Want to reduce horrible gun crimes? Reduce inequality.
Yes, Elliot Rodger was privileged. But many perpetrators of gun crimes aren't.
The aftermath of last weekend's terrible Isla Vista murders has focused not on background checks, assault weapons bans, or other gun control measures often put forth in the wake of shooting crimes. Instead, the focus has been on, well, men.
When it comes to horrible mass killings in America, the assailant is almost always male. Many see that gender reality as crucial to understanding gun violence in America. The New Statesman's Laurie Penny argues that "if you think for one second, for one solitary second, that demanding tolerance for men as a group, that dismissing the reality of violence against women because not all men kill, not all men rape, if you think that's more important than demanding justice for those who have been brutalized and murdered by those not all men, then you are part of the problem."
The presence of misogyny in the Isla Vista crimes is undeniable; alleged killer Elliot Rodger's deranged manifesto, in conjunction with his bizarre confession tape, are enough to cement that. But what political options can we derive from a conversation that appears to center either on men as a gender or the parameters of the expectations associated with that gender — that one be successful sexually, for example, or high-status and dominant. Even if Obama issued an executive order tomorrow demanding that we cease associating sexual success with masculinity, would anyone wake up the next day any different?
But there is an intersection of men and violent crime that is open to immediate political intervention. In their 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point out what other commentators have re-established in the wake of the Isla Vista murders: violent crime is overwhelmingly committed by young men between the ages of 15 and 29. And, calling upon the expertise of Harvard Medical Schol's James Gilligan, the author of Violence and Preventing Violence, the authors posit that "acts of violence are 'attempts to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation — a feeling that is painful, and can even be intolerable and overwhelming — and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride.'" This conclusion, too, resonates with the facts of the Rodger case.
Wilkinson and Pickett also point out a corrective. They analyze and plot murder rates among societies with differing levels of economic inequality and produce, unsurprisingly, troubling results: in less unequal societies (like England and Wales during the survey period) murder rates were markedly lower than those in societies (like Chicago during the survey period) with more pronounced inequality. Their conclusion is straightforward: since much of the violent crime we see among young men appears to be the result of the hopelessness and frustration brought on by the lack of status available to men at the bottom, strides can be made toward reducing the impetus for those crimes simply by raising the bottom up and reducing the gap between the worst and best off. A policy as simple as a universal basic income could accomplish that neatly.
Of course, this would probably not have prevented the Rodger case. He came from a relatively affluent family and lived in a relatively affluent college community. He was not pushed to violence out of a sense of economic hopelessness — his motive seems much closer to sexual frustration paired with mental health issues.
But other angry young men can be deterred from violence by reducing inequality. Doing so would not only provide men at the lowermost rungs of the socioeconomic ladder with a lowered sense of pressure given the reduced extremity of the financial poles, but would also by that same mechanism reduce adversarial social focus on financial status. This accounts for the slew of benefits Wilkinson and Pickett associate with more equal societies, including lower rates of mental health problems and higher indicators of child welfare. In that way, an overall social reduction in economic inequality could have salutary benefits for those at the top as well as those at the bottom.
And Rodger was obsessed with status, reserving special hatred for poor men who nonetheless have attractive girlfriends — Rodger didn't feel the poor deserve love or sexuality to the same degree as the rich. Could a society in which those extremes were less clearly demarcated have helped Rodger? It's difficult to say; there was so much in his particular case that was extreme and bizarre that it's likely not the best exemplar to extrapolate general solutions from. And yet if our interpretation of his crimes is to include an ongoing focus of how men, especially young, frustrated men relate to violence, then the reduction of inequality is an obvious and available political remedy we can identify.