GUEST BLOG / By Alia Dastagir, Reporter, USA Today--Call it a cycle, call it a script, call it madness. Nineteen children and two adults gunned down in an elementary school in Texas. Collages of their beautiful faces, photos of families who will carry a grief so heavy we buckle at the thought of carrying it ourselves. The lucky parents wrap their bodies around their living children, as if it were enough. We read the same headlines, see the same hand-wringing, criticize or call for the same prayers and find ourselves desperately having the same debate. Until we move on, and a moral imperative evaporates.
This is a political story, but it is a psychological one, too. A story about what some people say they value but refuse to protect, what some people claim they want but never demand. It's a failure of American democracy, a failure of humanity, a "learned helplessness" whose only antidote is a demonstration that change is possible.
"Learned helplessness is a mental state that occurs when people find out that nothing they do matters," said Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "Its main consequence is that people give up and stop trying. It applies quite apparently to the majority of Americans who, for years, have shown they want more checks and balances about gun control. ... And in spite of that, the American voter and the Democrats, in particular, have found out that nothing they do works. That predicts that people would give up."
In the U.S., gunfire on school grounds is at a historic level. On Monday, one day before the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, the FBI released data showing an alarming escalation of public shootings. In what is arguably the Supreme Court's second highest-profile case this term, the justices are expected to rule any day on a possible expansion of gun rights under the Second Amendment.
On social media, one might think there is no common ground on the issue, but 2018 polling from Gallup shows that to prevent mass shootings at schools, 92% of Americans support required background checks for all gun sales, 87% support more security, and 68% support raising the legal age at which people can purchase certain firearms. Banning the sale of semi-automatic weapons is more divisive: 56% were in favor and 42% opposed.
Experts in gun violence and social psychology say the impasse on gun control is about our political system's fundamental functioning, its responsiveness to the public it purports to represent. They blame a number of factors for societal paralysis, including the gun lobby's influence over the Republican Party, the reflexive tendency after each new chapter of death to dig in our heels on issues that divide us, and a devastatingly high tolerance for individual and collective trauma.
"We talk a lot about how we are exhausted and overwhelmed and overburdened, but we don't talk about how we can imagine our own everyday political culture to be a healthier one," said Jennifer Carlson, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona who studies guns, trauma and the law. "There has never been a reckoning regarding the layers and layers and layers of trauma that are built into this country. ... The rest of the world is looking at us, feeling sorry for us, because we are unable to face ourselves."
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Though experts underscore there is broad agreement on certain gun reforms, there are still deep partisan divides in how people perceive guns – the right to bear them as well as their symbolism and utility.
"For one side, guns represent aggression, violence, and a somewhat paranoid and anachronistic perspective that you have to protect yourself from external threats," University of Alabama criminology professor Adam Lankford said after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2017. "For the other side, guns represent safety, security, and self-sufficiency."
This leads people to very different conclusions about solutions to gun violence.
"If someone is embracive of further gun restrictions, they're going to see gun violence and say, 'Obviously this means we need more restrictions.' Someone who embraces gun rights is going to see more guns as a solution to these kinds of events," Carlson said. "It doesn't matter how bad it gets, because people on opposing sides of this issue are thinking about the issue so fundamentally differently."
Carlson said energy must be spent on pulling people out of rigid political positions. In pursuit of that, Carlson said there is an important, untapped group that may provide some answers on how to move forward: liberal gun owners.
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"We have a lot more guns in circulation, and we have a lot of people who own guns who did not own guns before 2020. Those people are less likely to fit the profile of the stereotypical gun owner. They are less likely to be men, they're more likely to be racial minorities," she said. "The liberals who own guns, those are the people we need to start listening to so that we can look to bridge these divides."
'It's not saddening in a way that seems to mobilize most people' Jay Van Bavel, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University and director of the Social Identity & Morality Lab, said given that polling shows there is consensus on some gun reforms, the question becomes one of mobilization.
"Sandy Hook was a moment where many people felt like there was an obvious case politically and morally where people should have done something and nothing happened," he said. "It's deeply saddening, but it's not saddening in a way that seems to mobilize most people."
Van Bavel said it's easier to mobilize anger and hope. But anger dissipates and hope wanes. Grief is paralyzing.
Van Bavel said it's important for voters who care about gun reform to ensure they understand how deeply the Republican Party is intertwined with the gun lobby. Despite disagreeing with their stance, there's an absence of Republican voters willing to abandon candidates over their failure to vote for gun control measures.
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"What you'd need probably is a countervailing, 10 or 20% of voters who make gun control their top priority," he said. "There are so many issues, there are so many potential priorities, that I think it would be beneficial if there was a mobilization of people who just decided, no matter what a politician stood for, if they didn't stand for popular gun regulations that they would vote no for them, no matter what."
This group could exert what psychologists call "minority influence," when a committed subset of people has an influence on a broader group.
'Our system is broken'
Carlson said that while she still believes it's worth advocating for bipartisan measures like universal background checks, she is skeptical of what today's political system can achieve. The sources and consequences of gun violence are multifaceted. While there is a legitimate compulsion to say "We need to do something," it's just as legitimate to point out that many of the solutions on the table are not going to address the depth of the problem of gun violence in American society.
"We, as a country, have been breaking the political process in the government," she said. "Both sides with very, very different arguments and very, very different evidence believe that democracy is in jeopardy in this country. And yet the main way we are looking to fix this is with the political process. It gets at this mismatch between knowing that something is fundamentally wrong and lacking any feasible tools to actually do something that would rise to the scale of that problem."
Carlson said we need to fundamentally rethink our political institutions and rework how we engage in politics in our everyday life. "Our system is broken, partly because we’ve been proactively breaking it," she said. "It’s a top-down and bottom-up reimagining." Carlson said a better political culture would foster civic grace, which she defines as an acknowledgment of the dignity of our fellow citizens and a recognition that our own political views are limited, contingent, and therefore open to change. A healthier political culture would embrace social vulnerability, which she defines as a recognition of our inherent capacity to experience loss, pain and suffering.
'It requires breakthroughs to get people to believe'
The Uvalde shooting comes a little more than a week after a white gunman opened fire at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, and killed 10 people. During the pandemic, gun violence has risen across the U.S. More Americans died of gun-related injuries in 2020 than in any other year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"This problem is definitely getting worse, and it's going to continue to get worse until something is done to address it," said John Donahue, a Stanford University law professor and gun policy expert. To address it, experts say, people need to sit in the pain, connect with it and mobilize their way out of it. "The parents whose kids were murdered, the people who are so directly impacted, it's not up to them to further bear the burden of pushing, even though that's what's happened because everybody else just runs away," Carlson said. "The change happens when those of us who haven't experienced this violence directly figure out what we are willing to do."
Seligman said encouraging people to act means showing them their efforts matter.
"That requires demonstrations of actions that work, that show that people who believe in more gun control can become agenetic and overcome these barriers," he said. "It requires breakthroughs. That's what gets people to believe."