America experienced another mass shooting this week. Of course that doesn’t make this week all that different from most weeks. This time, the shooting occurred at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana. This shooter used a gun he was licensed to carry. Ironically, the shooter at the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting three years ago was convicted of first degree murder this week as well.
It is no secret that I believe that America’s cultural addiction to guns is our nation’s biggest flaw. I also believe that there will be a time, an incident, a violation, that will bring this scourge to its tipping point, and then our perspective on guns will begin to radically change. However, that event or series of events is hard to imagine, given what has already occurred.
I was convinced that a change in the discussion was upon us following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. In my view, this was the most horrific outcome of the presence of guns in civilian life in modern American history. It happened while our sitting President already supported addressing gun control. The bulk of the victims were innocent children. The NRA looked absolutely foolish in its defense of current gun policies and barbaric with its suggested solution to arm teachers as a better course of action. In the two years that followed this massacre, ninety-five shootings occurred in American schools. Ninety-five.
Sandy Hook wasn’t the tipping point.
On June 17, a young white man in Charleston, South Carolina opened fire at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church killing nine. This incident actually served as a tipping point, but for the wrong thing. For a variety of reasons, the public debate quickly turned to a debate about the Confederate Flag. The defenders of the flag put up a weak attempt at defending their symbol of racism and within a matter of days, the flag came down in South Carolina, and Wal-Mart, and NASCAR. It created just enough drama to steal the show from any discussion of the real and ongoing problems the incident illustrated.
The Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre wasn’t the tipping point on gun policy either. It did however serve as a great example of a tipping point in relation to the stupid flag.
So shootings in elementary schools and churches are now happening. Yawn. Is there anyplace or anyone more sacred? Imagine where and who that might be.
So what is a “tipping point?” Malcolm Gladwell made the term commonly used in sociological terms with his 2000 book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference.” In the book, he defines it as the moment of critical mass, the threshold or the boiling point, and he explains and describes it as mysterious sociological changes that mark everyday life.
Gladwell makes many claims of the phenomena, but none more controversial than his explanation of the reasons for the sharp crime rate reduction in New York City during the 1990s. He claims that establishing a zero tolerance policy for small time crimes like graffiti on subways and fixing broken windows actually led to a sharp reduction in more serious crimes. The “broken windows theory” is also a well established criminological concept in that fixing the broken windows creates a sense of order and lawfulness.
In this context, what is the small time policy change that could lead to a big time reduction in senseless gun violence? I wish I knew. What I do know is that our policy makers’ unwillingness or fear of even discussing small time gun policy changes prevents the big time reduction from even being possible.
In his book, Gladwell focused on the little things that can serve as a tipping point. In this context as it relates to gun policy, a simple licensing requirement, manufacturing reduction or mental health screen could be the thing that sparks a shift in momentum. Maybe a coalition among the members of the League of Cities could jump start something. Again, I don’t know what it is.
What I hope for is that some version of Gladwell’s tipping point gets it started. Without it, I fear that only something more horrific than we have already seen will.
The statistics on our gun problem are beyond challenge. The example we are setting on the world stage is truly embarrassing. Our approach and our perspective on this will change. The only question is what will cause that change?
The tipping point could be some seemingly innocuous policy in some mid-sized city that isn’t particularly known for its gun violence problem that ultimately makes an indisputable difference. Or it could be the most horrifying act of violence that is unimaginable to us today. The amount of gun violence in our culture is intolerable and I have faith that our intolerance of it will eventually lead to a more peaceful society.
What I fear is the reason why.