Changing America’s “Culture of Violence”

           “We live in a culture of violence,” Rabbi Shaul Praver told his congregants at Temple Adath Israel in Newtown, Connecticut last week after the killing of six-year-old Noah Pozner, whose family is a member of the synagogue, and his 19 schoolmates at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. “All of our culture is based on violence and we need to teach the kids about the ways of peace,” said the rabbi. “We need to change everything.”

            We’ll soon see whether the gun lobby in America can be successfully challenged and, indeed, the culture of violence—which has been growing in the U.S.—can be changed.

           President Barack Obama had it just right yesterday in declaring that the “discussion” that has “remerged” since the killings in Connecticut about “what we might do not only to deter mass shootings in the future, but to reduce the epidemic of gun violence that plagues this country every day” has “to continue. But this time, the words need to lead to action.”  He was so accurate in stating, “We’re going to need to look more closely at a culture that all too often glorifies guns and violence.” And important, too: “We’re going to need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun.”

             Five days after the massacre in Newtown, Obama announced he was forming a panel, led by the vice president, and emphasized that he wants it to “come up with a set of concrete proposals no later than January—proposals that I then intend to push without delay.”

            The killings have been called the 9/11 of U.S. mass murders and a tipping point—a horrific event involving weapons about which words of condemnation, and then no action, can no longer suffice.

            We’ll see. The National Rifle Association, the spearhead organization of the gun lobby in the U.S., is enormously powerful and extreme. “It is opposed to virtually every form of gun control, including restrictions on owning assault weapons, background checks for gun owners and registration of firearms,” notes the Center for Responsive Politics. Based in Washington, this nonpartisan, independent research group tracks how money affects politics and public policy in the U.S. and has long investigated the millions of dollars the NRA pours each year into campaign contributions, lobbying and targeted campaigns for and against candidates.

           Still, as New York’s Senator Charles Schumer said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation: “I think we could be at a tipping point…where we might actually get something done. First, this was not a single incident. It followed a series of others. In the last few months, we’ve had mass shootings in Oregon, in Wisconsin and Colorado. When the public sees these as isolated incidents, they’re less upset than when they occur one after the other. And the public will not accept…as a ‘new normal’ one of these incidents every month, these mass shootings. Second, of course, it involved children. And it’s so poignant to see those pictures. …What agony, what horror. So I think we can get something done.”

           “One is to ban assault weapons, to try and reinstate the assault weapons ban. The second is to limit the size of clips to maybe no more than 10 bullets per clip. And the third would be to make it harder for mentally unstable people to get guns,” said Schumer.

           The U.S. government’s ban on the manufacture for civilian use of assault weapons—firearms specifically designed to kill people, such as the AR-15 (a version of the military’s M-16) used in the Connecticut shootings—was scandalously allowed to lapse eight years ago.

           “When he was campaigning for office in 2008, Barack Obama vowed to reinstate the assault weapons ban that had expired in 2004,” noted the New York Times in an editorial in July, after the killings in Aurora, Colorado. “That would have prohibited the AR-15 rifle used in the Colorado theatre shooting…along with the large 100-round magazine attached to it. But as president, Mr. Obama has made no attempt to do so.” It added, “Mitt Romney banned assault weapons as governor of Massachusetts…but now he opposes all gun control measures.”

           Another New York Times editorial three days later further criticizing both of them was entitled: “Candidates Cower on Gun Control.” It began: “At a moment when the country needs resolve and fearlessness to reduce the affliction of gun violence that kills more than 80 people a day, both presidential candidates have kicked away the opportunity for leadership.”

            New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said to Piers Morgan on CNN after the Aurora massacre: “Someday there will be a shooting which you would think would trigger in the American psyche this ‘I’m not going to take it any more’ attitude. Maybe if… you shot a president? But Ronald Reagan, when he got shot, didn’t trigger it. Maybe if you shot a congresswoman? No. Maybe if you shot a bunch of students on campus? No. Maybe if you shot a bunch of people in a movie theater? I don’t know what it is, we obviously haven’t gotten there yet, but we just—this cannot continue.”

            Maybe the killing of 20 first-graders will result in an “I’m not going to take it any more” stance. Hopefully, it will—but it will have come at such a terrible cost.

            As to U.S. culture glorifying guns and violence, one only has to sit through the 20 minutes of coming attractions now commonly inflicted upon movie-goers in America: one ultra-violent film after another.  Film violence has increased radically in recent years. Director Peter Bogdanovich commented earlier this year that “violence on the screen has increased tenfold….There’s too much murder and killing….It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible.”

           In college I wrote a novel reviewed by a professor who advised: “You’ve got to kill some people”—to up the “tension.” A cheap trick. Greek dramas and Shakespeare’s plays, yes, include violence, but not the extraneous, ridiculous violence out of Hollywood today to hype “tension.” Cheap tricks and dangerous.

            And then there are the violent video games marketed to children.

            In the wake of the Connecticut massacre, the Discovery Channel decided not to renew for a third season its TV show “American Guns,” about a family of gun makers. The Weinstein Company toned down the Los Angeles premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-violent “Django Unchained.” A spokesman for the company said: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the tragedy in Newtown, CT, and in this time of national mourning we have decided to forgo our scheduled event.”

            Small adjustments, and how long will they last?

            There have been reactions to the link between mental illness and the Connecticut shooter and so many other mass murderers. On Long Island this week, for example, a Nassau County legislator called for a restoration of millions of dollars cut from mental health programs in light of the Connecticut tragedy. “It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish,” said Judy Jacobs. “Obviously, anyone who could do what we saw in [Newtown] has to be mentally ill. But there are signs and there are signals. And it’s not something we should shirk from.”

            Obama on Wednesday said, “The good news is there’s already a growing consensus for us to build from. A majority of Americans support banning the sale of military-style assault weapons. A majority of Americans support banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips. A majority of Americans support laws requiring background checks before gun purchases.”

            He stressed, “I’m not going to be able to do it myself. Ultimately, if this effort is to succeed it’s going to require the help of the American people—it’s going to require all of us. If we’re going to change things, it’s going to take a wave of Americans—mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, pastors, law enforcement, mental health professionals—and, yes, gun owners—standing up and saying ‘enough’ on behalf of our kids.”

            This will only be good news if, as the Connecticut horror fades from the media cycle, the pressure from public officials and all people continues leading to meaningful results.

            As little Noah Pozner was buried Monday, his mother, Veronique, said in her eulogy: “The sky is crying, and the flags are at half-mast. It is a sad, sad day. But it is also your day, Noah, my little man. I will miss your forceful and purposeful little steps stomping through our house. I will miss your perpetual smile, the twinkle in your dark blue eyes…Most of all, I will miss your visions of your future…”




About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for 45 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up,” the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and the author of six books.