Professor Frank Zimring  Professor and Scholar at Berkley Law

Mass killings: Recurrent American Problem - Part One

Download audio file  28 July 2012, 13:07

Interview with Mr. Franklin E. Zimring, William G. Simon Professor of Law and a Wolfen distinguished scholar at the University of Berkley Law School in California. He is also the author of several books, including three books on guns and gun control.

Looking at the tragedy that happened in the rural Colorado, you are an expert on gun control, why are there so many these mass shootings in the United States, in your opinion?

To begin with, it is a big country and of course the mass killings are not something that is a monopoly of the US. Probably the worst of them in the last five years was in Norway of all places and Scotland, and Australia, and Canada have had isolated instances. The problem however in the US is that these kinds of one person or two persons killing a lot of people in public institutional settings, this is a recurrent American problem. And one of the reasons for that is because the means of one person being able to kill a lot of people, he really do that with explosives when you can kill a lot of people with just one force. But you can’t keep doing it without putting yourself at terrible risk, you can be a suicide bomber. But if are going to do it on a hit and run basis, you can only do it once.

Guns however, you can keep repeating attacks and one person plus an awful lot of guns equals to capacity to destroy an awful lot of people. So, I don’t think we have a more dangerous and disordered people in the US proportionally but we have tens and hundreds of millions of guns. And when you put the guns together with the disordered people, what you have is a persistent vulnerability. You cannot sort of isolate your public institutions and make them gun proof with so many guns, and there is one place that we have made safe, unless you really try and impose a tremendous security.

Do you think the level of availability and ease of the obtainment of guns in the US, do you think that’s a serious problem?

We don’t have any more guns in the United States in 2012 than we had in 2000 but we had plenty then and we have plenty now. The general homicide rate has not gone up, so that rates of lethal violence for America actually somewhat lower than they were in the early 1990’es. But the vulnerability for this kind of mass shooting has remained very high and it is not a coincidence that these are done with guns. Guns create the mechanical capacity for one disturbed person to inflict damage on lots of people and to keep doing it. So, sure, there are people who say that the use of guns here is just a coincidence, it isn’t really a cause to the problem. But I’m just not sure what planet they are living on.

Why are Americans so against stricter gun control?

That’s an interesting question. And it turns out that the majority of Americans actually favour most kinds of gun control. Well, if a majority of Americans favour it and if we are living in a democracy – how can we can’t pass good gun laws? The reason there is an interesting combination of two things. Number one – a minority of Americans, maybe 25-35%, oppose gun control, they think that the more guns they have, the more they are going to be able to protect themselves not only bad people but bad governments. But that’s a minority of the population but they care a lot, they are intensely motivated as a minority. And the 65% of Americans who really would favour more gun controls generally don’t care a great deal about it. That is to say – it is one of fifty different issues that they care about.

The minority is politically, in a situation where they are going to punish people who attempt to support gun control, and the majority doesn’t care much and so doesn’t make the issue a salient one that people who are running for office have to pay attention to. And the stunning thing about that is that we had a ban on the so called assault weapons in the federal law for ten years, beginning in the mid 1990’es, and that law was allowed to expire politically, even though the majority of the population supported because the majority who supported it didn’t care much about it.

Now, the so called assault weapons are essentially semiautomatic guns. They are not used in a tremendous number of ordinary homicides. Handguns that aren’t semiautomatic are as much of a problem or more. But the semiautomatic so called assault weapon is the mass shooter’s best friend because you can put magazines in it and one weapon can fire a hundred different rounds. So, it is an ideal weapon for mass killing which is a very important for supports. And yet even after the Columbine school shootings the political situation was such that the law banning them was permitted to expire.

I’m mentioning this, underline it because it is a wonderful example of how in a democracy the people who care a lot, even if they are in a minority, can continue to be politically powerful when the majority that would support stronger controls is not deeply motivated. What happens in the US is that when you have one of these mass shootings and it is publicized, for two weeks we talk about how can we deal this and it is a real problem and should do something about it…

Do you think it is glorified as well in the media, I mean do you think if there wasn’t so much media attention…

Oh, sure! The question is – why do these people do it? The answer is to get attention, to be important.

You were listening to part one of an interview with Mr. Franklin E. Zimring, a William G. Simon Professor of Law and a Wolfen distinguished scholar at the University of California, Berkley Law School.

Psychology of Guns in US - Part Two

Download audio file  30 July 2012, 16:02

Interview with Frank Zimring, a William G. Simon professor of law and a Wolfen Distinguished Scholar at the University of California, Berkley Law School. Part II.

Do you think it’s glorified, as well, in the media. I mean, do you think if there wasn’t so much media attention…

Oh, sure. I mean anything. Look, if the question is why do these people do it? The answer is to get attention, to be important, sure the media helps. But the reason that it doesn’t become a mechanism that increases the chances for the law changing, is because the concern goes away. Even though the time between shootings has been getting shorter and shorter. What happens is that rather than each new shooting, creating higher levels of concern. We worry about it for a week or two, what we could do, and then we stop worrying until the next shooting.

Would you say that there is a culture of violence in the United States?

Yes and no. The majority of American citizens are not that violent. And most of the things, which implicate physical aggression - the way we play football if you will, don’t contribute to homicide. So, I think that cultural violence can be an easy label that may be just as misleading as it is descriptive. But the problem is that sure we pay attention to people who do these things, and that creates for the unbalanced and the ambitious, a way to get the names in the newspaper. Is that really a motive for something as much as taking a life? Yes. And so, in that limited respect the attention we pay to these behaviors becomes part of the motive for people choosing to act in that way. It’s crazy, but it’s predicting.

Going back to the gun control debate. A minute ago you mentioned 25 to 33 percent of the people who are anti gun control, and you mentioned that a large percentage of those people are, you said, arming themselves against the government.

And they care deeply about it. Oh, yes. They are arming themselves against the government; they are arming themselves against dangerous people. A lot of them tend to be older men who aren’t really much at risk, but it gives them the feeling of being powerful, and of being able to stand up to the forces that would otherwise believe them.

Do you think it gives them a feeling of empowerment, because they have power over life and death?


What about other forms of protection? I mean, surely there are other forms of self-defense that are just as effective as a killing tool?

You could buy a dog if you worried about burglars.

Sure, a dog.

Sure, but the point is that if you are imagining that you are going to take a stand against the government or some violent gang, the very thing that makes guns dangerous and deadly, also makes them a weapon of choice, if you are imagining extreme self-defense. But again if you look at the people who are doing it, these aren’t the people who live in the worst neighborhoods. These are the people who live in the better neighborhoods. These are not the young men that get killed, these are older white men who live in suburbs and who feel disempowered. So, the psychology of guns, and you can say, oh, but there are less lethal ways of defending yourself.


Sure they are. But they are less attractive, because they are less lethal. They make you feel less powerful than the others. I don’t think it’s a good reason to own a gun, but I think it’s a very possible explanation for why a lot of people do own guns.

Now what role do you think… the police becoming more and more militarized, what role do you think that has to play with the escalation of gun violence in society or does it have a connection?

Well, I think it does in one sense. And that is the SWAT team, the people that put on all these fabulous armors and use all the guns on their own. They are responding to the threat that police feel when criminals are heavily armed. The police say we’ve got to do it because they are doing it. So, in that sense the degree to which the general population is armed creates a sort of a counterforce on the part of police.

So, generally all officers are afraid that anyone they stop, or anyone they come across with, could have a gun. Would you say that’s a fact?

Exactly. Let me give you one statistic to put that in frame. More than 90 percent of all the police, who are killed in the United States in the line of duty by attack, are killed by guns. So, the reason they are in armor, the reason they fire their guns quickly, the reason they kill people, is because of the threats they feel from guns in the hands of others.

Now, I know many police departments feel like they are at war with the population that they are supposed to be protecting. Would you say that’s an accurate statement?

It depends on a neighborhood and it depends on the quality of police training. I think bad police are more likely to feel that than good police. And badly trained police are more likely to think in war metaphors than well-trained police. On the other hand, the fact that the large threats are threats of guns in the hands of others does create a situation where police are legitimately fearful of being shot and very much too often. This means that the police themselves shoot first, and then find out that it wasn’t a gun, it was a cell phone, it was a gesture. That’s the problem with lethal force on both sides. And that problem costs more lives than the mass shootings that we’ve been talking about, because it happens so much more often.

Why won’t anyone control guns in the United States, I don’t understand?

Ok. Most of the population would favor more control than we have, but it isn’t imagined as a very large problem. The people who support it don’t care deeply. The people who oppose it care a lot. The minority who cares a lot has more influence in the democratic government than the majority that doesn’t care a lot.


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