By BRUCE LESNICK
With 346 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2017 and 34 in the first two months of 2018—including the Parkland, Fla., tragedy that cost the lives of 17 high school students and injured 15 others—many are justifiably angry and frustrated. Mainstream politicians dither, debating how best to treat the symptoms of the problem without overly upsetting the arms manufacturers who fund their campaigns. Increased background checks and bans on certain types of weapons are discussed, but little concrete action is taken, and few Americans believe that the limited palette of solutions considered by Congress would do much to staunch the bloodshed.
After all, the manufacture of new assault weapons was temporarily banned by federal law from 1994 to 2004, but it’s not clear that this had any impact on reducing gun violence. The National Rifle Association reliably rails against any gun control legislation, ostensibly out of reverence for the Second Amendment, but more likely out of fealty to their corporate funders. Still, it is not always true that the enemy of my enemy is my friend—or in this case, that new laws to restrict access to firearms would effectively address the symptoms, let alone get to the root of the problem.
And what is the root of the problem? In a word: poverty, alienation, and a culture of violence—the example for which is set by our so-called leaders. As Martin Luther King Jr. explained, poverty is violence; exploitation and injustice are violence, perpetrated by those at the top against those at the bottom.
People who are happy, healthy, loved, well-educated, and constructively employed rarely become mass shooters. Moreover, individuals tend to be influenced by the example set by those in positions of power. What happens in the corporate and government suites sets the tone for what occurs in the streets. In our current culture of endless war, imperial aggression, public officials turning a blind eye to Wall Street and other corporate crime, rock star status for the super-rich, and callous disregard for the working poor—the message filtering down is very different than would be the case if peace, justice, and solidarity were the hallmarks of our domestic and foreign policy.
With this in mind, here are six steps we can take right now to make gun violence a thing of the past.
- Free, Single-Payer Medicare for All
Improving health care may be one of the best ways to reduce urban violence, as a community nursing program begun in 1970 demonstrated. If we’re serious about ending mass shootings, we should expand Medicare to cover everyone, from cradle to grave, with no premiums, no deductibles and no copays. Include complete coverage for preventative care and all necessary medical, dental and optical care. Treat health care as a right rather than a privilege. Remove the for-profit insurance companies completely from the mix. Instead, let health and wellbeing steer our national health policy.
Populations with single-payer health care systems—like Canada, Japan, Switzerland, France and Cuba—are healthier than the US.
But far more benefit is derived from a single-payer system than improved physical health. There is also a huge reduction in personal anxiety and financial stress. There would no longer be any need for individuals to worry about health care costs. And significantly, a comprehensive national health plan would completely separate health care eligibility from work. If you couldn’t find a job, or you got laid off, or you had to go on strike, you’d still fully covered.
What about Obamacare (aka Romneycare, aka the Heritage Foundation Plan.) Does this move us toward the single-payer ideal? Absolutely not. Obamacare is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It was designed to guarantee mega profits to the insurance industry while it leaves 30 million without access to health care, and large premiums, copays, deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses for the rest. Barak Obama himself, in a speech to the American Medical Association, assured all concerned that his health plan was no Trojan horse for single payer.
Right-wing ideologues oppose Obamacare for the wrong reasons—because they oppose any national policy that offers even a pretense of benefiting working people. Moreover, in the current political landscape in which the Democratic and Republican parties fall over each other in their obsequiousness to corporate power and stake their reputations on the perception that they are ideologically distinct from one another, if the right were to have embraced Obama’s phony health-care solution it would likely have been the kiss of death for the plan.
Are those on the extreme right wily enough to see that feigning condemnation of their own Heritage Foundation plan when it was branded as Obamacare was the best way to ensure its adoption? Who knows? In any case, we are again reminded that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
- Free Quality Education for All
There is a strong correlation between crime and education. Better educated youth and adults are less likely to be involved in violent crime. As a step toward eliminating gun violence, we should better fund public elementary and high school education, reduce class sizes, and increase teacher pay to attract the best and the brightest.
University education should also be free and available to all. Is this practical? Absolutely. Note that university education is currently free in Estonia, Norway, Finland, Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, and Sri Lanka, among others. Undergraduate tuition in France is less than 200 euros per year. The University of California system was tuition-free up until 1970.
- Guarantee Jobs for All
A publication of the International Monetary Fund suggests that, “Lack of employment opportunities may trigger violence and juvenile delinquency.” According to Daniel Webster, professor and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, “One of the strongest correlates for homicide is ‘concentrated disadvantage,’ where everyone living in an area is poor and unemployed.”
To really address gun violence, we must guarantee everyone the right to a good job, at union-scale wages. Is this feasible? Absolutely. In the first place, there is much work that needs to be done repairing aging infrastructure; building additional schools and health care facilities; constructing local, regional, and national mass transit networks; and retrofitting the economy to run on sustainable energy. But even if every single useful job were covered, it would still be possible to guarantee jobs for all.
American labor productivity has increased tremendously since the eight-hour day was mandated for the printing trades in 1905 and for most other workers by 1937. As the chart below shows, productivity per capita of U.S. workers has increased over 5000% since 1929 ($45,551 vs. $851.) By 2009, every man, woman and child was producing 64 times more value per year, on average, than their counterparts at the time of the New Deal ($45,551 vs. $713.)
So the solution to joblessness is simple: reduce the workweek to 30 hours with no reduction in pay. This would spread all of the available work around, while allowing working people to share in the monumental productivity gains that their labor has wrought. Ironically, a change of this type might create such a demand for labor that we would have to encourage immigration from Mexico and elsewhere to fill all of the available jobs.
- Slash the War Budget
The violence we see at home is a reflection of the violence our government exports. A government that spends more on killing than the next ten largest military budgets in the world combined, that props up murderous dictators and violently suppresses popular rebellion—all in order to shore up corporate profits—has no moral standing to address violence at home.
Bring all the troops home now! Use the trillions spent on the Pentagon, the CIA and the NSA to fund health care, education and other needed social programs. Retool factories and retrain workers involved in war production to build mass transit and other socially useful things.
What about terrorist threats? Would these changes leave us vulnerable to foreigners who might want to do us harm? Quite the contrary. So much of the animus towards the U.S. is blowback from our government’s military and profit-centric foreign policy. Besides, more Americans die annually from traffic accidents or intestinal illnesses than from terrorism.
In his 1967 speech at Riverside Church, MLK cited our own government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” If we want to be serious about addressing gun violence at the grass roots, we can’t ignore the policy and culture of violence that is promoted at the highest levels.
- Abolish the “War on Drugs”
This one should be obvious. Regardless of anyone’s view on the personal drug use, it’s abundantly clear that modern drug prohibition has been no more effective than was alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. And just as earlier prohibition spawned the likes of Al Capone, the modern “war on drugs” has contributed significantly to urban violence, with the FBI reporting an average of 490 drug-related murders per year between 2007 and 2011. Add to this a pattern of discriminatory enforcement and the unequal impact the “war on drugs” has had on the poor and people of color and it’s abundantly clear that, to really address urban violence, the phony war on drugs has got to go.
Treat drug addiction as an illness, not a crime. And, with guaranteed jobs, educational opportunities and health care for all, no one would be compelled by economic necessity to enter the drug trade.
Now consider this: Drugs that have long been illegal are still widely available on the street. Shouldn’t this give us pause when considering whether legal prohibition of firearms would actually make them unavailable?
- Address the Root Causes of Depression, Anxiety and Alienation
What makes an individual become a mass shooter? Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University offers, “You know, most mass killers have suffered some kind of chronic depression and frustration.” This is troubling since depression is on the rise in the US, according to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
So to really address gun violence, we have to address widespread depression and alienation. But what causes these? In his book, Lost Connections, Johann Hari attempts to answer this key question. Based on meetings and interviews with distinguished research scientists, Hari identifies nine causes of depression and anxiety, challenging accepted wisdom that these are caused primarily by an unlucky brain or chemical imbalance. The first seven causes involve disconnection from:
- Meaningful work.
- Other people.
- Meaningful values.
- Childhood trauma.
- Status and respect.
- The natural world.
- A hopeful or secure future.
The final two he describes as the “Real [limited] Role of Genes and Brain Changes.”
So job insecurity, or having a stressful job over which you have no control; a breakdown of solidarity and a lack of nurturing connections with people and the community; being subjected to a culture that values shopping for things over genuine human wellbeing; racial, sexual or other abuse suffered as a child, and this within a culture that puts complete responsibility for raising children on individual families and then fails to provide the needed resources; a tenuous hold on status or respect, possibly due to a job loss or other economic factors; an urbanized lifestyle, disconnected from nature; diminished hope for the future—these are all key factors that breed depression, anxiety, and alienation. But for a great many, this is nothing more than a routine description of life in capitalist America today!
Our culture is optimized for reproducing depression, alienation, and hopelessness, which are key ingredients in mass shootings. So it makes perfect sense that the United States—the undisputed world leader in war and international violence, exploitation and oppression at home and abroad, environmental degradation, and a soul-crushing focus on boosting corporate profits before all else—should also be the global champ of domestic gun violence.
Points 1 through 5 above would begin to confront some of the societal factors that increase depression and alienation. But to really get to the root of this problem, we need a complete reboot that would allow us to rebuild society in a way that puts human needs before profits.
So there you have it: a plan which, if implemented, would drastically reduce gun violence while improving everyone’s quality of life in countless other ways. There is nothing rhetorical or tongue-in-cheek about this solution. Some will argue that this plan is not practical, but this confuses what is practical with what is easy. Sure, there’s bound to be resistance to this solution by those who have a vested interest in the status quo.
By comparison, passing additional laws to regulate the personal use of firearms might seem easier to accomplish. Trouble is, the passage of such laws would be unlikely to lead to an enduring solution. In the end, a solution that really works is infinitely more practical than any quick fix that does not truly address the underlying problem. A difficult reality is far more practical than the most appealing illusion.