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Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Gun Violence: The Campus Conversation

Since the Columbine shooting less than two decades ago, more than 210,000 students have been exposed to gun violence (Source: Washington Post).

However, police now kill more people per year than mass shooters do, and the majority of their victims are people of color (Sources: The Root, Pacific Standard). The protests over the recent killing of Sacramento resident Stephon Clark bring these issues close to home.

And this year alone, UC Davis has lost two alumni to gun violence, as Chancellor Gary May noted in recent public statements and in his brief opening remarks.

“The Campus Conversation: Guns and America after Parkland” addressed some of these issues publicly and invited an informed discussion of gun violence with the audience at a panel discussion on April 26th in UC Davis Conference Center. The panelists – all UC Davis faculty – study the historical, psychological, legal, and educational aspects of gun violence.

Amy Barnhorst, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, began by addressing the common public belief that mass shootings are a mental health problem rather than a gun law problem, and inquiring whether or not the U.S. mental health system could treat mass shooters.

Barnhorst noted that the connection between the mental healthcare system and gun violence dates back to the Gun Control Act of 1968. The law prohibits those who are “mentally defective” or have been “committed to an institution” from owning guns. Barnhorst noted that both of these conditions are extreme cases that require a patient to appear before a judge and enter the legal system. Receiving a mental health diagnosis or seeking treatment, however, does not bring a person to the attention of the legal system, and does not prevent them from owning a gun.

If the mental health system doesn’t prevent people from owning guns, she asked, can it treat mass shooters? In some cases, Barnhorst argued, yes–those who suffer from diagnosable delusions or paranoia.

But school shooters are different, she said. School shooters display characteristics that are not specifically tied to mental illness, such as narcissism and entitlement, rage and grudge-holding, a history of bullying or isolation, grandiose ideas of what they deserve, and patterns of racism, misogyny, and superiority towards their peers. Some have diagnoses of autism-spectrum disorders, ADHD, or have struggled with depression in the past.

While these behaviors might be mitigated by early therapeutic intervention, Barnhorst said, school shooters’ mental health is not responsible for their decision to shoot people at their school. They act with intention and are conscious of what they are doing.

And therefore, the mental health system is not equipped to prevent school shootings, she noted: “There’s not really a good psychiatric treatment for angry, entitled young men who want to act out their revenge fantasies.”

Garen Wintemute, an attending physician at UC Davis Medical Center and the chair of the Violence Prevention Research Program, turned from mass school shootings to firearm violence more broadly. He noted that while we tend to focus on mass shootings, other types of firearm violence are far more common.

As an ER doctor, Wintemute considers both homicide and suicide to be gun violence, and studies gun violence as a public epidemic. He observed that since 1980, firearm suicide has been twice as common as firearm homicide, until gun homicides began rising in the last five years. And yet we rarely consider firearm suicide as part of the larger gun violence epidemic.

Studying the gun violence epidemic also means understanding risk distributions, and in America the distribution is uneven in a number of ways. Risk for firearm homicide is concentrated among young black men, for example, a concentration of risk that usually inspires a concentration of effort to reduce risk. However, Wintemute observes, those making gun laws are in a very different demographic from those dying from guns, so can distance themselves from the problem.

“This is why mass shootings are different,” Wintemute says. “In the public perception, they’re everybody’s problem.”

How, then, do we reduce risk across the population? Wintemute argued that “If we want to prevent the largest number of people from dying from firearm violence, we have to prevent them from getting shot in the first place.” This can mean stricter gun control laws, or initiatives like the new California Gun Violence Restraining Order, which prevents those who exhibit threatening or harmful behavior from accessing guns.

When considering legislative solutions to the gun violence epidemic, we often invoke the Second Amendment. Alan Brownstein, professor of law and a Constitutional scholar, discussed what guidance the Constitution and related cases provide about gun control.

The 2008 DC vs. Heller case is the only Supreme Court case that provides interpretation of the Second Amendment. It reinforces Americans’ right to have guns in their homes for the purpose of self-defense, but it does not guarantee the right to own unlimited guns for any reason. Furthermore, it provides little guidance about whether or not concealed-carry, open-carry, and the possession of “dangerous and unusual weapons” are protected rights.

When debating the extent of Second Amendment protections, courts are interested in three questions, Brownstein notes: What is the nature and scope of the right? What counts as infringement on the right? and What standards of proof must the state justify to infringe on the right? DC vs. Heller provides little guidance on any of these three questions.

In the end, Brownstein argues, that “Second Amendment doctrine today is constitutional chaos. What that means, at least for now, is that the problems we confront with a lot of gun-control regulations is not the threat of Constitutional adjudication but rather a failure of political decision-making. It’s not the courts that are the problem right now–it’s the legislature.”

Without rigorous gun-control measures in place to protect the population, many are interested in identifying people who might become mass shooters before they turn to violence. Robert Faris, an associate professor of sociology, described an ongoing study that he and colleagues have been running on threatening behaviors in school-age children as predictors for future violence. Since Faris’s CDC-funded study has been prevented from conducting research on gun violence, he turned to a broader study of students who threaten their peers with weapons.

For Faris, stopping violent behavior from spreading throughout school social networks means looking not at who the violent students are, but where in their social networks they’re located. His social network analysis reveals that only about 10% of students threaten others with a weapon, and the majority of these students are boys. And while the public imagines a school shooter or violent student as a person on the fringes of society, Faris found that wasn’t the case: students who made threats were at the center of school society and at the fringes, but had the least friendship stability.

“From a practical standpoint, the threats arising from these students are going to be harder to detect. Socially unmoored students are trading in one friendship for another, which means it’s harder for the people close to them to observe troubling behaviors.”

The event ended with two speakers from the history department, who offered historical context for aspects of gun violence we experience today. Justin LeRoy, assistant professor of history, analyzed the case study of Philando Castile to demonstrate how gun culture’s racist history directly affects the unequal burden of gun violence that people of color bear.

Castile, an elementary-school nutritionist, was shot in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter during a routine traffic stop when he notified the police that his car contained a legally registered weapon. Castile’s killing gives the lie to the American belief “that we can easily separate people into good guys and bad guys, because throughout history this distinction has fallen along racial lines,” said LeRoy.

The claim that Americans need guns for self-defense, for example, has historically justified itself through racial fear. In colonial America, gun ownership was restricted to white men, in part to defend against “threats” of native people and slave rebellions. After the Revolution, white gun owners were concerned that the British might use black loyalists and native allies to undo the new nation and invade white homes.

Parts of the post-Civil War “black code” prevented black households from owning guns. In 1967, when Black Panthers carried rifles to the steps of the California capitol in an act of protest, a Republican senator introduced and passed the Mulford Act, which forbid carrying loaded firearms in public.

Castile’s killing demonstrates a pervasive bias in America that black victims of gun violence are always assumed to be armed, even when the object turns out to be a phone or a shower head, which “transforms even legally armed black people into threats,” LeRoy argues.

Looking at the historical context, LeRoy argues, helps us see how “gun violence and ownership are intertwined with the history of white supremacy, upholding racial hierarchies, and ideas about racial control and criminality.”

Finally, Kathryn Olmstead, professor of history, addressed the history of one of the stranger turns in recent American gun culture: the conspiracy theory that the Parkland victims were “crisis actors” in an event staged by the government in an effort to take Americans’ guns.

How did the NRA transform from a hunting and competitive shooting organization to a massive lobbying group peddling conspiracy theories and inflammatory rhetoric about gun control? As part of a backlash to gun-control laws passed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, far-right libertarians took over the NRA in 1977, and began transforming it into an organization opposed to all gun control laws.

At the same time, gun owners begin to craft new arguments against gun control. The far-right gun movement began to claim that Americans needed guns to protect themselves from their own government. “They believed that the government had a plan to disarm Americans through gun control laws so that they could launch a coup against democracy,” Olmstead notes. “In the most extreme versions of this theory, the members of the ‘deep state’ who’d engineered the coup would invite the United Nations to take over the U.S.”

For NRA devotees, three events in the 1990s served as “proof” of the conspiracy. In 1992, the Ruby Ridge shootout and siege suggested to conspiracy theorists that the government would stop at nothing, even killing citizens, to take Americans’ guns. The 1993 siege of the Branch Davidians’ Waco compound demonstrated that the government would even set fire to churches to steal guns. And the 1993 James Brady Law required a background check to purchase handguns, which conspiracy theorists took as the first sign of a slippery slope towards gun control.

In the past five years or so, conspiracy theorists have begun claiming that the government is staging mass shootings in an effort to spur gun control. These conspiracies made public news after Parkland, when conspiracy theorists claimed that the high school victims were “crisis actors,” brought in to make the shootings look real. And even more recently, conspiracy theorists are beginning to involve the historically conservative, Republican-led FBI in the “deep state conspiracy” to hand the US over to the UN.

Olmstead argues that these theories are in response to a perceived loss of power and identity: “What’s at the heart of all these recent gun control conspiracies is this fear, on the part of the conspiracy theorists, that their identity and power as Americans is somehow under assault.” In the end, however, it’s about control: resisting control by a government and controlling others through guns.

This event was supported by the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor, the UC Davis Humanities Institute, the Department of History, the Institute for Social Sciences, the Department of Sociology, and the UC Davis School of Medicine.

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English literature


This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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