Questions in the Aftermath of the Las Vegas Shooting

While there is not so much mention of it in the media anymore, the American public is still reeling from the inexplicable massacre in Las Vegas, the largest mass murder in history in a country where mass murders of innocent people have become far too common. Some of the usual responses came from the usual quarters.

The left called for more gun control, even though in a moment of frankness increasingly uncommon for prominent left-of-center public figures Senator Dianne Feinstein of California admitted that more gun control would not have stopped what happened. The response of prominent public spokesmen on the right was mostly not to try to explain how an event such as this could have happened, but just to counter the left’s gun control drumbeat.

The “era of mass murder” in the U.S. seems to have begun in 1966 with the University of Texas Clock Tower shootings. That was also the year marking the beginning of the ongoing cultural turmoil that has turned America upside down. 1965 was the transitional year, marking a new sad era in the country’s history as things became progressively more morally unhinged. While I have not studied the terrible phenomenon of mass shootings and their perpetrators, the connection between the moral and cultural odyssey of America and the mass gunning down of the innocent seems unmistakable to me.

What has characterized American life since 1965? We can start with the tearing apart of the American family. Indeed, when one looks at the Clock Tower and Las Vegas gunmen fifty years apart what is readily noticed is that both had wretched fathers—the father of the first had a history of physically abusing his wife, the gunman’s mother, and the other’s was a bank robber on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. I suspect that a detailed study of the killers in the mass murder era would show some kind of a troubled family background for most if not all of them. This is a time when divorce could be resorted to with increasing ease and became hardly controversial or discouraged. It’s a time when illegitimacy has skyrocketed and outright fatherlessness abounds, especially among some demographic groups and in certain areas (such as big cities), with the result that many young men even if they are not mass murderers have become all other kinds of criminals.

The time since 1965 has also been one of rampant secularization in America. To be sure, this didn’t happen suddenly or without a progressive development in that direction, but the turning away from religion both personally and on a culture-wide level has been sweeping since then. Where people have not exactly become unbelievers or shapers of their own novel versions of “spirituality,” they now decide what religious teachings they want to believe. They have made themselves the arbiters of religious truth, often urged along to be sure by various clergy and leaders of what not too long before had been traditional Christian churches.

I strongly suspect that if one were to study these American mass murderers he would find that none were devout, regular practitioners of traditional Christianity or Judaism. Indeed, he would likely find that they in general had had weak or inadequate religious upbringings.

Along with the turning away from religion and traditional religious beliefs during this period was the deep engraining of the attitude that man is his own moral arbiter, that he was free to choose what moral principles he was going to follow. Instead of religion and traditional moral thinking—forged especially by solid family and religious upbringing—being his reference point it was now the strong winds of a deepening secular culture that blew him along. The basis of this, of course, was the moral relativism spawned initially by the intelligentsia that came to take hold in varying degrees of mainstream American thinking down the line. The result of all this was a grossly insufficient personal moral formation for an increasing number of people that, as the classical Greek philosophers would have put it, led to their souls being out of order. This certainly didn’t lead the typical person to become a mass murderer, but it seems likely that, given a particular set of circumstances and conditions, it helped cause a few to become killers.

A typical response to a mass murder episode is that the person who committed such an action is mentally ill. That may indeed be so, although we can’t say for sure that was the case with most of them. As far as mental illness goes, however, while its causes may often be uncertain one’s life circumstances can give rise to it or stimulate a tendency that was there. In other words, it seems likely that upbringing, family situation, and cultural conditions can have an effect, in at least some cases, on the manifestation of mental illness. Then, one also wonders if the pervasiveness of illicit drug use after 1965 has not also meant more mental problems and illness.

In speaking about cultural conditions and attitudes, it’s worth noting that the period since 1965 in America and the Western world generally has been one which has witnessed a striking undermining of the ethic of the sanctity of life. It has been the era of abortion, and now it may become the era of euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, infanticide of handicapped newborns and the like. It is hard not to wonder if in the face of such an attitude an already twisted mind might be emboldened to commit unspeakable crimes.

Is it possible even that the heightened confusion sewn by some as to whether there is even a difference between men and beasts—that animals have the same, or even more, dignity and worth as men—could further contribute to the twisted mind’s devaluing human life enough to wantonly stamp it out like insects?

The period since 1965 has been one marked by increasing violence in American life, at different levels and with many manifestations. To be sure, this has reflected and followed from many developments in American life and culture—those mentioned here and others. It has been a time when crime in general has seemed to spin out of control. Can it be surprising that in such a context we might witness some people indiscriminately and with no provocation killing other people, even many people at once?

There may legitimately be some issues to discuss about gun control in the wake of the Las Vegas tragedy—for example, about whether certain types of firearms or accessories should be readily available on the market. While the left has been so busy creating a whole slew of ersatz rights—especially related to sex—and essentially ignoring the Second Amendment, we have to concede that gun rights like all other rights are not absolute. Still, what I have suggested here is that there are more fundamental questions to focus on after Las Vegas, such as: What has to be done to restore the American family? Shouldn’t we consider whether divorce should be so readily available and, indeed get our heads screwed on correctly about what marriage is? Has the Sexual Revolution, which has been a main cause of family breakdown, been a good idea? Indeed, isn’t it time to question the regime of moral relativism? Should our culture consider the implications of the loss of the sanctity of life ethic? Hasn’t the loss of our nation’s traditional religious character helped lead to our present troubles?

It’s long overdue, to put it mildly, that we put aside ideological imperatives and the usual ensuing narratives—a particular problem for the left—and start to focus reflection and discussion by public intellectuals, commentators, and the general public on such basic questions.

Stephen M. Krason


Stephen M. Krason's "Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic" column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis Magazine. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and associate director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also co-founder and president of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author, most recently, of The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and editor of three volumes: Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and The Crisis of Religious Liberty (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); and most recently, Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians (Franciscan University Press). His next book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (forthcoming this fall from Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.