I have listened to the constant stream of news coverage regarding the shooting in Las Vegas for the past two weeks. The media has attempted to make sense of the tragedy, but attempting to make sense of a nonsensical event is a dangerous exercise. Reporters have questioned the shooter’s motive and sanity. A news outlet reported that the shooter’s father was on the “Ten Most Wanted List.” This report became another piece of evidence of his villainy as we began to wind our way down the rabbit hole of reason. We have heard multiple refrains, even from the President, that the shooter was evil. We need this man to be the definition of evil. Clearly, he is, right? What is viler than shooting 58 people dead and wounding hundreds other as they enjoy a concert?
As I’ve listened to the coverage, I’ve also been writing. I spend a large portion of my week interviewing, writing, and thinking about victims of gun violence. As many of you know, I write the narrative accompanying the photographs for our “Behind the Statistics” project. It is an honor to be entrusted with these stories, and I feel a great responsibility to talk about these individuals as openly and honestly as possible. We don’t shy away from telling stories about individuals who have drug addictions, convictions for violent behavior, or have been charged with homicide.
This week more than ever, I was struck by our need to frame the individuals involved in gun violence in binary terms. Too often the victims in media portrayals must be innocent and pure. The perpetrators must be outliers, people the system clearly failed to catch. Sometimes this is true. But much more often this is a myth perpetrated to protect us from the reality of violence.
Victims are real people with real flaws. Our lives are complicated and there is no need to pretend otherwise after a tragedy. The high standards of victimhood mean when the misdeeds of a victim come to light, the tragedy is reduced in the public’s mind. Their life matters just a little bit less.
In the same vein, we cannot villainize every shooter or killer. Usually there is a path toward becoming a killer that our society helped build. When we talk about evil rooted in killers, we absolve ourselves of our responsibility. We fail to ask ourselves the crucial question: how did we permit this tragedy to occur? It absolves us from looking at controversial issues, like the shooter’s easy access to firearms.
We are all capable of great good. We are also all capable of great evil. The one thing that distinguishes this country in the conversation of good and evil as it relates to guns is access. Americans do not have a monopoly on mental illness, higher propensities to violence, or poverty. What we have that no other industrialized country does is easy access to guns. Nowhere is this more evident than in Nevada.
Perhaps this shooter in Nevada was evil but that does not mean we need to allow evildoers to purchase an arsenal. When we dismiss a killer as “crazy” or a victim as “just another drug dealer”, we do ourselves a disservice. It may provide momentary comfort as we seek answers but it skirts the real issues. Instead, I encourage you to ask yourself, why do our laws allow this unfettered access to guns? Why is Congress doing nothing to prevent this from happening again? How can we build up programs, services, and education in poverty-stricken areas to prevent young people from making poor choices and going down the wrong path? How can we prevent society from creating killers? These questions are much more disturbing and far harder to answer. Yet, I think they offer a place from which we can begin to look for real answers and solutions.