Whenever there’s a mass shooting, conservatives mobilize all their powers of creativity to come up with explanations for gun violence that have nothing to do with guns themselves. Was it an inadequate mental health system? Schools with too many doors where a shooter could enter? Video games? Sugary drinks?
In other words, it’s us. Well, not conservatives themselves, of course — the rest of us. We’re the real problem.
This line of argument is both dishonest and surpassingly stupid. And to believe it, you have to either pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist, or conclude that Americans are the most deranged and violent people on the planet.
Let’s begin with something we should all be able to agree on: No other advanced industrialized democracy has the gun violence problem we do. As one recent study comparing the United States to other wealthy countries reported:
The homicide rate in the U.S. was 7.5 times higher than the homicide rate in the other high-income countries combined, which was largely attributable to a firearm homicide rate that was 24.9 times higher.
Mass shootings account for a relatively small portion of gun deaths in the United States, but they’re a particular horror. The Gun Violence Archive counts 214 mass shootings (defined as incidents with four or more victims) in the United States so far this year, or around three mass shootings every two days. By the time you read this there might have been a few more.
So, America stands alone when it comes to gun violence. How do we explain that fact? Since the massacre in Uvalde, Tex., conservatives have found the answer in American godlessness and incivility:
- “We took God out of schools and we wonder how this evil comes in,” said Fox News’s Rachel Campos-Duffy on “Fox & Friends.” Co-host Will Cain agreed: “It’s as much prayer as it is policy."
- Fox News personality Lara Trump pointed to “the dissolution of the family,” “fatherless children” and “the loss of religion.”
- Conservative radio host Mark Levin said that “we need to celebrate the Judeo-Christian principles that went into the founding of this nation” and advocated more prayer in schools.
- “We are culturally ill,” said Washington Examiner columnist Timothy P. Carney.
- The Wall Street Journal blamed “the collapse of cultural guardrails.”
- Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pointed to a cultural problem rooted in our supposed lack of religious faith. “You cannot change the culture of a country without changing the character of the people,” he said, adding that this can’t be accomplished "without turning to God.”
So the problem is not enough religion? But if that were the case, those same peer countries where there’s so much less gun violence would be absolutely drowning in blood.
That’s because the United States stands out among wealthy countries for our religiosity; as the Pew Research Center put it, “When it comes to their prayer habits, Americans are more like people in many poorer, developing nations.” Many of the least religious countries, on the other hand, are also the ones with the lowest rates of homicide.
So if the United States is simultaneously the most religious wealthy country and the most violent, a lack of religion clearly isn’t our problem.
“Culture” is larger than just religion, of course. When called upon to explain mass shootings, conservatives will also point to other cultural ills: We’re disconnected from one another, people are lonely, we spend too much time on our phones, we need to be more involved in each other’s lives and speak up when we see someone in emotional crisis.
None of which is false. But it isn’t as though people in other countries aren’t lonely or disconnected, or have abusive parents, or get bullied, or suffer from various kinds of mental illness. So why is it that a troubled young man in Sweden or Japan doesn’t kill 19 kids, but a troubled young man in America does? What could it possibly be?
If it can’t be the 400 million guns in circulation, it must be some darkness lurking in American culture. Yet it’s strange that the same people who advocate for an aggressive national boosterism, who are constantly telling us this is the greatest country on earth — USA! USA! — also appear to believe that Americans have constructed the most depraved and diseased culture of any nation on the planet.
Here’s what is really motivating this argument: If the problem is culture, then the people with the ability to do something about it are absolved of all responsibility for action. Your governor can tell you to pray harder, but he doesn’t have to sign any laws or change any policies.
If you’ve gone overseas or met people from other countries visiting here, you might have had this conversation: The subject turns to guns, and they say, “How can you Americans live like that, with guns everywhere and constant mass shootings? It’s crazy.”
Maybe they’re on to something.