Bruen and Mass Shootings: Same Cultural Script

  • Date:
  • September 14, 2022

In Bruen, Justice Thomas highlights the story of a Black schoolteacher in post-bellum Maryland who was given a revolver by the local sheriff to protect his students against violence by white mobs (at 52-53). Despite the historical setting, arming teachers to address a pressing social problem of violence will sound familiar to the opinion’s contemporary audience: it is analogous to gun rights advocates’ responses to incidents of mass shootings at schools.

Although no other issue related to gun violence captures public attention in the same way as mass shootings, advocates on both sides of the Second Amendment debate have warned against designing gun laws with mass shootings in mind, because such events are only responsible for a fraction of gun deaths in the United States. Yet it is important to try and understand the cultural connections between mass shootings and Second Amendment law, two uniquely American phenomena related to gun culture which have both surged in the twenty-first century. On their face, mass shootings are pure aggression, and so may seem like the opposite of the defensive action which the Second Amendment protects. But mass shootings occur against the backdrop of two major social conditions that have everything to do with the Second Amendment: the availability of guns, and the power of cultural scripts.

Following mass shootings, pro-gun commentators regularly invoke three types of responses: first, they may frame the problem as one of evil individuals whom law-abiding citizens should be able to quell (solution: arm good guys to take on bad guys); second, they may suggest that violence is inevitable and the way to ameliorate its harms is by reducing social interaction (solution: fortify school buildings to prevent perpetrators from entering or homeschool children); third, they often lament the lack of social cohesion and virtuousness which might prevent some mass shootings (solution: strengthen community-building and morality-inducing institutions such as churches). The third response contradicts the first two. One cannot promote individual gun rights for self-protection against criminals and in the same breath wish for stronger communities. Your neighbor is either your potential killer or your confidant. Since Heller ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to be armed for protection of ourselves against attacks by our fellow citizens, the Supreme Court has conveyed the former message. Bruen barely bothers with rhetoric about political freedom at all; it cements the Second Amendment as a right to be prepared for confrontation wherever it may occur, which is wherever we have a right to be. The third response correctly identifies that acts of violence are a product of culture, and that the cultural problem that yields mass shootings is one of social alienation. Second Amendment jurisprudence clarifies that this problem is one we all share.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has impactfully argued that the extermination camp was not a departure from, but rather a paradigmatic manifestation of, European modernism. Pro-gun responses to mass shootings—which the majority Justices in Bruen echo, legitimize, and arm with legal validity—invite a similar argument with regard to mass shootings and contemporary American culture. The extermination camp revealed the ominous undercurrents of a Weberian state that held a monopoly on violence and instituted a bureaucratic culture that instrumentalized all human experience. Mass shootings reveal the ominous undercurrents of a state that rejects the responsibility to protect and diffuses legitimacy to use violence, within a culture that romanticizes and naturalizes self-sufficiency. Gun advocates often make the comparison explicitly, suggesting a “violence optimality” whereby if the U.S. did not have the especially high rates of private violence it does, it would instead see large-scale group violence: “The down-side of 'gun control' is genocide.”

The horrific acts committed by mass shooters should not cloud the fact that mass shooters are devout defenders of the mainstream American cultural narrative, not a deviation therefrom. The demographic of mass shooters tracks that of gun owners except for age: mass shooters are overwhelmingly male and generally white and non-urban, but young. A central motivation attributed to the perpetrators of many mass shootings is “aggrieved entitlement.” They often cannot reconcile an unfair, competitive reality with an ideal image of what life was supposed to be like, for them. There is no one person responsible for this disparity, yet, in the mass shooter’s view, someone must pay for robbing them of the personal and social successes to which they feel entitled. Their ostensibly deserved social capital is reclaimed from society at large—revenge is exacted on the collective and random individuals become legitimate targets as symbols of this unmerited deprivation. Mass shooters defend the narrative of merited success that emanates naturally from social dominance, by showing how catastrophically its fallacy is felt when it materializes. The individual finds in violence a “self-justifying sense of righteousness,” which protects and restores the self when it fails to live up to imaginary standards. These standards nonetheless seem natural—and therefore reality is where the problem lies—owing to the power of myths to dramatize society’s moral consciousness and make it appear as “natural law.”

It has been suggested that mass shooters have “followed the time-honored script of the American Western.” Correspondingly, scholars have appealed to the cultural resonance of vigilantism to justify Heller. Gun owners distance themselves from violence by insisting that their weapons would only be used if they encounter a “bad guy” in action. Yet the continuous presence of personal means of violence—thanks to Bruen, always and everywhere save “sensitive places”—encourages a constant search for an opportunity to be a romantic hero and salvage a sense of self from uselessness and failure. It is logical to infer that the justified provision of these means of violence, thanks to self-defense law, ought to make one’s use of them just. The mass shooter is conceptually troubling precisely because he is an over-conformer, who “swallowed every poison pill our culture could throw at him and was outraged when he became sick.”

The gun helps secure, or vent frustration over the loss of, what one thinks one is owed by society. That the gun is the American man’s best friend translates the social frustration of aggrieved entitlement into a particular form of mass sacrificial violence. This is not a bureaucratic form of violence with scientific justifications, like the Holocaust, nor one loaded with collective metaphysical meanings and religious justifications, like many terrorist acts. The American way of translating (suburban and rural) alienation into violence is to act alone, shooting indiscriminately at multitudes of fellow citizens using a personal gun.

Reading an individual right to guns into the Bill of Rights and then anchoring its expansion in an American tradition of preparedness for confrontation, Second Amendment decisions promote the cultural script of “me and my gun against the world” by placing it at the heart of the meaning of American citizenship. In his Bruen concurrence, Justice Alito repeated statistics about gun violence cited by the dissent, including about mass shootings, to underscore that they present another reason to expand gun rights—not to curb them; the more violence there is, the greater the need for self-defense (at 2-4). Indeed, mass shootings are often followed by peaks in gun sales (partly for fear of victimization and partly for fear of increased regulation). Mass shooters thus vindicate the Hellerian world-view, help it stay relevant, and oil its wheels.