The Causes of Violence in America

The airwaves and the opinion columns continue to discuss the terrible December 14 school massacre in Connecticut and have brought us additional stories of senseless multiple murders in places like Oregon and western New York. Much of the discussion is now focusing on renewed calls for more gun control. As I go on to say, there are certainly some serious public policy issues that must be debated. There are, however, other deeper questions that are being raised by a few commentators, but are unlikely to receive much attention in the media generally—even though they represent the crux of the problem.

Within a couple days of the Connecticut massacre, the secular left raised their predictable demand for gun control. While most people would have thought that respect for the dead—even more so because most of them were children—and their families would have inhibited political commentary and clamoring for legislation so soon, the left was not deterred. It seemed to be another situation of not letting a crisis go to waste; it was a prime opportunity to promote an ideological and policy agenda. To its credit, the major organizational opponent of gun control, the National Rifle Association, held its tongue for a week before stepping up to call for armed security guards in all public schools. Even then, it seemed reluctant to get a full-scale debate going that soon after the tragedy by refusing to answer media questions at its press conference.

Indeed, it seems as if gun control is the left’s singular solution. Yet, they never seem to address the question of why this should be in light of experience. American cities with the strictest gun control ordinances, such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., have some of the highest rates of violent—including gun—crime. Countries with the toughest gun laws have seen increases in gun crime. Such columnists as Thomas Sowell and Joseph Farah recount various cases in the news in recent years where armed citizens stopped murderous criminals and mass murders in the making.

With all this, one asks the question: Why does the left fixate on gun control? Part of the reason may just be groupthink. This has been the position of the left for decades, so this is what a “progressive” should believe. At a deeper level, the readiness to blame guns for shooting rampages reflects the left’s general tendency not to view people as responsible for their actions. Just as corrupted and unenlightened institutions are the cause of all evil and human problems, so guns are seen as the cause of murders instead of the person using them. It also represents a domestic version of the attitude that the great international politics scholar Hans J. Morgenthau said typifies the simplistic, abstract-type thinking of many people about the problem of international peace. Just as some think that abiding peace will follow merely if certain changes are made to international law and organizations and if social science principles are properly refined and applied, so others think that gun violence and criminality will largely cease with good gun control legislation. If we—in our unlimited human wisdom—just tinker with things enough, we can solve even deep-seated, perennial problems.

While we can never truly understand evil—the eminent priest-sociologist Paul Hanly Furfey spoke of “the mystery of iniquity”—it is not difficult to pinpoint the basic, broad causes of outrages such as the one in Connecticut. Five sweeping cultural developments of the past fifty or so years are crucial: the rejection of traditional religion, the subversion of sound morality, the breakdown of the family, the dissolution of solid communities that provided reference points and restraining and helping forces, and the proliferation of destructive, illicit drugs. During that period of time in America, mass murders—although not unknown before that—have become all too frequent occurrences.

To be sure, mental illness is also in the mix. I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I speak only as a layman, but there are issues that logically present themselves. The young adult mass murderer in Connecticut was supposed to have serious mental problems. We will never know if he realized what he was doing, or if he truly had no control over his actions. Circumstances can often push a person who is mentally “on the edge” over the cliff. Was the fact that he was from a broken family, with his parents having been divorced, a significant factor in aggravating his mental condition? Would he have gone over the cliff if he had not grown up in a secular, amoral or immoral culture? Would he have engaged in brutal violence if he had not been influenced by  nihilistic, violent, destructive elements in popular culture through his absorption in playing violent video games?

Is it unreasonable to think that the above cultural developments and the personal insecurity and social dislocations resulting from them might be factors in triggering mental illness in some cases?

As mentioned, the tendency nowadays is to look for a policy response. Maybe this reaction is another aspect of the beliefs that: institutions and their accoutrements instead of the condition of the human soul are what determine good or evil, and that government can be the solver of all problems. What the secular left needs to do—along with the secular right (it exists) and the masses of people simply caught up in our secular, consumerist, amoral, me-centered culture—is to put ideology and conventional ways of thinking aside for a moment and consider seriously and objectively if, just possibly, the above cultural developments—or certain of them—might not have something to do with tragedies like the one in Connecticut. They might want to ask themselves if, say, the “non-judgmentalism” and moral pluralism in education and other contexts that they have long championed may not have been part of the problem.That takes humility, to be sure, but don’t such events as these necessitate that?

While deep-seated cultural decay, of course, is not easily or quickly addressed (even when there is a broad agreement about its causes), I do not want to imply that legal and public policy changes should not be part of the equation. While governmental action alone cannot change culture, let’s remember the important role that Aristotle, Aquinas and other thinkers said that law can play in helping to rightly form individuals and culture. As far as concerns gun laws, there may be an argument for more regulation. Second Amendment rights, like all rights, are not absolute. Still, it should be recognized that already considerable restrictions are in place and an objective assessment of their effectiveness is necessary (the gunman in the western New York murders was an ex-convict and killer who was forbidden by law to possess firearms, but he still had them). Secondly, a renewed debate is obviously needed about security in schools, college campuses (remember Virginia Tech), and other public buildings—including the question of self-defense measures. While I am inclined to think that firearms do not mix well with the academic atmosphere, teachers and other school personnel shouldn’t have to be sitting ducks. Catholics, by the way, should not believe that they are somehow in opposition to Church teaching if they don’t support gun control initiatives. This is a matter of prudential judgment, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2264-2265) emphasizes the traditional teaching that one has a right to use the amount of force necessary—though not excessive force—to defend himself and those he is responsible for protecting.

Next, it has been apparent for some time now that the mental health policies put in place around the country after the 1960s—and based on the same abstract thinking that gun-control enthusiasts engage in—must be changed. It is time to reconsider deinstitutionalization, extreme confidentiality laws, and standards for commitment (while there were perhaps abuses in institutionalization policies in past times, the current “only if the person is a threat to himself or others” standard simply has been inadequate). At least one state even had the foolish policy of allowing a minor to “sign himself out” of a mental health facility that his parents placed him in once he turns fourteen. The Connecticut gunman’s mother apparently had a difficult time trying to get him into a facility. This may have been particularly crucial, since there is some indication that he had become schizophrenic—a condition that often begins to appear in early adulthood. On the other hand, once a person is under treatment, greater care must be taken in decisions about the use or non-use of powerful psychotropic drugs, as a wrong choice can lead to destructive behavior.

Finally, other public policy changes that would get more to the heart of the matter will not even be raised, such as stemming the tide of family breakdown by restricting divorce and undertaking intensified initiatives to discourage cohabitation and out-of-wedlock pregnancy and the outright banning of gratuitously violent video games and movies. I argue in an essay in my book, The Public Order and the Sacred Order, for the restoration of a sensible regimen of censorship that would clearly distinguish the cops-and-robbers, old war movies kind of violence from the ugly, vivid brutality and gruesomeness that many young people get heavy doses of today. Obviously, most people so exposed—even heavily—to such gratuitous violence do not go out and commit murder, but a small number of those “on the edge” do. Something like the Connecticut massacre helps make a strong case for the restoration of the old legal standard of censoring materials on the grounds that they could adversely affect the most vulnerable among us.

It’s time for some serious, deep reflection and questioning by both decision-makers and the public.

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 latest book is Catholicism and American Political Ideologies (Hamilton Books). He is also the author of a new novel, American Cincinnatus.

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  • poetcomic1

    Since the seriously disturbed were turned loose on the streets in the sixties and seventies, millions of them have been re-institutionalized…..into the prison system. My friend, a ‘lifer’ in the Texas prison system, has made me aware how the pen swarms with the seriously mentally ill. What they call ‘scary-crazy’. The Left’s cheap ‘compassion’ ‘freed’ the very sick and then used the prison system to clean up the appalling mess they made.

  • Prof_Override

    Wow … and I thought Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin, Mourdock & Akins were social statists. This guy takes the cake. The Orwellian thought police solutions in the last paragraph are scary bad. Placing “censorship boards” and other abstract sequentialist fabrications to force the will of the few over the many is no different than the ACA “death panels”. Why should I trust Mr. Krason’s brand of crazy over any other lunatic fringe.

    • Jake

      Apparently you have not read 1984. The government is for more strict policies. This guy hit it on the head by saying people should be blamed and take responsibility, rather than making an excuse to add another policy. This guy is not crazy at all. If you do think in terms of Orwell then, is it worse to just add policies rather than people taking responsibility? He only said censorship should be considered because of the fact that no one wants to take the responsibility of taking care of their own kids and making sure they are not doing anything questionable. I think you just threw Orwell out there just to act smart.

      • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

        Jake, I have read “1984”, and have taught it as an educator. Prof_Override is absolutely correct and you unwittingly prove his point by trying to make yourself sound smart. The epitome of “Orwellian logic” is to argue that infringement upon individual freedoms, such as censorship, is called for because “the population” needs to take responsibility and since they won’t, then the individual must be willing to have his freedoms curtailed. In other words the larger group has the right to violate the rights of the smaller group and the ends justify the means. Anyone even superficially familiar with philosophy and Catholic teachings knows this is a false paradigm. It seems to me Jake, that you probably saw the movie, instead you should actually sit down and read the book. Oh, and if you don’t like my attack upon you, then don’t needlesly attack others. As to the article, Professor Krason is only half right. In the latetr half he goes way off the mark.

      • Prof_Override

        I don’t agree with the authors premise and I really don’t believe in his solutions. I don’t believe any government solutions with respect to social issues either. I believe the mis-attributed Socrates quote about children of his day is appropriate for this situation.

        • MarkRutledge

          Not all solutions need be government solutions, as you seem to imply. Indeed, we can begin stemming the tide by action through other public institutions. We the People don’t necessarily need a government body to petition and pressure Hollywood, local movie houses, TV stations, etc. to stop pushing that which is undermining our culture and destroying our society.
          But what about government? To far too many, the concept of freedom has become conflated with the concept of license. The Constitution was a document which empowered the people, not a suicide pact. Local communities should be able to set standards for public behavior. This was the vision of the Founding Fathers and has, alas, been bastardized into something else.

          • Prof_Override

            I don’t disagree with your federalist bent. The problem is always the boundry condition. Republicans have almost always tooted the horn of Federalism until it’s applied to assisted suicide in Oregon or medical (and now recreational) marijuana in multiple states, etc … Federalism needs to cut both ways to be credible. Likewise I agree with your comments about TV and Hollywood – being of moderate libertarian bent, I think the power of people voting with their feet trumps nanny or daddy statism. The problem is that Mr. Krason’s comments in the last paragraphs are blatant anti-federalist, daddy statism.
            “government body”, “public institutions”, “the constitution”, “local communities” are all just abstract sequential constructs that don’t really exist outside of our own noggins. It’s real living breathing people that matter and that is where local small “c” churches can wield influence, one living breathing person at a time, not through some modernist version of statist social conservatism.

            • MarkRutledge

              Perhaps if you thought less about sundry -isms and more about the community around you, you’d find those things I described very real.

              • Prof_Override

                I’m an engineer, I don’t find abstract constructs that can’t be weighed or measured to be not very convincing. Abstract sequentialism (lawyers / religious types – attribution Gregorc) have a tendency to believe and act like their mental constructs actually exist. I contend that much that is wrong in this world stems back to these constructs. The core problem with them is that since they have no physically objective attributes, they basically can mean whatever an individual wants them to mean – true postmodern phenomena. Take the phrase “social conservative”, I find it to be oxymoronic. To me conservative means “limited government intrusion” to others it is closer to “traditionalism”. So to me a socon is a statist, using “government” intrude on people’s lives. A traditionalist would have the exact opposite interpretation.
                People are real, abstract constructs aren’t … and yes we have to have some of these abstract constructs to maintain an orderly and safe environment, but the fewer and simpler the better.

    • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

      You are absolutely correct.

    • Alecto

      If I may, and let’s try to avoid the ad hominems, policy can be achieved by something as simple as not subsidizing single motherhood. Financial consequences of social behavior make the biggest impact. As a society we could ensure tax policy mirrors desired social outcomes such as giving tax breaks to married filers vis-a-vis single filers. The incentives for marriage are few and far between. However, I am not in favor of any government aid. Period. That is not a legitimate function of the government, and as Catholic Christians, we should be giving from our money, not having the government take our money and redistribute it to causes we find unconscionable.

      I am probably going to be labeled an evil libertarian, but I do believe that individuals ought to do the censoring of their own behavior, or face the consequences, and in that respect, parents censor for minor children, not the State. But there is ample proof that violence and pornography affect the minds and behavior of many. Influence is influence whether it is good or bad.

      • Prof_Override

        I’m in violent agreement. And you forgot the “e” at the end of evil(e) libertarian, making it into a long “i” sound.

        Well put.

        • Tony

          Several distinctions need to be made.
          One is the distinction between law that prohibits an evil, and law that prescribes a good. The former is much more the province of civil law than is the latter, and it does not actually restrict the practical freedom that the citizens, as a community, possess. For instance, when law prohibits, let’s say, public lewdness, it prohibits something that is at once evil and that compromises the freedom of the community generally.
          Another distinction is that between criminal law and government management. We do not need a government agency to direct the publication of sleazy magazines, to have laws — locally drafted, perhaps, or laws passed by the state legislatures — prohibiting pornography. After all, we used to have such laws, and we did not have enormous agencies overseeing everything.
          Still another distinction is that between law that respects the cultural consensus of the people, that puts the people’s general judgments into effect, and law that overrides that consensus. All the laws that came from the sexual revolution overrode the consensus; there was never any great POPULAR movement for no-fault divorce, license for abortion, and so on.
          Before you look with scorn upon such laws as we all had in this country, within living memory, I suggest you buy a house in a neighborhood where family has broken down completely, and live there for two years.

          • Prof_Override

            #1 I don’t look with scorn, that is for angry people, I just don’t agree with the logic or the philosophy. Your points are good – You had me all the up to the cultural consensus part and referring to the 1960’s (no offense, but that’s ancient history). I don’t see your cultural consensus as legitimate for one thing and even if it is, the problem you have is that traditionalists have lost that debate at the national level. There are pockets in thinly populated rural areas and in the confederacy that support traditionalist views, but the current generation of young have been lost as has the future, barring an unlikely change in youth views. The last hope of traditionalist conservatism lies in federalism (and the whacky SCOTUS).

  • hombre111

    Krason avoids the issue on our mass killers: all of them white males. And while it is true that cities with gun control laws can have high murder rates due mostly to gangs, states with gun control have lower murder rates. There is insanity here not seen in other industrialized nations.

    • Mark

      “Krason avoids the issue on our mass killers: all of them white males.”

      – Fort Hood lunatic Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and wounded 29 others.
      – Beltway snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed 10 people.

      By all means Hombre, do not let the facts stand in the way of your America bashing agenda…

      • musicacre

        If you stop that incredibly simple stereotyping you might realize how obviously different each of those stories are. Nothing to do with what you are implying.

        • Mark

          “Nothing to do with what you are implying.”

          What am I implying?

      • babby660

        so . . . and your point is?

    • Alecto

      You have obviously never lived in Chicago!

  • C_mat

    It is very irritating when someone pretends they are having a conversation and then already politicizes the issue. I am a very conservative Catholic revert, coming from a 3rd world country. For quite some time as an immigrant and then a us citizen, I felt strongly about the 2nd amendment and although I didn’t always agree with the NRA, I felt the law had some good foundation. However after what happened in CT, an hr from where I live, I was completely shaken. I am a parent of a preschooler and a friends son was in the closet at Newtown protected by a soon to be dead teacher. From that moment, the conversation changed for me. I realized that as a post Christian nation, we no longer have the moral compass, fabric or integrity to handle such dangerous weapons. Times have changed, we are no longer in 17th century America and there is no reason to have legal access to automatic or semiautomatic weapons. Yes every person is responsible for their own behavior. Then why ban smoking? Or pornography? Or attempt to ban gay marriage? Because it is beginning to affect the rest of us. Yes there are many arguments one can put forth about gun free zones etc, but the truth of the matter is we have no business owning semi automatics in the home. More people are killed by their own spouses, friends, parents, relatives and neighbors than burglars. So yes there was a huge outcry after Newtown, but I know that many of my conservative evangelical and catholic friends and myself were part of that outrage. It does not help to politicize the issue and make it about left vs right. As Christians we can be better than that. Right now many people are truly grieving including myself. And we have felt enough is simply enough.

    • musicacre

      I saw a very well-thought out essay today on this tragedy that actually went into ALL the facts instead of promoting being afraid and giving in to mass hysteria. One of the facts that was brought up was that the adolescent involved was seriously disturbed, (so much so that the mother had applied for the son to begin a residential program at a psychiatric facility), and the product of a divorced family, where the father had little contact with the son. The son had a diagnosed mental impairment which the author pointed out would be difficult even with an intact family, let alone a single mother struggling. It appears he found out he was about to be “put away” and took revenge on everyone his mother was close to. The article also pointed to the Danish mass murder tragedy of the gunman being able to take so many lives with just one gun, because of incredibly tight gun laws which did not allow even the caretakers of the camp to be trained/and carry a gun.

    • Alecto

      The Second Amendment is an individual right – and I am grateful the Supreme Court got that right in Heller. You’re free not to own a gun, but don’t ever try to tell me I can’t have one. If you believe you’ve got the support of 2/3 of the state legislatures, the U.S. Congress and the president to amend the Constitution, go ahead and try. I will oppose you at every step. As a woman who has been assaulted twice – both times in broad daylight, I am thankful I had a gun. Several of my friends have been assaulted. They prevented death because they had guns. That’s the thing about gun control nuts – they never consider the number of us still living because we had guns. And Mr. I ain’t dying so you can feel warm and fuzzy in your fake bubble!

      If the facts were different, and you were the one in the classroom with a bunch of 6 yr. olds, I can you this, you’d want a gun, you’d want an automatic, and you’d want to kill that killer before he laid a hand on you or those kids.

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  • This is a very disappointing article from someone who is supposedly a professional political scientist. Krason wants to point the finger or blame at everything other than the proliferation guns in American society but his thesis is trivially and roundly defeated by examining the experience of Western European nations (and Canada, New Zealand, Australia, etc).

    The breakdown of the family is no worse in America than in those other nations, and nor is the consumption of violent video games–they top the charts and sell just as well (if not better) all over the world, not just in America. Mental illness is just as much a problem in other nations, and institutionalization is not practiced anywhere. Again, not the problem.

    Whether it is lack or religious values, lack of conservative values, single parent families, absentee fathers, or violent movies and video games, there is nothing about American cultural trends that sets it up to be unique in the number of gun deaths (and not just mass shootings, but domestic violence, accidents, and suicides as well) amongst all comparable nations — except for one thing… the easy and virtually unregulated access to firearms.

    The reason why so many people are supposedly fixated on gun control is because it is the one thing that has made a huge difference in other nations, like the UK and Australia, where mass shootings are once in a generation events at most, not once a month. Adam Lanza would almost certainly be still just another disaffected, mentally troubled youth today if not for the arsenal his mother had collected in her home. Since Sandy Hook, several young children have died because they got their hands on legally owned firearms in the house, and several nationally reported domestic disputes have ended in murder-suicides. Without guns on hand, most of these incidents end in, at most, bruised faces and bruised egos.

    As for gun control not working in big cities — well, duh. When there are 300 million guns in the country, it’s not hard for anyone, anywhere to obtain one, especially when almost half of all gun sales are completely unregulated. Absent national gun control regulations, there is virtually nothing anyone can do to keep guns and ammo out of the hands of criminals. (In the UK, some gun-owning criminals are having to resort to making their own ammo it’s so hard to come by — in the US, on the other hand, anyone can walk into a local Walmart or Acadamy and buy a year’s supply, no questions asked.)

    I don’t pretend to know an easy fix for America’s current fixation on guns, but nothing is ever going to change until we accept that easy access to unregulated firearms is the elephant in the room when it comes to the problem of gun violence in America. If you want to live in a nation that allows virtually anyone to own a gun with no meaningful restrictions and regulations then at least you have the guts to acknowledge that this freedom comes with a price — a price that includes the lives of the children of Sandy Hook.

    It’s ironic that Krason ends his article by suggesting we trample over our First Amendment rights (by introducing censorship of violent games — whose link of real violence is dubious at best) while rejecting even the slightest attempt to do anything about the proximal cause of Sandy Hook and the other mass shootings — the easy availability of a deadly arsenal of firearms.

  • Carl Albert

    I’ve reflected on the Branch Davidians a good bit in the wake of Newtown and amidst the harangue of gun control. At Waco, the feds proved their unwillingness to be out-gunned by the citizenry, regardless of circumstance. And at a time well before the domestic use of drones and the Patriot Act.

    I don’t fault Prof. Krason’s calls for the imposition of increased moral standards for society – he is a social scientist by trade, after all.

    I do however patently reject any state solution that fails to support individual and/or states’ rights. The profound nature of the US Constitution, and its Bill of Rights, is that it guarantees personal freedom from tyranny (and insures it via the 2nd amendment), but it also provides the room for the core tenants of Catholic social teaching (indeed, morality) to lawfully occur. Subsidiarity and social justice are pillars of our social doctrine, and are encouraged – if not reverberated – in our founding principles. As founded, America is the most moral nation on Earth, as its rights are rooted in the individual by nature of his being alone. The trend toward federalism in America of the last 50-100 years is counter to both the Church and its teachings, and an affront to our personal beliefs.

    Inasmuch as the Constitution guarantees our personal freedom to live our faith, it also guarantees a freedom from faith. Resultingly, it opens the door for darkness – and offers man a lawful freedom to pursue secular and more prurient interests. This is yet again an affirmation of natural rights. No legislation, regardless of its virtue or purity, can overcome darkness and rid the world of evil. Sadly, some statists prey upon the nobility of virtue, but also consequently (and unintentionally) affirm the immorality of statism. (Current calls for greater gun control offer society greater security, when in fact they deliver only the pretense of security – and moreso reflect man’s lust to dominate others). No, indeed. Only light conquers darkness. Which is precisely God’s grace which we all possess as Catholics.

    If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and love God with all that we are, we can help lead others to light and overcome darkness. These are reponsibilities we cannot collectively delegate, nor personally abdicate. It all starts with each of us.

    • babby660

      Folks are not so much looking for “gun control” as they are control over who HAS guns. I think extensive background checks for people seeking gun licenses should be mandatory.

      This may not be the perfect answer, but it should weed out many undesirables.

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  • Robert

    There seem to be more psychopaths in society. America has abandoned God long ago and individuals grow up in complete absence of any notion of God. Violence is taking over society and more and more outraged mobs of individuals grow.

    • babby660

      Oh, the Westboro Baptist Church is a peaceful, friendly place to be, I suppose.

  • Certainly the lack of understanding of human life and the rise in atheism and nihilism which sees no value in human life contributes to a society where these violent acts can take place.

    • babby660

      On the contrary, atheists value human life highly, as we know it’s the ONLY life we’re likely to have.

  • keyona

    what is the main point of this