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Blaming Violence on Guns and Mental Illness? Too Easy

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The tragic shooting in Connecticut, like the tragic one before it in Colorado, once again has the public seeking answers and pundits seeking the easiest answers to give. Guns and mental illness -- these are the issues on the tip of the average tongue.

The notion that mental illness is a prerequisite for mass murder or could even serve as a complete explanation is a strange one that appears to have surreptitiously become entrenched in the public consciousness. Like a number notions entrenched in the public consciousness, it's untrue, as having a mental illness increases the chances that you will be a victim of violence as opposed to a perpetrator.

Should we be seriously concerned about mental states and murder, we would be best served in discouraging the consumption of alcohol as few other things are so ubiquitously associated with violence. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as many as 86 per cent of homicide offenders were drinking at the time of offense. The American Journal of Public Health found that communities and neighborhoods that have more bars and liquor stores per capita experience more assaults.

Furthermore, If we expect our already struggling and overburdened teachers to also screen children for mental health issues, all the while wrestling with students -- many of whom have behavioral problems -- we might as well go full bore, double their pay, give them custody and call them "parents."

The second easy answer is that guns are the problem -- but mass shootings make a very poor case for gun control. Connecticut has some of the strictest gun laws in America, as does the city of Chicago. In a particularly confusing juxtaposition, proponents of gun bans are often opponents of drug bans and argue that drug bans "don't work" when it comes to substances like Marijuana (and they're right). The curious fact of this juxtaposition seems to be missed by them.

In any event, regardless of an environment that is often not in opposition to restricting access to handguns or automatic weapons, there has been an increase in mass shootings and in some cities, an increase in shootings, period. In 2012 there were more Americans killed in Chicago than Afghanistan; the city has over 400 homicides (usually involving handguns) and some of the strictest gun laws in America. This despite the fact that handguns in Chicago are effectively banned.

So far as mass killings go, a majority of the people involved have no criminal records and obtained their guns legally. Criteria that would deny them gun ownership would also deny it to ordinary people who have done no wrong. The level of planning involved in the average mass shooting -- the killers are arriving in body armor and in black fatigues -- makes it unlikely they would have been prevented from carrying out their massacres if gun bans were in place.

Extensive background checks, waiting periods and other initiatives are more effective at preventing ordinary crime than extraordinary planned violence. Killers in mass shootings typically arrive with multiple guns and have a fair amount of time to carry out their shootings.

The difference in the total number of casualties is not impacted by the availability of automatic weapons over semi-automatic (automatic weapons fire continuously when the trigger is held down, semi-automatic weapons require the trigger to be pulled for each bullet to be fired). This is not to say there is no room for improvement in the manner that guns are distributed, or perhaps a waxing of the American obsession with guns, but it is to say we need to look to some of the less easy answers if we are interested in stopping these incidents.

Mental illness is not a new or exclusively American phenomenon. Neither is widespread gun ownership (look at Switzerland). Neither is crime or bullies (both at schools and in the workplace).

Economic instability is also not new, America's economy has, like ours, oscillated between good, bad and back throughout its history. What has changed, in a manner difficult to put to words, is the way parents raise their children and the way individuals treat one another.

It feels as though these killings are in some ways evidence of America's general moral decline. Families are the building blocks of a society. And in the United States, those building blocks have become increasingly broken and fragile, with many children born into divorced or broken homes.

When the children in these homes have underlying mental health issues or are bullied (Amanda Todd's tragic death is another example) there are fewer resources to help them overcome these obstacles and they are more vulnerable to tragedy.

Mass killings do not make a good argument for gun control, but they might make a good argument for taking steps to make sure that our homes, the incubators of future citizens and where all of these young killers began their lives as young innocent children, are up to the serious business of raising them.

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