There has been yet another mass shooting in the United States. In fact, mass shootings are so common in the U.S. that there have supposedly been 994 mass shootings in the past 1004 days, averaging almost one mass shooting per day. Yet, every time a mass shooting receives mainstream media attention, the discourse always falls into the same tired narrative that is completely reactionary and never addresses the root problem.
In these mass shooting incidents, the media only ever seems to focus on two core issues: gun control and mental illness. And yet, even with perfect gun control, people will still find a way to kill others if they have the intent. And even if you put countless funding into making high quality therapy accessible for those who need it, what does this do to address what’s causing this rampant mental illness to begin with?
So the real question should be: What is compelling so many individuals in the United States to commit mass murder? And the answer is profound unhappiness. Think about how unbelievably miserable and alone you would have to be in order to be compelled to murder a group of strangers then commit suicide. Mental illness is simply the result of the intense misery and despair a mass shooter feels. Now in order for these mass shootings to be so common as to be routine, it strongly suggests that it is the country’s environment itself that is truly to blame.
Put somewhat crudely, it is the United States itself that is mentally ill. So far everything I’ve stated has been pure opinion, so let’s examine some statistics that bear this out. Let’s start with the obvious:
America leads the world in small arms ownership and gun-related murders. Well, no surprise there. What’s more surprising is the extent to which they dominate this statistic. While hosting less than 5% of the world’s population, Americans own as much as one third of the guns on the planet. You can clearly see why pundits are quick to shift all their attention towards gun control.
An ongoing study suggests America leads the world in mental disorders. “The prevalence of having any WMH-CIDI/DSM-IV disorder in the prior year varied widely, from 4.3% in Shanghai to 26.4% in the United States”. Among these, anxiety disorders are the most common, with 19% of Americans found to experience a clinical anxiety disorder over a 12 month period. Think about that carefully. Imagine working in an office with 50 employees where 10 of them have a clinical anxiety disorder. A country is clearly in a state of pure dysfunction if one in every four of its members has a diagnosable mental illness. One in four.
From these two statistics alone you can already paint a pretty compelling picture of why the U.S. is having mass shootings on a daily basis. World leading access to guns + world leading levels of mental illness = an epidemic of gun-related violence. But let us dig deeper and try to understand why the U.S. leads the world in mental health disorders.
America is among the leaders in income inequality. “Before accounting for taxes and transfers, the U.S. ranked 10th in income inequality; among the countries with more unequal income distributions were France, the U.K. and Ireland. But after taking taxes and transfers into account, the U.S. had the second-highest level of inequality, behind only Chile.” If that’s not disturbing enough, consider this: In 2011 the 400 wealthiest Americans had more wealth than half of all Americans combined. That means 400 obscenely rich Americans had more money than the combined wealth of 150 million other Americans. One hundred and fifty million people. Or in percentages, the top 0.013% of the country had more wealth than the bottom 50%. The United States is an oligarchy, not a democracy.
America leads the world in healthcare costs. In fact, they spend more than two and a half times more than most developed nations in the world. Also consider that medical expenses cause more than 60 percent of U.S. bankruptcies. It is not an exaggeration to claim that most Americans are one major illness away from financial ruin. I could go into a lot more detail about America’s healthcare system but it’s not exactly controversial to claim that it is in a state of dysfunction, particularly if you’re too poor to afford medical insurance.
America leads the world in education costs. What’s particularly shocking is that American taxpayers pay only 36% of the expenses for college and vocational training programs, presumably meaning 64% is paid directly by the students attending these post-educational institutions through tuition and similar expenses. Contrast this to OECD nations where the trend is reversed: Taxes cover 68% of the expense and the remaining 32% are paid by the individual. If you can’t conceptualize why this is important, consider this: the average American university graduate ends up graduating with $26,600 in debt. If you worked a job that paid 12.78$ per hour (after taxes, no less) and had absolutely no expenses, it would still take you a full year to pay off that amount of debt. In reality, expenses eat up the vast majority of your disposable income, to the point where paying off such a level of debt takes more like a decade. A Canadian study found that it takes an average of 14 years to pay back student debt, which is shocking since tuition costs at Canadian universities are significantly lower than their American counterparts.
America leads the world in obesity rates. More than a third of Americans are obese and more than two thirds are either obese or overweight. Think about that carefully. If you’re an American, you are actually a minority if you have a physically healthy weight. Being physically healthy is becoming the exception instead of the norm, and there’s no sign that this trend is reversing in any way.
America leads the world in imprisonment rates. More than 2 million Americans are in prison, almost 1% of their entire population. Contrast this to the second leading first world country, the UK, which has about 80,000 people in prison. That’s less than 1/25th the rate of imprisonment despite having only 1/5th of the population of the U.S. When you control for population differences, the U.S. is putting more than 10 times the amount of people behind bars than other industrialized countries.
America leads the world in pharmaceutical drug use. They also lead the world in illegal drug use. And on and on I could go with these depressing statistics. And you can argue with the validity of the sources I chose or whether I misinterpreted some statistics in certain ways. Regardless of the quality of the research I presented (which is not thorough by any means), what you cannot possibly deny is that America has glaring issues in just about every possible metric for a society’s well being. Almost without exception, the United States sticks out like a sore thumb in any comparison with other OECD nations.
Let’s consider the picture that is painted when combining all these statistical conclusions together. Suppose a male (let’s name him Jake) is born into the United States. Right off the bat, Jake is more likely than not to be overweight, as are most of his friends and family. He might even have a friend or two who are serving five years in jail for marijuana use. Jake gets sick of working at Wal Mart for slave wages so he decides to get an education. All his life he has been taught to pursue a career in something he loves, so he gets a university degree in liberal arts. Jake now has twenty thousand dollars worth of debt, which would take him 14 years to pay off if he had even found a job in his field, but the only job he can find is at StarBucks, which is paying him the same shitty wage he was getting at WalMart. With his debt spiraling out of control and the option of pursuing another university degree becoming increasingly untenable, Jake feels helpless and overwhelmed. He becomes so stressed by his situation that he starts having panic attacks at home and develops an undiagnosed mental disorder. His obesity and stress are culminating into serious medical problems such as diabetes and hypertension, yet he cannot afford to get treatment. Indignant about being robbed of the American dream he was promised from a lifetime of constant advertisements, he decides to commit suicide. But that’s not enough. He wants to lash out at the world that he felt has wronged him by leading him into a position with no opportunity beyond financial ruin. And just like that, another mass shooter is born.
Perhaps the exact details of this hypothetical aren’t the most convincing, but is it that unrealistic to believe a mass shooter could fit into a narrative similar to this? If an experience like this is common enough, what you end up with is a lot of deeply frustrated, depressed adults. Most of them will just suffer in silence but some small percentage will resort to violence, which is what you’re seeing happen with this mass shooting epidemic.
So, in a nutshell, this is what I see happening: A fundamentally unhealthy society leads to an excess of unhappy individuals. Some small percentage of those unhappy individuals then lash out violently. The solution is to address the country’s dysfunction as a whole, but that is an overwhelming task, so the powers that be in the media only dwell on the surface issues of gun control and mental health treatment.
In my next post I’m going to have a thorough look at the lives of some of these mass shooters and what they all seem to have in common. My focus will be on their psychological state growing up: Were they depressed, did they feel alienated, did one of America’s many institutional problems afflict their life significantly? What thought processes did all of these shooters have in common leading up to their violent crimes?