A gunman killed 59 people at a music festival Sunday night in Las Vegas. More than 500 people were injured. It was the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
Beyond this, we must ask fundamental questions about violence in America and our seeming boundless tolerance for mass killings, but also the suicides and homicides that happen, largely out of the media spotlight, every day. Is America becoming more violent? Divided? How do we and America remain resilient in the face of such violence and division?
The BDN put these questions to Maine experts in sociology, politics and criminology who are members of the Maine Scholars Strategy Network. We got the idea from Vox, which posed similar questions to national experts. Their responses are edited for length.
Steve Barkan, professor of sociology with an emphasis on criminology, University of Maine: America has always been a violent country. We began by enslaving and brutalizing African-Americans and killing and torturing Native Americans. The new nation began with revolutionary violence against England. … Lynchings of African-Americans more or less began during Reconstruction and lasted for about 80 years. The homicide rate reached a peak in the mid-19th century before falling for many decades. It rose from the 1960s until the 1990s and has since plummeted, along with violent crime more generally.
What is different today is the number and firepower of firearms. People in early America and the 19th century could be incredibly violent, but no one individual could commit a mass shooting because the firearms available then did not enable anyone to do so.
What gets lost in the very understandable concern about mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas is that far more people die in gun violence from “ordinary” homicides and suicides than from mass shootings. On the average, about 100 Americans die every day from gun violence, about two-thirds of them suicide victims and one-third homicide victims. Based on this average, on the day all the shooting victims in Las Vegas just died, about twice that number died nationwide from other gun violence.
Luisa Deprez, professor emerita, sociology and women and gender studies, University of Southern Maine: In this current political climate especially, the “permission” being given to others to lash out on others is not only tolerated but often encouraged and certainly modeled by those in powerful positions. While people are coming together, a divisive climate coming from on top permeates the air and furthers the escalation of hate and violence.
This country has experienced a good deal of violence. … But much of that violence has been under the radar for most people, and it has occurred all too often in communities of color which are way off the radar for most people.
Recent articles on mass killings have indicated that most mass murders in this country have actually been by carried out by white men, often then characterized as “mentally ill,” “distraught,” “deranged.” While assaults by (usually) men of color have cast them as “terrorists” and other such insinuations.
The sad part of all of this is that we don’t learn anything by it. After such rampages, gun sales actually increase. Nor do we experience any leadership from those in power during these violent times … just further dismissive, non-empathic retorts.
Robert Glover, associate professor of political science, University of Maine: I don’t think that, in the aggregate, the United States is becoming more violent. We actually live in a period where violent crime has been consistently falling for so long that researchers are hard pressed to explain the phenomenon. However, I recognize these things are often seen through one’s lived experience. If one lives in an area that has become economically depressed or has started to experience new forms of petty or violent crime that it hasn’t previously, it can be easier to generalized that as a broader trend within society.
One area where we are experiencing a tragic and deeply troubling trend is mass shootings. Though firearm homicides are down in the aggregate, we’re basically averaging about one mass shooting a day. Here, I think we need to take a comparative look state by state, and country by country. Laws that restrict access to guns result in fewer gun deaths and there is evidence to back this up.
As for whether we are more divided, I think again there is good evidence to suggest that we are in ways that extend beyond simply who we vote for, but where we get our information, and how we understand our identity, where we live, who we interact with, and so much more. This phenomenon is relatively unprecedented.
However, the U.S. has seen a civil war, segregation and Jim Crow protest movements and citizen uprisings that are a product of division and animosity. The U.S. is resilient and we’ve managed to overcome deep division before. I hope we can find the courage and strength to do so again.