There have been an appalling number of mass shootings in the US over the past decade or so. I remember when people used to talk about Columbine like it was a rare occurrence. Not anymore.
With so many mass shootings in the news, two characteristics of gunmen typically stand out: mental illness and a lack of acceptance from self, others, or both. First, let’s talk mental illness.
It’s a personal peeve of mine to hear newscasters and other media outlets hark on suspicions that individual gunmen are mentally ill. In my view, anyone who chooses to open fire on a group of innocent people, whether as a means to social change or as a means of self-expression, is most definitely mentally ill. There is no question about it.
This isn’t to say that all of the gunmen in these cases definitely have diagnosable DSM-V disorders, but more to say that there is obviously something wrong with someone’s thinking if they believe that shooting up a room full of strangers is a good idea. Delusional thinking is a symptom of many more serious mental illnesses, and if there isn’t a DSM diagnosis for someone who harms others because of their delusions, there should be.
Another reason it bothers me to hear so much emphasis placed on the role of mental illness in mass shootings, is because it increases stigma against non-violent people living with mental illness. Suddenly mental illness (along with, of course, guns) becomes the perpetrator, not the individual gunman. Suddenly, it seems, all mentally ill people are dangerous. The emphasis on mental illness really shifts the focus off of the real issue, which, I believe, involves the degree of lifetime tolerance and acceptance experienced by the gunmen.
Although the Orlando shooter seemed to have been influenced by jihadist values, another layer suggests that he may have been profoundly at odds with himself in regards to his sexuality. Although nobody knows the truth about his sexuality, if he was indeed gay, he likely felt pressure from both his family and religion to act against his natural, perfectly okay impulses. His surroundings likely didn’t allow him to truly and freely explore this part of himself, thus likely leading to misplaced anger and hatred targeted toward the part of himself that he was taught to fear and misunderstand the most: homosexuality. Although the attack may have been a demonstration of allegiance to ISIS, I’m sure the bulk of it was likely an expression of all of his pent up frustration, anger, and lack of self-acceptance.
All of that to say that the Orlando shooter probably didn’t experience a lot of tolerance or unconditional acceptance from others in his lifetime. Another factor that seems to come up in many mass shootings is the social isolation and rejection experienced by the gunmen. In regards to the perpetrators of these mass shootings, you often hear that they were quiet, withdrawn, and maybe a little “off.” Most of them seemed to have had trouble keeping friends or even getting close to people at all.
But social acceptance and rejection, especially at an early age, can be largely out of one’s control. Being left out as a toddler or young child can result in stunted social skill development, which can lead to more rejection, subsequent isolation, and possibly bullying in middle school, high school, and even college. This rejection and isolation is very likely to also lead to the mental illness so often observed in mass shooters.
But why do people get left out? A lack of tolerance and acceptance on the part of their peers. Children can be cruel and mean, and will often reject others based on what they have been taught to see as “weird” or “different.” Kids will ruthlessly tease a boy who cries too easily. They will reject a girl they see as “too fat.” Kids will refuse to let someone else play because they aren’t good at sports. All of these rejections are based on characteristics that children have been taught to value, both by their parents and by a society that values stereotypes, aesthetics, athleticism over humanity, compassion, and good-personhood.
On that vein, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we, as a society, and as parents, are responsible for creating these mass shooters. This doesn’t absolve the individual of the guilt of mass murder, nor does it make it alright for people to wreak havoc on others in this way, but it does beg us to look at other sources of responsibility apart from the person and the gun. We, as a whole, are responsible for creating the conditions that lead to social isolation and rejection through the values that we perpetuate regarding how to treat others. By emphasizing academic intelligence, achievement, success, looks, physical abilities, heterosexuality, conformity, and racial hatred over emotional intelligence, prosocial behavior, tolerance and acceptance of others’ differences, respect for individual choice, creativity, healthy self-expression, and self-knowledge, we are marginalizing people who do not fit the mold, and thus we are creating psychological distress and hatred where none ought to exist. This distress and self- and/or other-hatred can lead people to do really harmful things to both self and others, including a mass shooting.
If we really want to stop the culture of gun violence that exists here in America, we need to start by teaching our children to love and accept others. We need to teach our children that how nice you are — how inclusive you are of others — is more important than how good your grades are or how good you are at sports. We need to teach our children that other peoples’ feelings are more important than how skinny they are. And above all, we need to teach our children to love and appreciate themselves rather than try to force them into a mold prescribed by Christianity, Islam, Hollywood, or any other socio-cultural institution.
Because when people truly love themselves for who they are, and have a sense of being valued by others for that true self, they won’t choose to shoot up a room full of innocent strangers.