usually written in the aftermath of a horrific tragedy perpetrated by a deranged individual who inflicted massive harm on a large group of people.

Obviously, America once again had to face the ugly reality of gun violence when, last Friday, Dimitrios Pagourtzis slaughtered 10 people, mostly students at Santa Fe High School in Texas.

People embrace during a prayer vigil following a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, on May 18. (Stuart Villanueva The Galveston County Daily News via AP)

In this case, though, rather than talk about the wisdom or lack thereof inherent in certain gun control proposals, I wonder if it isn’t time that we backed away from that argument for just a moment (don’t worry, you can get back to arguing over it soon enough), and ask some larger questions about the state of our society, and how it has changed over time.

Let’s start out with a couple facts about this country, four or five decades ago, that are unquestionably true.

The first fact is that gun laws used to be less stringent in the United States than they are today. Significantly so.

There is also no question that bullying in school is taken far more seriously today than it was even 10 or 20 years ago. In the past, bullying was often seen as simply part of growing up, and children were advised to deal with it by “growing up” or “fighting back.”

So why, then, were there not massive, spectacular examples of execution style shootings at schools in the past at the rate we see today?

It is an important question, because it may in fact be the core issue that must be solved in this country.

Now, I don’t think there is one single answer. However, a few things seem very likely.

The first issue is, I hate to say it, technology.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but technology is destroying the very fabric of social relationships, turning them into phony, oftentimes disconnected and anonymous shells of real human interaction. Today, you can hide behind a series of screens, texting and messaging without even seeing a face or hearing a voice.

This, rather ironically, disconnects us from each other. It makes social interactions cheap and easy, taking work, effort and most importantly risk out of the equation. This social disconnect and disassociation has created people — not just kids but also adults — who lack empathy, are distant from reality, and often lack the ability to even function in face-to-face social settings.

And then there is the issue of parenting. There is little denying that the American family has changed significantly over the course of decades, and has broken down in many ways. Today, it is far more likely that kids will grow up with only one role model, often in a dysfunctional environment, with less money, and the one parent they have less available because they are supporting the child by themselves. That makes it really hard to catch signs that something is wrong, or teach critical life lessons.

And the parenting that kids do get has been an unmitigated disaster recently, as is so cliche to complain about. From everyone getting a trophy to safe spaces, parenting has increasingly created an expectation of success without merit, setting children up for misery later in life as they are unable to cope with failure and rejection.

Beyond all these more cultural issues, we also have the over saturation of mass media, which in my mind has dramatically increased the awareness of these types of violent mass killing incidents. This has set up a perverse reward in the way of coverage for these types of attacks. If you do something like this, you now know you’ll be famous.

And then there is the question of how we treat mental health services in this country. We have deinstitutionalized those with mental illness. We have handed out mind-altering psychological drugs like candy to treat everything from depression to attention issues.

In short, we keep the truly mentally ill virtually unmonitored out in the world, and we seek to dull the effects of psychological problems with pills — pills that have tremendous side effects — rather than attempting to solve the core reasons for those problems. Once again, this fails to develop coping skills, and hides major problems that seem to increasingly explode into violence.

In total, we are left with a modern society that is strung too tightly, that is repeatedly experiencing what happens when the stress becomes too great and all of these factors conspire together to create a tragedy.

So sure, we can keep debating guns. But maybe we should also ask ourselves if we are really okay with our society looking like it does today.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.