“Amok” originally referred to mass murders in Southeastern Asia first observed by European voyagers in the late 1700’s. Some argue public mass murders today—like the recent Valentine’s Day school massacre in Florida—differ only in weapons used, today firearms rather than knifes or machetes. A deranged ill mind alone, as in mass murders centuries ago some say, accounts for present-day public mass shootings, not amok arising from America’s fascination with guns.
Interestingly, though, psychiatrists officially classified “amok” or “running amok” in Southeastern Asias a “culture-bound syndrome,” a mental illness arising from isolated cultural beliefs. Amok then was an individual charging frenziedly with a bladed weapon killing those in the rampage’s path. Local beliefs, reinforcing the behavioral script for running amok, attributed the act to an evil spirit entering the killer’s body.
Mass shootings in America today — including the school shooting in Parkland, Florida — also appear to have a culturally-bound component.
Writing for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell observes that the spread of school shootings today is mainly a modern American phenomenon in which no set of psychological attributes fits the varied profiles of school shooters, other than being males overwhelmingly. The cultural script developed over time ritualizing preparation for and engagement in these shootings is what binds these shooters together, a script that increases willingness of some to launch such shooting rampages.
“The problem,” Gladwell concludes, “is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men…willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.”
Historian Garry Wills writes that in America the “gun is not a mere tool” but “an object of reverence.” We praise “our bondage…to the great god Gun” — to its power worshipped.
And criminologists James Fox and Jack Levin at Northeastern University observe that the “thirst for power and control” has “inspired many mass murderers … who often dress in battle fatigues and have a passion for symbols of power, including assault weapons.” Mass shooters in America today, in other words, seem the ultimate true believers in the sermon heard across America blessing the gun’s power.
The Valentine’s Day shooter in Florida displayed signs of a troubled youth. Thus, it is reasonable to question his easy access to guns.
But he also had a fetish for guns. An important question to me is why troubled minds in America turn to guns in the first place.
Maybe it is related, in part, to America’s apparent increasing worship of guns witnessed by many states today enacting more lenient gun-enabling laws, such as “Stand Your Ground” laws and allowing firearms in more public places, rather than stricter gun laws.
The Congressional Research Service found, in any case, that between 1970 and 2013 the days between public mass shootings “have become fewer” as “the incidents have become more prevalent.” And the increase continues. This increase and transformation seems more a cultural happening — a culture-bound social process — than purely an isolated expression of mental illness.
Gun control today is minimal — non-universal background checks to keep guns out of the wrong hands. It’s time for more comprehensive gun-control measures that could, in part, alter the script America’s worship of guns provides mass shooters. Gun control can serve functions beyond defining access to guns.
When, for example, ammunition magazines are limited to, say, ten bullets and civilian access to weapons suited for the battlefield are restricted, more gun owners would likely conclude in time (as some gun owners have already concluded) that their role in home protection is not hindered, for instance, nor is hunting based upon skilled marksmanship where only a few bullets are needed to bring down game — conclude that high-capacity magazines and assault-ready weapons are not needed and need not be worshipped.
Likely some minds drawn today to mass killing would be less so when societal message and law no longer worships guns unconditionally, no longer readily offers salvation through the gun. Such a cultural change is feasibly an underlying dynamic in Australia’s stoppage of mass shootings with its gun-control measures implemented in 1996. Such a change may come slowly in the United States, but it’s time to start.
There may be no cure-all remedy that stops all mass shootings or gun violence generally, but dimming America’s pagan worship of guns is a step in the right direction.
Sociologist Frederic Decker is the author of “America’s normalization of mass shootings since Sandy Hook.”