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Why “Senseless” Violence Doesn’t Exist

We can't stop the killing if we don't understand It.

Key points

  • Moments of rage, frustration, and helplessness can push us into "irrational" behavior as we lash out to restore our sense of agency.
  • When we despair, this normal psychological response can tempt us to kill ourselves or others, especially if a gun is accessible.
  • As most killers are motivated by the same drives as everyone, identifying "irresponsible" gun owners won't control gun violence.
Source: ja-images/Shutterstock

President Biden’s recent call to end hate-fueled violence, contains a fundamental error about perpetrators that steers gun legislation toward controlling “senseless” and “mentally ill” individuals instead of guns and ammunition.

If shooters are not like us, guns and ammunition aren’t the problems because we “responsible gun owners” wouldn’t behave so “irrationally.” Unfortunately, this is untrue. In just 72 hours during the writing of this piece, ordinary people with guns killed 120 and injured 320 in America.

How Anger Empowers Us

Human behavior is not “senseless." Everyone acts for what seems to them like good reasons, even if others might not understand or agree with their logic and beliefs.

For instance, in the moment that we lash out at loved ones in anger, we feel fully justified. Massive frustration with an automated telephone customer service system may cause us to yell angrily at a machine that cannot hear us. That is because fury is a natural response to the (even momentary) belief that we cannot improve a distressing situation.

Fury restores our sense of agency and helps us escape despair. So, while we may regret it later, in the moment, we have “good reason” to yell, strike out, or hurl the phone across the room: to overcome feeling disempowered. That is very sensible.

If an impersonal algorithm can engender rage, then feeling shunned, humiliated, disrespected, or manipulated by others—especially those we care about—is exponentially more devastating. It can shatter our sense of self-worth, making us feel loathsome, insignificant, despairing, and powerless, which helps to explain gun violence.

The Psychology of Murder (and Suicide)

Murder and suicide are acts of self-empowerment, motivated more by the emotional needs of the shooter than by malice toward the victim, just as spewing venom at strangers online has little to do with the actual people on the receiving end.

The shootings at Uvalde, Las Vegas, Buffalo, and numerous stores, theaters, schools, and malls across the country may seem “senseless” because the victims had no relationship with the perpetrators. However, the shooters’ internal needs likely asserted deadly power, just as our own needs for empowerment can cause us to hurl objects or angry words.

Murder and suicide are extreme efforts to end a prolonged, unendurable sense of subjugation and suffering. Mass shooters (unlike other murderers) typically don’t plan to survive their attack. Their massacres are a vengeful form of suicide.

While most gun violence is committed by people who have never been diagnosed as mentally ill, even those suffering from psychosis (which most mass shooters do not) act for what appear to them to be valid reasons, and from the same motivations as non-psychotic people. Ready access to firearms makes it too easy for anyone to act on the temptation to empower oneself by taking up arms. Their mere presence can easily escalate anything from a domestic dispute to road rage into a killing.

Consequently, U.S. military members commit suicide at a rate greater than the general population. They are more likely to die from suicide than on the battlefield. Current and former military members may suffer from battle conditions, but the most deadly condition for them is the possession of firearms.

Despite this, the press dehumanizes mass shooters with claims that they must have been “crazy,” even without any history of mental illness. However, the histories and statements of many mass shooters, including those in Buffalo and Uvalde, suggest they were in possession of their faculties but experienced humiliation, ostracism, and helplessness at home and school. They likely acted to restore their self-respect and prove to the world that they were unafraid, powerful, and entitled to the opposite of being shunned: full, undivided attention.

These are just theories. While we don’t know what motivated them beyond what they say or write, they refer to reclaiming power. That's not so “irrational” or “senseless” at all.

Ending the Gun Violence Epidemic

While some shooters and suicides display “red flags” that might enable timely interventions, others do not because they are like everyone else. Therefore, no sorting mechanism can reliably distinguish the “safe” from the “dangerous” among us to prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands.

As Nobelists Anne Case and Angus Deaton and others have repeatedly demonstrated, social conditions drive despair. When any of us believe there is no other way to end our suffering, we may attempt suicide or homicide. To overcome the highest rates of suicide and homicide among high-income countries, we must take action to end ready access to firearms and the social conditions that fuel despair.

Ending the chronic stress-induced despair that eventually pushes people over the edge, so an apparently temporary moment of rage or depression results in a pulled trigger, will require that everyone can rely upon having enough to eat, adequate housing, a well-paying job, a sense of dignity, and access to education, child care, and health care.

Professor Danielle Carr of UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics wrote that we are acting:

... as if suicide were a kind of unfortunate natural occurrence, like lightning strikes, rather than an expression of the fact that growing numbers of people are becoming convinced that the current state of affairs gives them no reason to hope for a life they’d want to live.

As we have seen, the same can be said of gun violence more generally.

Unfortunately, President Biden’s plans to address these intertwined epidemics by supporting unions, workers, and families face as much obstruction as his proposals to ban assault weapons.

Every citizen, adult, and child is endangered by our human tendency to counter feelings of despair, insignificance, helplessness, humiliation, worthlessness, and ostracism by taking up arms. We cannot change human nature to nullify these impulses. The only way to protect ourselves is by ending the easy access to the guns and ammunition that turn those temptations into deadly actions.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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