With the usual outcry after yet another mass shooting, this time at the BorderLine Bar & Grill in California, I think it might help to think about a different question than that of gun violence and mental health: Why are so many Americans killing themselves?
The AFSP has many interesting charts and graphics showing different suicide statistics in the United States, but the trend is clear: every year more and more Americans, especially young Americans, are killing themselves. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds and 2nd leading for 24-35 year olds. Very few commit mass shootings before killing themselves. Most die quietly without any news coverage. Why is this happening? What about our culture or our society is leaving so many young people feeling left out and angry at the world?
After all, mass shootings are basically a form of suicide. The shooters almost always kill themselves, force the police to shoot them, or intend to do so yet lose their nerve and surrender. The specifics of each case have been different, but a common thread seems to be that these people are angry and they want to die. Omar Mateen was angry about US foreign policy in the middle east, Patrick Kelley was angry at his mother-in-law, Dylann Roof wanted to start a race war, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wanted revenge on the kids who bullied them at school. Even in the shootings with no known motive like Aurora, Sandy Hook, or Parkland, it’s clear the gunmen were extremely troubled young people who stopped caring if they lived or died. If you factor in attempted suicides and the number of people harming themselves by abusing alcohol, prescription drugs, and opioids, it’s truly staggering how many Americans want to die.
In many cases mass-shooters are military veterans, widely revered as the most noble and brave among us, yet with their entire lives ahead of them they choose to kill themselves and others. In addition to mass-killers like OKC bomber Tim McVeigh, shooters like Christopher Dorner, DC Sniper John Allen Muhammad, Fort Hood Shooter Nidal Hasan, Washington Navy Yard Shooter Aaron Alexis, Kelley mentioned in the previous paragraph, and the latest, former Marine David Long have been veterans of the American armed forces. What qualifies as a “mass shooting” can differ greatly depending on who you’re talking to, but I’ve read several compilations of data on generally-considered-mass-shootings that found over 1/3 of mass shooters had at least some military background.
Obviously with the longest wars in American history on-going for most of the last two decades, a larger number of Americans have some connection to or service in the armed forces than in prior decades, but still only about 15% of Americans are veterans. So the rate of veterans among mass shooters vs. among everyday American society is more than 2x. Why? The military is revered in our society; just watch an NFL football broadcast. Setting aside problems within the VA health system, veterans are given generous retirement and benefit packages in exchange for their service. They’re honored at football games, on television, in Hollywood movies, and even while boarding a plane. Why are these noble, brave, well-regarded Americans choosing to commit suicide at a rate of 20 per day, let alone the few who choose to take other lives in addition to their own?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but if you look beyond the blatantly obvious common thread of “they used guns”, there are other glaring similarities between these incidents. Mass-shooters are usually young men, often with prior military service, who are extremely angry at the time of the shooting even though they’re living the prime years of their lives. So what is making these young people feel that they not only have nothing to live for, but that the world is so against them that they need to lash out?
Video games, violent movies, if-it-bleeds-it-leads media, foreign intervention, torture, empire, and war overseas coming home, social media, government schools, the list of possibilities is endless, but I think what’s clear is that we’re creating more and more angry young people and angry veterans who’ve lost the desire to live than ever before. Beyond the very few who make the news for committing a mass shooting before their suicide, thousands more (45,000 in 2016) are making the same choice in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.
The answer to this question is where the solution will be found: If America really is the greatest country on earth in the midst of the longest economic expansion in its history, then why are so many young people in the prime of their lives choosing to opt out? Unfortunately, as always, the focus seems to be on guns and background checks while this cancer continues to eat away at our young people. For the sake of the next generation of young people, I hope we can find a way to turn these statistics in the other direction, but it could get worse before it gets better.