Contrary to popular opinion, mass shootings in the United States cannot be blamed on lax gun control measures, mental illness, white supremacy, or even video games. These are but proximate causes of such senseless violence and by no means do they help us to understand or pinpoint the ultimate cause for the widespread toll on human lives and communities that we’ve come to regard as mundane in this country.
Ultimately, underlying mass shootings, along with other sensational expressions of violence is inequality. Deep, rampant, and totalizing inequality.
Inequality has firmly entrenched itself in our lives through the expansion of neoliberal capitalism (think free trade agreements, privatization of basic services and resources such as education and health care, and the deregulation of markets that bestows tremendous power to corporations) and policies that support this expansion. Such policies include things like restrictions on immigration and the militarization of borders that privilege corporate profits and the uninhibited flow of commodities over human rights and overall well-being.
Inequality is both a form of violence in itself and a mechanism for ensuring future violence.
The El Paso shooting amplified awareness of the general vitriol that pervades our country toward people of Mexican and Central American descent. However, it is paramount that we do not isolate or sensationalize this particular instance of violence at the expense of overlooking the innumerable violences that punctuate both the lives of immigrants and the most socially and economically disadvantaged segments of our population. In my own research for instance, I have listened to people recount horrors ranging from racist, anti-immigrant remarks while waiting to check-out at the grocery store and occupational injuries from an unsafe workplace to separation from children, and physical assault, torture, and rape by human smugglers, border patrol, and detention guards. And I am but one researcher among hundreds working in the U.S. who have documented such experiences. Until recently, these forms of violence have gone largely unnoticed.
We also cannot discount the broader effects of inequality for the health and well-being of society at large, as demonstrated with ample evidence from fields such as epidemiology. Societies with higher levels of income inequality for instance have lower life expectancies on average and higher incidence of cardiovascular disease, show less social cohesion and more fear and anxiety, and report increased violence.
Mass shootings are perhaps most shocking to those who are not regularly exposed to violence and do not feel the acute effects of inequality on a daily basis.
It is undeniable that things like lack of gun control, the spread of white supremacy, and in some cases disregard for those suffering from mental illness have provided fertile ground for certain expressions of violence to take root. While we might be able to control for the expression of violence through specific forms of legislation, violence will continue to prevail in one form or another as long as we accept the terms of inequality.
Megan A. Carney is Assistant Professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow (2018-19) with The OpEd Project. She is the author of The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders (University of California Press). Follow her on Twitter @megan_a_carney.