Guest Post: On Systemic Violence, Misconceptions, and How We Fail Ourselves


Today’s guest post comes from Brendan Murphy, who is Treasurer on the Secular Student Alliance’s Board of Directors, and currently a graduate student at Boston University.

The above sign is a decoration of Fenway Park, well-known to many Bostonians, and sponsored by the Massachusetts-based organization Stop Handgun Violence. After this morning’s violence in Connecticut, those big numbers will tick upwards by 18. And yet, White House press secretary Jay Carney had the following to say this morning:

“Today’s not … a day to engage in the usual Washington policy debates. That day will come, but today’s not that day.”

I agree – today is not the time to have ineffectual discussions peppered with political platitudes and unfulfilled promises of resurrecting bygone legislation. Now is the time to substantively discuss exactly what systemic forces lead us down this road time and time again. If all we do is grieve and mourn without addressing the why, we have failed the victims, and ourselves. Let’s look at some 2012 history, and what’s been said politically.

Regarding the James Holmes theatre shooting in Aurora, CO in July, President Obama said, “I confessed to [the victims’ families] that words are always inadequate in these kinds of situations, but that my main task was to serve as a representative of the entire country and let them know that we are thinking about them at this moment…” No, Mr. President, thinking about the victims is not enough. You have failed all of us when you continuously do not propose reenactment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which was allowed to expire in September of 2004.

Wade Michael Page killed 6 people at a Milwaukee, WI Sikh temple in July. Public discourse surrounding this event concentrated more on labeling Page as a lone, psychotic killer, than on discussing the principles of radicalization and how hateful, violent ideology is still allowed to propagate in our society.

And though while not in 2012, Obama said the following after the Rep. Gabby Giffords shooting in Tucson, AZ: “We have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future.” By not reenacting expired effective laws, examining root causes, and having candid public discourse, we are passive in the face of such violence. And I haven’t noticed much challenging of old assumptions lately.

There is something truly sickening about the entanglement of gun violence and our education system, wherein criminals abuse our self-defense firearm rights at the expense of the rights to life and pursuit of happiness of children. In March, the Colorado state Supreme Court overturned a state-wide campus ban on all firearms. This fall semester was the first time students 21 and older with a legal conceal-and-carry permit were allowed to do just that on campus at UC Boulder, with the exceptions of sporting events and dorms. Academic environments are full of stress, sleep deprivation, hormones, underdeveloped prefrontal cortices, test anxiety, alcohol, and young people just out of high school – allowing a subset of the student body to conceal and carry weapons yields an incredibly dangerous environment.

Which brings us to two primary misconceptions regarding the roots of gun violence and its prevention:

  1. The only true root of our gun violence problem is the lack of mental health support.

This claim is patently false. In order for this assertion to be true, 100% of gun crime must be committed by people with diagnosed mental illnesses. If we want to talk about gun violence in Chicago, class warfare and segregation are more relevant than mental health support. And many criminals are considered “healthy, law-abiding citizens” – up until the point at which they pull the trigger.

We absolutely do have a failing mental health support system, but the constant association of discourses of gun violence and those of mental illness yields the unhealthy and wrong assumption that mentally ill people are inherently violent and pose a risk to others. Depression and anxiety disorders constitute a majority of all mental illness cases in America, both of which are incredibly personal and easily hidden. You wouldn’t recognize most people who suffer, and certainly wouldn’t automatically label them as violent.

But indeed there are violent individuals in society who should be prevented from obtaining weapons. So is it better to allow anyone access to guns in the name of the 2nd Amendment, or to universally restrict access?

  1. The only true root of our gun violence problem is insufficient firearm use by law-abiding citizens.

Guns are not classroom implements. They do not protect students from the difficulty of integral calculus, exposure to evolution, or literary analysis of William Blake, nor do they assist professors in lecturing. Most people are not trained in SWAT-style combat scenarios, as occurred in Aurora. In fact, the above claim feels very much like victim-blaming, and nowhere is this more obvious than saying “oh, well if you only had a gun…” to a rape victim. It is not our responsibility to act as though every single environment we encounter may be hostile. We should not be obligated to consider our classrooms potential warzones, with bullet-dodging a gateway exam.

So what is the conflation of problems that lead us here?

  1. A failure of social support structures and mental health care in the criminal justice/prison system.
  2. Our political discourse lends itself to false dichotomies, extremism, and radicalization through giving hate speech and bad ideas “equal time.”
  3. Enablement of violence through excessive legal access to firearms.

Without addressing all three factors (and others I have not mentioned), it is impossible to effect meaningful change. The gun violence conversation is not about the 2nd Amendment, law-abiding access to weapons Founding Fathers could not have dreamed of, or those violent mentally ill people. It is not about factionalizing society through the many defending themselves from the few. It is about the failure of our justice system in implementing scientifically proven care methods, our dichotomous and hateful political speech, and our obsession with legislating excessive firearm access.

When we fail to discuss the toxic aspects of our society as violent tragedies occur, we are passive. When we allow students and faculty to carry firearms into our institutions of higher learning, we are acquiescent. And when we wake up the following morning only having mourned and not discussed systemic violence, we are silent. So if anyone tells you to be silent in the face of gun violence, tell them they are wrong. Tell them the time of tragedy is the perfect time to discuss systemic violence and the pervasive dysfunction which enables it. Tell them nothing is more relevant than how Americans view their personal rights to ways to kill others.

Tell them under no circumstances should the sick, twisted right of an adult to own deadly weapons without purpose, preclude the rights of children to their education.


7 thoughts on “Guest Post: On Systemic Violence, Misconceptions, and How We Fail Ourselves

    • their twisted right

      It is also wrong to deliberately mis-characterize the vast majority of gun owners, who exercise their rights peacefully and safely. Throwing around stereotypes – in any and all directions – doesn’t put you in the right, when part of the problem (per the OP) is stereotyping. Any gun owner who makes a claim to the effect that their gun rights trump those of a child’s to life would be making a repugnant and ridiculous claim. Since I don’t see anyone around here making that claim, perhaps you’re making a repugnant and ridiculous straw-man argument.

      • Well, actually the quote is “under no circumstances should the sick, twisted right of an adult to own deadly weapons without purpose, preclude the rights of children to their education”. I see no reference to a child’s life in that sentence. So I am not sure whether you are interpreting that differently to the way that I interpret it.
        However, one comment I am going to make is that, while a large majority of gun owners remain silent, and leave the business of public comment to people whose idea of profound wisdom is to post variations on “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” all over the place, then those law-abiding gun owners will become their own worst enemy. That sort of sloganeering reads like glib juvenilia to people like me who are distressed by the events in CT. I’m looking for reasoned, thoughtful responses from gun owners, but I am not seeing many.

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  3. Here in Canada, so close (geographically) and yet so far from the US (in attitude towards guns), we grieve, too, for all the victims of mass shootings there. Our gun violence seems to be rising and we are stunned by it. Our Conservative government (the equivalent of your Republicans) just got rid of the national long gun registry. Alas, we have to register our cars, our kids, our dogs, our marriages. Why do gun owners find it so abhorrent to have to register their weapons? I just don’t get it. With compassion.

  4. Pingback: On Systemic Violence, Misconceptions, and How We Fail Ourselves | brendanbikes

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