Yet another mass shooting. Two of them, in fact. I know, I know; they’re not really statistically very common, and make up barely a fraction of the violent deaths in this country. That is mostly a matter of inner city gangs slaughtering each other in droves. But even admitting that, these anomalies seem a lot less anomalous than they did not so long ago, and it seems to me that there is something to be said here.

I am not going to talk about gun control or gun rights, at least not directly. Others have thoroughly covered that ground in the past, and I’m sure they will do the same again this time as the same tired treadmill of debate rolls over once again. Instead, I’m going to try to take a larger view of the situation we have found ourselves in. Because it seems to me that, when it comes to violent crime in this country, and especially to mass shootings, the real point is something that no one wants to talk about or acknowledge.

Placing the Past and the Present Side By Side

It is this: back in, say, the 1950s there was comparatively little violent crime in the United States. Oh, there was some, especially in urban areas, but the rates were far, far lower, and mass shooting events were vanishingly rare. Going off of Wikipedia’s list of the 27 deadliest mass shooting events, only one dates from before 1960: the Camden, New Jersey killings of 1949 (the next earliest one is the Charles Whitman murders of 1966).

Today, that is no longer the case and has not been for quite some time; more than half of that list dates from the past fifteen years. Meanwhile the national violent crime rate peaked in 1991 (at nearly five times the 1960 rate) and has been trending slowly downward before rising again in the past couple years, though at its lowest it was still more than double what it was in 1960, according to the FBI crime statistics.

Taking these two facts, there is a single, logical conclusion: something happened between those two periods to change the course of society.

Do you remember those puzzles in children’s magazines which presented two pictures and invited you to spot the differences? Play that game with the two time periods. Between 1958 and 2018, you will find many, many differences. At least one of those differences, and likely many of them, must be why we have mass shootings today.

If we truly do want to heal our society and put a stop to these kinds of crimes, then the logical thing to do, it seems to me, would be to look at what has changed, try to identify the key factors, and then work to change them back.

I won’t, at present, speculate about what specific changes those would be, except to say that banning guns is not likely to be one of them. America has always been an armed nation. Indeed, for a good part of its history her citizens were better armed than her military, with few if any laws regulating the possession or use of firearms.

Yet, again, mass killings of the kind we are grown accustomed to were few and far between. The presence of legally owned firearms, therefore, seems unlikely as the cause of the problem, as their presence long predates the advent of the problems we are considering. We are looking for a noticeable shift in American society that took place between about 1950 and 1970 and continues to this day.

In other words, there are two conclusions to draw from the facts at hand: first, that problems such as mass shooters and surging urban crime rates are not inevitable (since there was a time when they did not exist); and second, that the root cause of them must lie in something that happened within a relatively narrow period time.

What Counts As Progress?

I can already hear the objections to this plan: that the 1950s were no paradise, or that I am only appealing to a mythical golden age, or that you can’t turn back the clock. But I am not arguing that the 1950s or any other time period were any kind of golden age; I am merely pointing out that we have certain major problems that they, by and large, did not. That is simply a matter of fact, and whether you or I or anyone else would choose to live in the 1950s in their totality is irrelevant.

As for turning back the clock, C.S. Lewis answered that canard on its own level by pointing out that, well, yes, you can turn a clock back, and if a clock is wrong that is often the most sensible thing to do.  

To put it more bluntly, however, there is no clock; there is no onward marching machine of history. There are only people and the choices they make. It seems clear that, somehow or other, the choices we have generally been making over the past few generations have not turned out the way we expected them to, while the choices people tended to make in an earlier age did not result in the same consequences.

In other words, if you conceive of the society of the past and the society of today, not as the continuous development of a single object, but as two sets of individuals, then like the protagonists of William Hogarth’s prints we can see that their choices have landed them in very different places. The most sensible thing, therefor, would seem to be for Tom Idle (that would be us) to start taking a leaf out of Francis Goodchild’s book.

It should be obvious that this is not proposed as either a panacea or a guaranteed cure. Humanity does not work like that. My point is that, if we want to uncover the actual cause of these problems, then this is how to do it. What we might be able or willing to do with that information is a whole other question.

But I doubt very much that this plan will ever be adopted, and the reason lies in the nature of the changes that have been made in the mean time. That is, they all tend to slant in a particular direction, and we have been largely raised on tales of how heroic, how just, and how liberating those changes were; on the songs of the revolutionary movements of the sixties, on praises of the ‘daring’ pushes in pop culture, on celebrations of women’s lib and the sexual revolution and the Civil Rights Movement and all the rest of it.

We, as a society, are heavily emotionally invested in the idea that we have ‘progressed,’ that we are more enlightened, more intelligent, more liberated than our grandparents were. It is so much easier to blame guns, or mental illness, or bad laws, or bad politicians, or anything rather than to ask which of these celebrated victories of ‘progress’ and ‘liberation’ landed us in the world of mass shooters and urban hellholes would mean letting go of that idea.

To do so would mean tearing up and rejecting things that we’ve been taught to admire and love all our lives. This is such a daunting prospect for us, that very few people will even acknowledge the inescapable fact that this must be what one or more of those changes did.