The issues of gun control and school shootings have been heavily conversed in the United States lately, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that Donald Trump weighed in with a number of tweets. The one that I want to focus on right now, however, reads as follows:
….If a potential “sicko shooter” knows that a school has a large number of very weapons talented teachers (and others) who will be instantly shooting, the sicko will NEVER attack that school. Cowards won’t go there…problem solved. Must be offensive, defense alone won’t work!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 22, 2018
Now, there is a lot in this tweet that is concerning. The very concept of teachers being forced to carry guns is terrifying, and I genuinely hope that that never becomes a reality. But, at the same time, I think that this is the issue that the majority of people who read this tweet will focus on, and it is the issue that will be discussed more prominently. And there is something else in this tweet that I find terrifying, and worth discussion.
Namely, I want to talk about Trump’s repeated reference to shooters as ‘sickos’.
Now, before I get into this, I want to clarify something: anyone who commits a shooting has committed a terrible, sick act. They have taken innocent lives out of this world, and a very strong argument can be made that that is unforgivable. I am not trying to defend their choice to murder people, because that choice is indefensible.
What I am trying to say is that, especially lately, we have been talking more and more often about what causes people to commit shootings. And the general consensus seems to be that mental health tends to be to blame. Heck, even Donald Trump seems to be aware that mental health is involved in a person’s choice to take up a gun and murder others.
Now, the degree to which mental health is involved in gun violence is debatable. Only 14.8 percent of mass shooters in the United States are diagnosed as psychotic. People with mental illness contribute to roughly three to five percent of all violent crimes (most of which do not even involve guns), and when people with mental illness do use guns in a violent fashion, that violence is typically turned on themselves (in 2013, nearly two-thirds of gun-related deaths were suicides). So when we say that “gun violence is a mental health problem”, we need to remember that mentally ill people are not one gun away from murdering a whole bunch of people.
But there is a video that has been circulating around social media in the wake of this discussion that I would love to draw to your attention now.
This video is an open letter from Aaron Stark, and it bears the very intriguing title, “I was almost a school shooter”. In it, Stark talks about his experience in school, and how he had a “very chaotic and violent childhood”. He describes being bullied, and he describes how, as a result, “I got angry, and I started hiding weapons everywhere”. He states that, the only reason why he did not commit a shooting at his school was because he did not have access to a gun.
“People say mental health is the issue, and that’s true. My mental health was in sad shape. I was severely depressed and suicidal. I felt like I had nothing at all in life to look forward to, and so I literally had nothing to lose. When someone has nothing to lose, they can do anything, and that thought should be terrifying. So, yes, mental health was an issue. A bigger issue was love. I had a severe lack of love,” Stark says.
Mental health is not the only reason why gun violence happens. However, anyone who would be willing to take a human life is not a healthy person. These are people who are deeply pained, deeply rejected by their society, and, as Stark says, severely lacking in love.
These are the people who Trump is referring to as ‘sickos’.
And I’m not necessarily concerned for the men who have already committed shootings; that is an issue far too complicated for me to comment on. What I am concerned about is the young boy who is in pain, who is angry, who is in need of support and love so that he can avoid doing the terrible thing that he has been considering, and yet he is further alienated by his own president, who dismisses him as a potential sicko.
The language that we use when referring to people matters. And ‘sicko’ is a very dismissive word. ‘Sicko’ does not create room for discussion, and yet discussion is absolutely necessary for any young person who is considering this. ‘Sicko’ does not create room for love, and yet love is vital in avoiding this exact problem. ‘Sicko’ is the sort of word that discourages a young man from coming forward and talking about his feelings, because he doesn’t want to be dismissed as a ‘sicko’. So he doesn’t come forward. He just sits with it, and lets it fester. He allows it to progress, until the absolute unthinkable happens.
The truth is, it does not take a monster to do this sort of thing. All it takes is one lost, hurting, loveless child.
It bothers me to see the leader of a country use this sort of terminology, because it gives the rest of us an excuse to follow his lead. And we cannot do this. We cannot think in dismissive terms when it comes to other human beings. We cannot allow our horror of what might be to further doom other children who have not done it yet. These are children who need love and compassion and understanding, and if the president of the United States isn’t going to give it to them, then we need to make sure to give it to them. We need to be there to listen to people who need it. We need to be open-minded and non-judgemental when it comes to what they’re saying. We need to watch our language, and make sure that we are not alienating them further. Because that is so easy to do, when we are so used to doing it.
I am firmly of the opinion that creating stricter gun laws will help to fix this issue. This is something that we need to do; but at the same time, it will not make children stop feeling this way. It will only make them stop killing each other in such great numbers. This anger and this pain and this loneliness is not alright, and it leads to so many other problems – more than just school shootings. So we need to do something to fix it.