The Bible-Study Murders

Written by R. H. Sprinkle, M.D., Ph.D., School of Public Policy, University of Maryland

Gun violence and gun-violence prevention are now once again the subjects of commentaries — left, right, and occasionally center. The commentator’s task is to be both topical and timeless, to note in context the latest out-of-the-ordinary crime but to do so not only after due reflection but also well before a fresh memory’s natural relegation to long-term storage. Complicating this task is the oddly surging frequency of the unexpected. The context for commentary keeps changing, and the valley of reflection between peaks of observation narrows.

Why the narrowing? The background rate of reportable — as distinguished from widely reported — gun violence does fluctuate, but, in the United States at least, not much. Whether accidental or incidental or intentional, the wounding and killing of children proceed, as do the suicides and homicides of adolescents and adults. And we have no reason to suspect that the incidence of gun-mediated murder-suicides is going down; murder-suicide, except as terrorism, is not tracked in official statistics, so we have only our impressions to guide us.

The answer to the narrowing question arrives in themes. Desperation has never been evenly distributed geographically or demographically but wherever concentrated it is more often lethally armed than ever before. Self-absorbed lives can be spent in cyberspace where most anything — lies, hope, inclusion, mission — can be found and most anything can be bought. The “hate crime” — a boldly and broadly drawn expansion of criminal law’s state-of-mind standard — is far more commonly committed than might have been thought. All-American neofascist thuggery, always bizarre, is more prevalent than long believed and far more deadly, on a murders-per-year basis, than foreign-inspired terrorism. Police officers have grown dangerously hypervigilant in neighborhoods where hostility is assumed and has often been earned and where guns may be “packed” more often than pencils. Video-capable mobile devices — “smart phones” — and closed-circuit-television surveillance have become ubiquitous; journalists, then, have found not only themes, and compelling ones, but visual evidence to illustrate those themes.

A new theme, often neglected, has thrust up in South Carolina. There, by his own admission, a handsome young white man, the wayward child of an appallingly dysfunctional family, became attracted to the idea that his disappointments in himself were explained by the failure of white people to assert their supposedly self-evident right to dominate black people. Simplifying his resentments obsessively, he elaborated on this theme, one consonant with Confederate, White Rhodesian, and Afrikaner nationalisms, with whose flags, the first on his license plate, the second and third on his jacket, he had summarized his attitude, wishing to be noticed by hidden comrades. He would dedicate his life — would even lose his life — getting their attention by an assertion of this white right, an assertion so brazen as to incite, as his bequest, a race war. With his earthly purpose clarified, and despite a prior arrest, he legally purchased a semi-automatic handgun, entered a famous black church, found lambs to slaughter, then almost failed to slaughter them not because he was losing his nerve but because he was losing his hate, having been welcomed graciously into a study of Biblical verses. One lamb he spared to be a witness not against him but, rather, for him as a hero to white supremacists, into none of whose various communities he had yet entered but by which he yearned now to be admired. The murdered Christians’ families seemed determined to forgive him.

Poignance comes no more darkly mixed than this. The American vandal’s mark, once graffiti or a broken window or a bloody nose, had become a semi-automatic shower of high-velocity gunshots: nine lives lost, one life ruined through guilt, others torn by regret and mourning. All this followed when one young man exercising the Second Amendment right of the people to keep and bear arms, a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, murdered fellow citizens enjoying the First Amendment right of the people peaceably to assemble in the exercise of religion.

What is to be done with — and for — future lone avengers? They are not effectively treatable medically. They are not committable. Their criminal records, if they have them, may never prompt socialization through community service. Troubled families might be helped to raise their children more healthily, but prosperity and fairness are generally better bets than rescue intervention, however necessary that may become. Troubled adolescents and adults are even harder to help except — as other democracies can attest — by reducing the harm they can do themselves and others. But right there, along the harm-reduction path, we run quickly and squarely into gun-rights radicalism, the present-day re-embodiment of America’s “peculiar institution,” which in this South Carolina case was hybridized with the legacy of the original embodiment, slavery itself.

Harm reduction is a standard public-health goal, yet the American small-arms industry floods its domestic market under the averted gaze of a pliant Congress and a litmus-tested judiciary. And physicians in one state, Florida, and perhaps in more states to come, can be penalized professionally simply for asking parents if guns in their homes are safely stored. One day, after some as yet uncommitted massacre, the United States will close its primitive streak, awaken to its native intelligence, and end its reverence for a mobile device that is obedient, surely, but far from “smart,” as it makes instantly permanent an injuring intention, and only rarely a reasonable one.

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