What makes a young man pick up a gun, head to a crowded place, and shoot as many people as he can? Liberals have two answers to this question. First, the availability of guns is by itself enough to cause mass shootings. Some people will want to kill, and the guns let them do it easily. Second, young men are not liberal enough not to kill. They might be Donald Trump supporters, and if that isn’t the same thing as being a white nationalist – for a growing number of liberals, it really is – it is a kind of gateway drug, and the president’s failure to say what liberals want him to say, as often as they want him to say it, allows young men to be radicalized into killers.
What could Trump say to stop these killings? He condemned white supremacy and hate in his remarks on Monday, but no liberal said that was sufficient. Trump has called illegal immigration an ‘invasion,’ and the El Paso shooter did so, too. So presumably Trump should repudiate that language. But would that be enough? If Trump didn’t use the word ‘invasion,’ but continued to oppose illegal immigration and speak out against it, liberals would still blame him for the actions of avowed white nationalists. What Trump could do to absolve himself in the eyes of the liberals, short of adopting exactly the policy positions and language that liberals prefer, is not at all clear. Or rather, it is clear: liberals have a problem with Trump not because he uses flamboyant language but because he has policy views that they will not accept as legitimate, at least not when those views are held by a Republican. Democrats on stage last week in the second 2020 candidates’ debate had the awkward task of explaining their position when a liberal like Barack Obama is responsible for deportations.
We know what actual white nationalists say and do when they know Trump is against them. Robert Gregory Bowers, the man who murdered 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, thought Trump was a ‘globalist’ and a tool of the Jews. If Trump denounced hate every day of every week for a year, the likes of Bowers would still commit atrocities. Do liberals sincerely think that a Patrick Crusius, the alleged El Paso shooter, would not?
Let’s spell this out: liberals are saying that there are borderline figures who are thinking seriously about murdering scores of people who will refrain from doing so if only the president says something nice. Is this psychologically plausible? Or is it just politically convenient? Is it realistic to imagine that white nationalists are just zombie-like followers of Trump, who kill because they think it will please him, and who therefore will not kill as long as it’s clear this doesn’t please him?
Blaming Trump for extremist violence also runs into the problem that apparently at least a third, possibly two-thirds, of the most recent mass murderers are not white nationalists.
Though relatively little media attention has been devoted to the politics of Connor Betts, the Dayton, Ohio shooter, all reports so far indicate that he had left-wing views and was a self-identified socialist, and supporter of Antifa, as well as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The FBI has even said that reports about the far-right politics of Santino William Legan, who murdered three people at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, are ‘wrong’.
Do liberals think that totally different explanations are needed for the phenomenon of far-right shooters and non-right shooters, or are they open to the idea that these shootings have a common denominator that is not political?
Inanimate objects don’t have far-right or far-left politics, so maybe AR-15 and AK-47 style rifles are themselves the causes of mass shootings. Yes, the shooters may have a variety of motives, but only the availability of guns makes these young men deadly dangerous.
This explanation runs into a few problems, too. First, the United States has been a country with easy availability of firearms for a very long time, yet these spree shootings are a rather new phenomenon. Gun violence has actually decreased over the last quarter century. Despite the media attention lavished on mass shootings involving rifles, most firearm homicides are perpetrated with handguns. It’s true that high-capacity magazines and body armor make mass-shootings more feasible, but men who are determined to kill unarmed civilians can do so with handguns. Or for that matter with motor vehicles, or even, as has been seen in Japan recently, with knives.
Proponents of gun control reflexively call for policies that they want anyway whenever there is a mass shooting, regardless of whether those policies would have done anything to avert the carnage. Background checks? Legan bought his rifle legally in Nevada. As yet we have no reason to think that Crusius or Betts would have been prevented from committing their monstrosities if politicians had closed ‘gun show loopholes’.
This is not to say that tighter laws of various kinds should not be considered. But gun-control advocates and liberals in general should be honest and open about their assumptions and what would be necessary to reduce the availability of firearms in a significant way. Not gun control, not background checks, but gun bans and confiscation would be needed: liberals like to cite Australia and New Zealand as free from mass shootings since passing strict laws against most or all firearms ownership. To enact similar laws in the United States would require amending the Constitution. The Second Amendment was originally intended to protect ownership of precisely the kind of weapons that liberals target in response to these mass shootings. The amendment is supposed to provide for a well-regulated – that is, well-practiced – civilian infantry as an alternative to a standing army and a supplement to an army called up by Congress. Military-style rifles are what such a ‘militia’ should be practicing with.
I know Second Amendment supporters who don’t acknowledge the context of the amendment, and there is a thriving right-wing folklore that presents the Second Amendment as if it’s intended to support another Shays’ Rebellion. The 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, however, which heavily inspired the Bill of Rights, offers a clear account of the reasoning behind gun rights: ‘a well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state…standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and…in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.’
There is another way to approach the question of what leads a young man to pick up a gun and murder as many defenseless people as he can. Soldiers in wartime sometimes have difficulty firing at their enemies. Even when they are morally permitted and militarily required to shoot another human being, many people can’t. To murder women and children and old men – defenseless people of all kinds – is hardly even within the realm of psychological possibility for people with a well-formed conscience. These murderers do not have a conscience; they do not have any reflexive empathy or sense of humanity. They do not have the inner checks that prevent many people from killing even those who are trying to kill them first.
Evil ideologies such as white nationalism may deaden the conscience, but cause and effect more likely run the other way: lack of conscience and empathy makes an extremist in the first place, and can make a mass murderer whether his ideology is far-left, far-right, or something else altogether. These young men have not had character and conscience properly formed, and in the absence of such formation, their evil impulses have no check. More than that: evil is precisely what these killers aspire to be. White nationalism is liberalism’s equivalent to Satanism, and if the early reports are true, the Dayton shooter was an anti-Christian who styled himself as a Satanist or militantly anti-God atheist. Other mass shooters have targeted children (in the case of Sandy Hook) or patterned themselves after fictional icons of evil such as the Joker from Batman comic books (in the case of the 2012 Aurora, Colo. shooter).
Outside of the family, religion and liberalism are the major socially institutional forces that can shape conscience. But neither of them can do so today for society as a whole. Liberalism negates religion, declaring it optional, unscientific, and dangerously prone to bigotry. But liberalism is unfit to take religion’s place and is predicated on a radicalizing view of human nature. Modern liberalism prizes ‘autonomy,’ the idea of the self-created individual – who must, of course, be guided by enlightened liberals in the (politically) correct ways of self-creation. (You can self-create as a woman if you’re a man, but you cannot self-create as black if you’re white.) Liberalism is brittle: it has none of the depth of humanity that religion or traditional culture possesses. The autonomy principle promoted by liberalism holds a far stronger appeal, especially for young men, than does the absurd, essentially theological, yet godless, political-social creed itself. The result is sometimes the production of young, self-created nihilists, sub-Nietzscheans who want to matter in ways that they clearly do not: as big figures within the world or as warriors or martyrs – or monsters – not just losers and non-entities. Self-creation outstrips any connection to other human beings because liberalism, the very social air they breathe, has very little to connect people, unlike traditional religion.
The way to minimize spree killings is to form conscience again, but that requires something more than liberal indoctrination, which these young men have all received in school and via liberalism’s media, evidently to no good effect. A return to traditional religion seems very unlikely. So in the meantime, there may be bans on bump stocks or expanded magazines, and maybe the mentally ill will be put under more scrutiny. Non-murderous Americans who go to gun shows will have their backgrounds probed. But the killing will continue because America is becoming a country with an ideology in place of the Christian conscience.