Random, senseless acts of mass murder and mayhem have become so much a part of American life that you might know someone who has been directly affected by guns and madmen. It turns out I do.
In the wake of the shootings at an Oregon mall and a Connecticut school last week, everyone in America has been talking about this bizarre American phenomenon, and that's how a friend quietly, almost casually, mentioned for the first time that he had lived through such a nightmare.
Inevitably, when these tragedies occur, Joel — who wishes to remain anonymous for his own reasons — immediately recalls his own family tragedy and, more specifically, what the victims' families are experiencing.
"There is an immediate connection," he says. "I know the families are asking themselves why did something so senseless have to happen. I empathize with their pain."
His older brother Jim suffered from mental illness for years. The family tried everything to help him. They tried repeatedly to get him committed to a long-term treatment center, only to be stopped by legal complexities. They paid for apartments, but he always returned to the streets. On one occasion, Joel flew from his home in Utah to search for his brother in Des Moines. He found him living in the skywalks that connects many of the city's buildings. Jim couldn't hold a job, couldn't get public assistance, couldn't groom or take care of himself. Jim finally found his own solution to his problems. In 1987, he bought a shotgun and shells at Kmart, then walked into the parking lot and fatally shot himself. In his despair, he chose not to harm others, only himself.
"I'm not the first to say this, but it's true — it's easier to buy a gun in this country than to get mental health care for someone," Joel says.
Three years later, Joel's brother Paul was sitting in a Southern California sports bar, where people gathered after work to hang out, shoot pool, watch sports on one of the TVs mounted on the walls and socialize over drinks. One man was sitting under one of the TVs with a gun hidden away. Later, it was speculated that he thought people were looking and laughing at him, when they were really just watching the TV over his head. Who knows? The man pulled out a .44 magnum — a cannon among handguns — and began shooting. He killed a half-dozen people, including Paul, who had done nothing more than be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Joel says his family has felt no bitterness toward this man or circumstance. A Mormon convert, he credits this stance to his faith. But he thinks America shares some culpability.
These random acts of mass murder are largely an American phenomenon. According to The Nation, the shooting at the school in Newtown, Conn., is "at least the 18th mass shooting to take place in America this year. The death toll is now at 84." It is the fourth time in four years that President Barack Obama traveled to a community that was reeling after similar random acts of violence. He immediately put guns and gun laws in the cross hairs. They are an easy target and one of the first places Joel points.
"I recognize that people have feelings (about guns) that go back to the Founding Fathers," he says. "But I believe the Constitution is a living document that can be adapted to our day and age, and that the courts are allowed to interpret it. The theory is that any type of gun control means it will open the door to banning all guns. I disagree. Why do we need handguns or assault rifles? If you pass a background test, you can buy whatever gun you want. I've looked at other countries. There are virtually no shootings in Japan, for instance. We have lost balance on this."
But it's not as simple as guns, and Joel eagerly concedes this. If a being from another planet were to size up America simply by watching TV and movies, he would conclude that shooting and killing people were as routine as driving to work every day. The Hollywood people who make our movies are largely the anti-gun liberal crowd, and yet they can hardly make a movie that doesn't involve guns and killing people (but not animals — in "Jurassic Park," they never shoot a dinosaur, not even to save their fellow man, presumably because the animals are an endangered species, one of their pet causes).
Then, there are the video games. There are hundreds of games whose only objective is to hunt and kill people in the bloodiest, most realistic way possible through computer technology.
Do we even need a social scientist to tell us this is damaging and de-sensitizing?
Add to this equation the erosion of families and religion, and you have a recipe for mayhem and violence.
"We must change," Obama said Sunday.
Says Joel, "I hope this at least starts a debate on the issue."