This post is part of a series exploring the idea that storytelling, gameplay or entertainment of any kind may precipitate acts of violence in the real world. First post here.
Unable to prevent mass murder by focusing on opportunity or motive, you are now reduced to considering how to limit the means of such monstrous acts. From the outset you know this is not a particularly promising approach to protecting innocent lives because almost any object, including the human body itself, can be used to kill. Other than wrapping everyone in a straight jacket it will be impossible to prevent human beings from injuring each other, but with judicious limits it might be possible to decrease the total amount of carnage that berserkers commit in a given calendar year. You won’t ever know who you saved, and you won’t ever be able to keep people from going berserk, and some people will still die, but you might be able to limit some of the fatalities that would otherwise take place when individuals do become homicidal.
Although you rightly abandoned your plan to incarcerate people by the millions based merely on broad suspicion about their potential motives for going berserk, because doing so would still fail to prevent mass murders among the remaining free citizens, your realize that the same was not true for those individuals who were incarcerated. Even allowing for the fact that they might be more likely to go berserk compared with their free counterparts, perhaps as a result of being unjustly imprisoned, by virtue of being locked up the potential for any individual to commit mass murder would plummet. While supervision and isolation would certainly prevent some violent acts from taking place, even in the general population where the opportunity exists to murder people en mass, the means of doing so would simply not exist. Even if prisoners went berserk with regularity, the total amount of damage they could do would be limited — at most — to whatever carnage they could cause with a shank or other weapon before others intervened en mass.
Leaving aside full-blown riots, the likelihood of a single individual going berserk and taking out twenty or ten or even three people in a prison yard is severely limited by the fact that they will rapidly find themselves outnumbered. If they had the right weapons the plan would have a better chance of success, but among all the institutions known to man prisons in particular are notoriously loathe to permit the possession of exactly those weapons that make killing human beings easier. For example, while many prisons allow prisoners to express themselves with paints or drawing materials, including tools that could be repurposed to violence, few prisons allow personal expression through use of chemical agents or explosive devices. Even if you are the baddest of the bad in Cell Block C, the fact that you can’t get your hands on the tools that would allow you to kill many people quickly means you’re limited in the damage you can do.
Unfortunately, when trying to limit carnage outside prison walls such prohibitions do not apply. Not only are people allowed to own a wide variety of products that can be used to kill many people in a short amount of time, as long as those products are legal they can stockpile them for that exact purpose and nobody can tell them you’re not allowed to do so. Only after they’ve gone berserk and killed a bunch of human beings — thus proving that they are criminals if not also mentally ill — can citizens, by law, be deprived of many of the means of mass murder.
Equally consternating to you as someone trying to save as many innocent lives as possible is that the means of committing mass murder are everywhere. If aimed in the right (or wrong) direction almost any motor vehicle you’ve ever been in could kill dozens of people without any modification whatsoever. If a motor vehicle can’t be purchased or obtained by other means, fire has always been a budget-friendly choice that allows anyone to do a tremendous amount of damage with virtually no effort at all. If a group of people also happens to be in a burning structure, and, say, some of the exits don’t work the way they are supposed to…well, the body count could add up quite quickly.
If an individual was genuinely determined to kill a lot of people, and that person had the time and financial resources to plan their actions instead of simply snapping and going berserk, the sky would be the limit in terms of what might be done, up to and including building or procuring a nuclear device. Fortunately, because of the lethality of nuclear weapons, the materials critical to building them are heavily regulated, suggesting that there are at least some putative limits on the right to obtain the means of mass violence. Precisely because building a nuclear device requires a lot of effort and is generally discouraged, however, you might decide to commit mass murder by means which are less sophisticated and anticipated — such as, say, procuring enough ammonium-nitrate-based fertilizer to blow up a good-sized building. Still you would need to be the first to do so, or at least the first to do so within memory of those individuals writing the regulations that govern such things, because in the aftermath of your attack new regulations would almost certainly be put in place to prevent others from doing the same thing. At which point you would have to come up with something new — like, say, repurposing fully fueled hijacked jets as guided bombs.
Despite the potential for causing mass causalities, however, some people are still allowed access to plutonium, uranium, ammonium nitrate and large airplanes full of fuel. Because of the risk if used improperly, those individuals are simply required to submit to additional levels of regulation, certification and other requirements that are intended to weed out people who might have nefarious motives or ineffective impulse control. Such restrictions are not placed on ownership or use of most products — say, smartphones, toilets or magazines — because even as it is possible to use anything to kill another human being, it’s really hard to kill a lot of people in a short amount of time with a smartphone, toilet or magazine. This in turn suggests that although we cannot prevent people from going berserk, and we cannot prevent berserk people from killing others, we can and often do try to mitigate the ease with which berserk people can kill a lot of people at once.
Mitigating the Means to Murder
Taking your lead both from prison populations and free citizens who work with lethal devices, then, the first thing you would do in order to limit the means by which mass murders can be committed is limit access to products that can most easily or effectively be employed for that purpose. Fortunately, in many instances this has already been accomplished not only in the United States, but in many other countries around the world. Unfortunately, in the United States in particular, there is one notable exception.
While it’s relatively difficult to get your hands on explosives and biological or chemical agents in the United States, it’s quite easy to get your hands on firearms of almost any type, including not only hunting weapons and sporting weapons, but military-grade weapons designed expressly to allow you to kill as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. This is of course awesome if that’s exactly what you intend to do or suddenly decide you absolutely must do. Factor in the ready availability of large magazines and clips that can be replaced in mere seconds, and with a little forethought almost anyone in the United States can legally purchase one or more firearms that can then be used to kill dozens of people in a matter of seconds.
To be sure, even in the U.S. there are limits on the firearms you can own. While you can have all the semi-automatic weapons you want, and can own as much ammunition as you want, you’re not allowed to own fully automatic weapons because those are presumed to be too dangerous. If you live in an open-carry state — meaning you have the right to keep your weapon with you as long as it’s not concealed — you can still take your military-grade, probably-not-automatic-but-how-would-anyone-actually-know-until-you-opened-fire weapon into the grocery store or bank, or even to the local airport, provided you don’t shoot anyone who does not first make you fear for your life.
While anything can be used to kill another human being, the obvious difference between firearms and, say, a bunch of bananas, is that firearms were specifically designed to kill things — including human things — as quickly and efficiently as possible. That not only makes firearms one of the ideal and traditional means of performing such tasks, it makes them particularly desirable if you suddenly discover exactly the right motivation to switch from law-abiding, not-mentally-ill citizen to mentally unstable beserker. Because such appeal is historically known, however, states may elect to subject gun sales to a waiting period, and currently about ten states have made that choice. (There is no federal waiting period. A background check is mandatory in all states before a firearm can be conveyed to a purchaser, but if the background check takes more than three days the purchase is allowed to go through.)
Admittedly it is also possible to repurpose a firearm to tasks other than killing even if that’s what firearms are designed to do. For example, plenty of people prefer using firearms for target practice as opposed to committing mass murder. Then again, the same can be said about anything. For example, while you could probably kill someone with a toaster, you might also decide to see how proficient you could become at throwing a toaster at a target, or perhaps even hitting a target with ejected toast. In fact, such tests of skill are often done with knives, arrows, bean bags and all sorts of objects, as well as firearms. The only thing that sets firearms apart from all those objects is that modern firearms sit at the top of the heap in terms of personal killing machines.
While requiring a waiting period for gun sales precludes people from buying a firearm at peak pique, it does nothing to address the problem of preventing mass murder if one is already in possession of a firearm. And that’s particularly true when such moments coincide with circumstances in which a person’s normal inhibitions may have been eroded by various substances. Multiply a few beers by a few insults down at the local watering hole — or upscale lounge — and the next thing you know someone may decide to let a concealed-carry, fifteen-shot, semi-automatic pistol do the talking. Add in other toxic variables such as, say, youth, sports or gang affiliations, being male, hatred of a particular group, a seething desire to overthrow the government, or anything else short of actionable mental instability — to say nothing of combining those factors with the ingestion of various substances — and it would seem fairly obvious that the more readily available firearms are to the general public, the more often firearms will end up being used in violent acts which could not otherwise be predicted, including mass murder.
As tempting as it might be to consider the efficacy and mechanics of limiting the availability of firearms to the general public, however, you know that guns in themselves do not kill people. If you put a loaded firearm on a table and leave it there it will not open fire by itself. Leaving aside robotic weapons it really does take a human being to use a gun for any reason, just as it would take a human being to use a toaster to kill, or to make toast. Then again, as you learned from carefully considering the question of motive, such observations only distract from the issue at hand because you’re interested in preventing murders, not assigning blame after the fact.
Having already acknowledged that motive can never be used to prevent murder you are thus reduced to mitigating the means of murder, and in that respect the free availability of guns is clearly central to that goal. Take your average berserk human being who’s gone over the edge for reasons we cannot predict beforehand, and as long as they do not have access to firearms they are going to be limited in the amount of harm they can do, particularly when attacking a large group. Give that same berserk individual a device that holds multiple killing projectiles which can be fired in rapid succession using only the repeated pressing of a finger, and the number of dead and wounded may only be limited by the amount of availability of ammunition that individual has on hand.
The conclusion that it’s easier to kill people with objects designed to kill people than with fresh fruit or a kitchen appliance seems obvious and indisputable. In fact, only a liar or fool would argue otherwise. Mechanics use wrenches because they get the job done. Surgeons use scalpels because they get the job done. People who want to kills lots of other human beings use firearms because they’re designed for that specific purpose. The whole point of owning a firearm, in fact — even in the context of personal safety — is that firearms allow you to kill something at a distance instead of forcing you to wrestle it to the ground and choke it to death with your bare hands. Likewise, the more rounds of ammunition you have available, and the more quickly you can reload, the less expertise you need to have — provided you’re not too concerned about collateral damage.
If your goal is preventing the loss of as much innocent life as possible, including deaths caused by people who may momentarily lose control of themselves, then just as we prohibit the private ownership of nuclear weapons it would make sense to prohibit, limit or regulate the ownership of firearms in ways that decrease that likelihood. We could do the same thing with weapons like knives, of course — and already do with potential mass-murder machines like motor vehicles — but unlike firearms, most knives or cars and trucks are designed for other purposes. Still, in some instances it may even make sense to prohibit the possession of sharp blades, as when, for example, they might be used to commandeer a fully fueled airplane which could then be repurposed as a flying bomb. Likewise, it might make sense to limit what kind of vehicles can be driven in some locations, or inspect or otherwise prevent vehicles from entering those locations because they could also be used for, or conceal the means of, mass murder.
Mass Murder, Means and Militarization
While in most countries the right to own firearms can be regulated for the common good, including keeping people from impulsive acts that they might regret later (assuming they survived them), in the United States few if any such regulations can be enacted because of a provision in the U.S. Constitution — the same document that protects the right of the press to exploit, profit from, and disingenuously report on murder and mass murder. Because of the 2nd Amendment the right to own firearms is conferred to citizens at birth and remains in force as long as an individual has not been convicted of a felony. While there has been considerable debate about the exact intent and meaning of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, over the years the Supreme Court has defended and effectively expanded the rights of law-abiding gun owners, removing any practical ambiguity. Unfortunately, given that one of the few viable avenues of preventing or at least minimizing future acts of mass murder hinges on limiting the available means of committing such acts, this legal prohibition presents a problem.
While you are thinking deeply about the issue, however, a story in the news convinces you that the 2nd Amendment may be precipitating another societal problem as well. Following the shooting and killing of an unarmed man by a police officer in the state of Missouri, a series of protests take place, largely focused on the question of whether the race of both the police officer and the unarmed man played a role in the killing. In response to those protests the local and state police repeatedly exhibit a show of force including vehicles and equipment of military pedigree, leading many people to also question the nationwide trend toward militarization of civilian police forces.
While the killing and unrest in Missouri raise a host of valid concerns, and it is always possible for tools, including firearms, that are useful in one context to be inappropriately used in another, what seems to be lost on most of the people commenting on the militarization of police forces is that the impetus to do so came not from America’s disturbing history of race relations or even the terrorist attacks on 9/11, but from a single galvanizing incident that instantly changed how members of law enforcement across the country felt about their own safety.
The incident in question was a bank robbery that took place in Los Angeles in 1997, over seventeen years earlier. When police responded — in what was then unquestionably one of the bank-robbery capitals of the country, meaning such crimes were not uncommon — they were met not by the usual small-time crooks in masks, but by two men clad in body armor and armed with fully automatic weapons. In only moments the first officers on the scene were overwhelmed by the firepower of the robbers and forced to take cover. More than fifteen police officers and civilians were wounded, and only when SWAT teams arrived did the firefight equalize, even as the robbers continued to fire on police and civilians with relative impunity until they were eventually killed.
Prior to that firefight no one born after the rise of the Chicago gangs of the late 1920’s — whether citizen or law enforcement officer — had ever seen weapons of war unleashed in an American city. The effect was so instantly transformative, and the need to increase the firepower of first responders so obvious, that less than a year later the Department of Defense donated 600 M16 assault rifles to the LAPD alone, massively increasing the firepower available not only to SWAT teams but to the patrol officers. This militarization of civilian police rapidly spread to other cities across the country as officers realized how completely outgunned they could be at every traffic stop or residential encounter, to say nothing of more violent situations. While dangerous in its own right, the militarization of civilian police was driven by nothing more than the need to catch up to the sheer amount of firepower available to American citizens under the 2nd Amendment.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 the need to militarize police forces increased again for the same reason. If it was possible, if not absurdly easy, for two men — one an American citizen, and the other born in Romania — to acquire and illegally convert weapons of war to fully automatic fire, as the bank robbers in Los Angeles had done, it would take little or no effort for foreign or domestic terrorists to do the same thing in a nation awash in weapons. Because the opportunity to commit terrorist attacks cannot be mitigated, and because such attacks cannot reliably be predicted even if the motive is known in advance, and because the 2nd Amendment specifically precludes limiting the means of such attacks by law, the only available option for first responders and citizens alike is to also be armed to the teeth in the hope of containing and defending against such attacks when they do occur.
Now armed to the teeth themselves, and simultaneously charged with maintaining order while also protecting the rights of all citizens — including citizens who may be hostile to the police, yet also lawfully allowed to carry, either openly or concealed on their person, weapons capable of killing large numbers of human beings in a small amount of time — it also seems inevitable that some of the human beings charged with meeting such responsibilities on a day-to-day basis might become overzealous in using a firepower advantage to do their job while minimizing risks to themselves. While precluding civilian law enforcement from adopting militaristic trappings such as camouflaged uniforms might help decrease aggression in both the police and the people they serve, stripping law enforcement of militarized weapons in a country that has been militarized by an amendment to its founding document which is intentionally and unambiguously militaristic in itself is clearly not an option.
Whether an act of violence is caused by terrorists or a berserk mass murderer, the civilian authorities charged with responding to such emergencies need to have the means of doing so. Because any American citizen has the legal right to own as many weapons as they want, and there is often no way to determine who owns what when police arrive on scene, let alone whether today is the day when a formerly law-abiding citizens is going to go berserk, the police rightly feel they should have military-grade weapons with them at all times because it’s impossible to predict in advance when such weapons may be needed. The militarization of America’s police, then, is simply following in lockstep with the militarization of America, which in turn encourages those who have an axe to grind or who hope to terrorize the populace or destabilize the government to also procure even more destructive weapons. Sprinkle all those firearms and tensions with time, economic pressure, martial discord, substance use, long-simmering hatreds and even mental illness, and not only is it likely that mass murders will increase, it’s likely that the police will eventually become stressed and begin overreacting to any threats they do perceive.
It’s a maddening and vicious cycle, but just when you are convinced that the problem can never be solved, you realize that it will necessarily resolve itself. Yes, a lot of people will die in the interim, but at some point, after enough attacks take place on American soil using ever-more-lethal and legally purchased firearms freely available in the marketplace, either at the hands of foreign terrorists, domestic terrorists, or both, targeting shopping malls, schools, hospitals or even police stations, the sheer amount of blood running in the streets will convince a majority of citizens, and in particular a majority of government officials who themselves may have been targeted, that the 2nd Amendment must be repealed. There will be a lot of wailing along the way, of course, to say nothing of fatalities, but precisely because the 2nd Amendment cannot be infringed it will at some point have to be retired so firearms can be regulated in the interest of public safety.
The only remaining question, then, is how to keep as many innocents from being killed between now and whenever that inevitable change takes place.
Next: Storytelling and Real-World Violence
— Mark Barrett
Comment Policy: Ditchwalk is a wild place, but not without tending. On-topic comments are welcomed, appreciated and preserved. Off-topic or noxious comments are, like invasive species, weeded out.