There’s No Such Thing as a Passive Shooter

We in the US have a gun problem. This isn’t at all to say the problem is as simple as “there are too many” or “it’s too easy to obtain them legally,” but the presence of a distinct problem localized here in this country is undeniable, and it’s been getting worse. One might argue the issue is the relationship between education and firearms, and indeed I’m going to make a point of this later in this piece, though I doubt most commentators are properly equipped when they approach the issue from this specific angle. Knowledge helps, but it doesn’t serve a proportionate role in mitigating the violence we see today, and one can hardly argue the mass shooters of the past twenty-odd years were victims of insufficient education on proper procedure — they’re fucking child murderers, handling protocol and following safety precautions aren’t exactly high priorities in the midst of mass killings of unarmed kids. “Proper training” is not the solution to mass violence, unless of course we mean expansion of access to self-defense for the most likely targets of assault — trans people of color, the “mentally ill,” the unhoused, etc. — which, sadly, is almost never what progressives actually want. 

The problem, I hope it’s clear, is not with the gun itself or how it’s used. The exact implement of mass violence is not the locus of the act, but an efficient means to a perceived greater end: the death of as many people as possible, often in service of pseudo-philosophical aims (i.e. the Unabomber, alleged ITS terror attacks, etc.). So without exclusive focus on the means of mass violence, the explosive bursts which end lives in an instant, where should we be looking to explain the sheer scale and frequency of these acts? At the risk of sounding pretentious, we need to pay attention to society itself, the cultural, social, and economic contexts that inform and impose behaviors onto us as subjects in a complex system. Particularly, we need to talk about white patriarchal fascism and its close accomplices on the paleoconservative right.

In case you’re unfamiliar, America has a unique relationship to the global white fascist movement; the neo-confederate “Lost Cause” mythology has become a cultural export for white supremacist militia groups — including the Wagner group; over the course of the 20th century, the American Eugenics Society and the broader US eugenics movement developed a reciprocal relationship with the Nazi regime; and most recently the Americentric QAnon movement has extended far beyond the confines of US politics, influencing far-right conspiracy milieus in numerous other countries including Germany and Japan. While it would be ahistorical to imply that the US single handedly invented white fascism, there’s no coherent argument against the fact that the American right is a very important organ in the body of global fascism, especially as the conservative campaign against trans rights continues to serve as a lightning rod for Nazis to organize publicly.

With this in mind, it’s not difficult to understand why so many young white men choose to write manifestos about their existential anxieties and seek out the nearest mosque, gay bar, or, most present in our public consciousness, school full of defenseless children. 

The Columbine shooters, frequently cited by later mass murderers as direct inspirations, were infatuated with Hitler and the Nazi regime, Eric Harris writing a full-length essay praising Hitler as “the best leader Germany had,” and Dylan Klebold doing the same for “The Mind and Motives of Charles Manson.” These young men were as close to literal Nazis as one could be without doing a Roman salute with a copy of The Turner Diaries in front of a Wehrmacht flag on camera, but rarely were their admiration of white supremacist figureheads and aesthetics brought up in coverage of the massacre. Instead, the conversation focused on the pair’s affinity for violent video games — first person shooters, no less! — leaving the following generations of potential victims with no coherent understanding of who the perpetrators were beyond their alleged “unhealthy” obsession with a virtual gorefest. This massive failure of the media apparatus to accurately report on the real motivating cause of mass violence to instead focus on flimsy sensationalism has cost thousands of children their lives as our myopic focus on singular, simple paths of causation has allowed conservative influencers, alt-right rhetoric, and systematic whitewashing of American history to radicalize young people across the country, turning the most violent among them into the next headline upon which we can impose our reductive speculations.

“What about Nashville?” I’m sure some of you are wondering, as this case appears to be an exception outside the fascist pipeline. The most transphobic reader might assume I have nothing to say on this case, as my contract with Big Anarchy requires me to say no negative thing about a trans person ever, but it seems I’ll have to live with disappointing the ableist transphobes once again, as I am going to talk about the massacre in Nashville. The right went full vulture mode after it was discovered that the shooter was trans and the school was Christian and private, framing Hale as a mentally ill antichrist spitting on baby Jesus and pivoting hard towards support for red flag laws to keep the “trans movement” from “targeting Christians.” Not once during their public cis white anxiety attack did Tucker Carlson, his fellow ghouls at Fox, or any adjacent commentator mention the fact that the school’s parent organization, Covenant Presbyterian Church, has a history of protecting child molesters. John Perry, a former parishioner of the church who co-authored So Help Me God with Roy Moore, allegedly committed these acts during the shooter’s time at the school. I bring this up not merely to point out routine malpractice by Fox News nor to imply that Perry himself targeted Hale as a minor, but to highlight the other important contextual element frequently ignored by most coverage: schools themselves. Schools, particularly private, Christian schools, are centers for control, abuse, and rape, disciplining children into obedient students through surveillance, punishment, and the use of state force via the mandated reporter system. At its core, the educational apparatus is a means of systematically disempowering children to efficiently turn them into “skilled labor,” prepared to enter the workforce and navigate the systems that will govern them for the rest of their lives. Failure to produce “high quality” students imposes financial consequences on schools and teachers, an incentive structure designed not for the betterment of the educational experience for students, but to make educators compete with one another. In this environment, developing teenagers are expected not only to become functional adults with a healthy view of the world, but to be ferocious competitors, pursuing academic achievement as their main priority so that they might become “top of the class,” earning status symbols to impress higher education institutions and, most importantly, their future bosses. To risk insensitivity, it’s not exactly a system that makes you want to be alive even under the best of circumstances. But if we want to be thoroughly honest about the nature of these specific circumstances, we can’t ignore the fact that this institution was nowhere near the best case scenario. 

The Covenant Presbyterian Church is a reformed Christian denomination which teaches young Earth creationism and explicitly opposes “bisexuality, homosexuality, lesbianism, and all forms of artificial procreation using donors outside of the existing bonds of marriage.” Assuming the Nashville branch of this institution didn’t stray far from this general consensus as outlined in the Book of Church Order, we can safely assume that this conservative evangelical theology is imposed on children within their school walls. I say this in the literal sense: CPC schools are a grooming apparatus for conservative Christianity, explicitly informed by a formal ideology that venerates the family unit, denies the basic bodily autonomy of people with uteruses, and propagates the idea that queerness is a sin. No matter how you look at it, reactionary conservatism remains a pervasive force in the systematic production of mass gun violence post-Columbine, maintaining the conditions under which the victims of their hateful ideology are driven to isolation and retaliatory vengeance and aspiring “patriots” adopt the rhetoric through which they can justify their own violent crusade. None of this is to say the problem lies solely with the CPC and adjacent institutions, of course, nor to imply that conservative Christianity holds the gold medal for driving people to commit murder. That award belongs to British colonialism.

During the colonial period of Indonesia, the “amok” phenomenon (also referred to by the Javanese cognate for madness, “ngamuk”) was observed among colonial subjects both within and outside of the colonizing forces; civil servants, government officials, or Indigenous subjects, upon experiencing a loss of status, entered a period of brooding and isolation, after which they would go on a murderous rampage (Browne 2001, Lemelson & Tucker 2018). The disciplinary apparatus in the colonies, though very different than that of the modern secondary school and much, much broader in its scale, conceptualized this through the pathological lens, conceiving of the one “run amok” as a disordered individual, their turn to violence perceived not as a bloody consequence of colonial rule and its component disciplinary processes, but an issue within the violent subject, divorced from their social context by a detached psychological impulse. My point is not to equate Hale’s murders with some idealized notion of anti-colonial action, but to illustrate how an environment of constant, pervasive control and disempowerment creates the conditions for seemingly chaotic terror attacks. A colonial subject, a student, and anyone outside the systemically recognized “norm” of personhood is constantly struggling with the problem of visibility. Migrants, to use an immediately relevant example, exist outside the gaze of states, the media apparatus, and that thing we call the “public eye”; this invisibility manifests in a number of ways, from general discursive oversight by commentators to the silent violence implicit in the enforcement of national borders. Under the myriad pressures of citizenship, nationalism, and pervasive nativist sentiment, migrants are deprived of the means of visibility, their status used as a means to control and subjugate outside whatever gaze might impede the carceral state’s procedure of domination. Unlike migrants, privileged white citizens need to manufacture an invisibility that can be used to force themselves into visibility, make themselves headlines to be shared across social media, turn themselves into culture war martyrs to be discussed by pundits left and right — or, if they survive their premeditated acts, become figureheads themselves. Based on the available evidence, Hale was not motivated by the white culture war conspiracies typical to most mass shootings, but the conceptualization of mass violence as a means to force visibility aligns with the details of the case, albeit to no conclusive end.

At the absolute least, my hope is that by applying a psychocultural framework to the issue of mass shootings in specific and the broader phenomenon of mass violence itself, I’ve made the case that no one becomes a mass murderer merely because they have access to firearms. Mass violence at the frequency we’re observing right now happens for a reason beyond individual pathology, and the longer we act as if it doesn’t, the more people will be killed. Until progressives are willing to engage with the fact that America has a fascism problem that can’t be fought with the sheer power of the state, people of color, black trans women, and young children will continue to die. There can be no solution to America’s “gun problem” that doesn’t address the much greater problem that the US is a fascist country whose government is designed to enforce white supremacist patriarchy through police brutality, whose Churches are granted complete control over the minds and bodies of young children, and whose public schools have been forced to whitewash American history to be palatable to a vast array of revisionist groups. With that said, I’ll let you make up your own mind as to whether such a state can be trusted with the power to control who has access to firearms.

  • Browne, Kevin. “(Ng)Amuk Revisited: Emotional Expression and Mental Illness in Central Java, Indonesia.” Transcultural Psychiatry, vol. 38, no. 2, 2001, pp. 147–165., 
  • Lemelson, Robert, and Annie Tucker. “Deviance, Social Control, and Intersubjective Experience.” Afflictions: Steps Toward a Visual Psychological Anthropology, Springer International Publishing, New York City, New York, 2018, pp. 116–122. 
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