The Boys Behind the Bullets
Updated: Apr 29
The Boys Behind the Bullets: Finding humans within inhumanity.
The mass shooting epidemic in the United States has brought about a very unfortunate type of equality - we all are now equally qualified to be the next shooting victim. That is not to say that certain groups, races, or religions are not targeted more frequently and more actively than others. But in the 20 years since the Columbine High School shooting, victims of gun violence have thoroughly represented each and every one of us. Every color, every age. Cities. Towns. Bars. Houses of worship. Malls. Killed. Just like earthquakes in California and hurricanes in Florida, no one is exempt.
Think of your family and your friends. The oldest and youngest of them. Think of the 325+ million citizens of this country. One, two, or thirty of them may very well not exist by 2020. And if you think that’s outlandish to say, the families of the victims of Dayton and El Paso may have thought that was outlandish only a few months back.
This is not to be morose or to instill fear, but we have not yet fixed nor shifted nor changed a thing in what has caused these awful tragedies. Not legislatively, systematically, educationally. Nor has optimism solved this epidemic. This is our statistical reality. Until we address these issues within our own courses of action, we will continue to qualify to be the next one up (unlikely so, but with growing potential).
Amongst us also lives a person, a misguided young man, an uncared-for patient, who qualifies to be the next to pull the trigger. But before they pull that trigger, these boys are not unusually special or outstanding; they’re not genetically rogue men or mean-spirited animals who lurk amongst us, awaiting for their moment to strike. They’re lost human beings, battling many of the challenges we as a society also encounter. Be it isolation, depression, inadequate eduction, cultural stigma, racism, neglect, abuse - they share our traumas, our culture, our every day challenges. 99.999% of us could never relate to the feeling of deciding to pull that trigger. But the minutia that do pull that trigger can surely relate to us and the things that we feel and experience. The reciprocity of that understanding, though difficult, is one we need to explore more deeply.
Then the day comes when the best idea that young boy has is to pull a trigger and reign terror. Suddenly, these broken young boys turn into monsters; deranged lunatics, twisted killers, psychopaths. Our headlines and Facebook posts and TV commentary and Presidential statements all attest, that these shooters are monstrous beings. Mentally unstable outcasts. How could they do this?!?! Many even say that we, as a society, should return the favor. We should turn the gun on them and pull the proverbial trigger and kill them off just as well. These monsters!
But let’s take a step back.
I’d like you to bend your index finger. Like, you. Literally go ahead and bend your index finger. That’s it. That’s how a trigger is pulled. That’s all it takes to turn a broken, misguided, depressed, neglected, ill-raised, and hate-infused young man into a wild inconceivable monster. From someone who we want to try to connect with before it's too late, to someone we consider unfit for this world. And although he is 100% responsible for the actions and decisions he makes, this human being has been subjected to a society of which we all take part, and therefore should all take responsibility.
Whether for political convenience or emotional emphasis, it is easy to vilify. Many times what inspires a shooter is that they know they will be treated like a monster, a villain, an anti-hero. Their ideals and manifestos will be criticized and resisted against and they can gain infamy and celebrity and idyllic martyrdom. But what if we adjusted the conversation around how we look at these boys after the heinous act? If the only difference between a broken young man and a monster is a bend of the index finger, then vilifying the monster does nothing to ameliorate the issue of the broken young men (of whom, massively outnumber the monsters). Instead of vilification, what if their inhumane actions were met with empathy and inquiry? Maybe if we began treating monsters like human beings then they’d actually feel inspired to act as such.
The same vilification can be said for officers who unjustly gun-down black and brown people. The next police officer that is going to shoot a black man currently exists. Even though he has not yet pulled that trigger, he has gone through a life experience that may have prepared him, and in some cases negligently encouraged him, to pull that trigger. And though a very small and infinitesimal few do pull that trigger, very many are subjected to similar cultural upbringings. And be it improper training, familial or systemic racial bias, self-defense, or an honest and tragic lethal mistake, the empathy for one’s experience gets lost in the pull of the trigger, and so too do we lose the understanding of how that trigger was pulled. The same could be said about religious fanaticism in the Muslim world, or teenage boys living in the south side of Chicago. Circumstance and culture and education will perpetually subjugate the same ideas if we don't access the moral maturity to investigate why.
So what's the next step? Systematic changes in education, mental health, gun rights, law enforcement? Sure. But those are just actions to be taken by people who are meant to represent us (and I won’t even begin on the importance of voting for and electing proper representatives). We simply need to begin with ourselves. Awareness. Grace. Patience. Observation. Listening. The action of the shooting is different than the experience of the shooter. We can't let the action dismiss or invalidate the experience, or those with that similar experience begin to feel dismissed or invalidated themselves.
It is important to state that the focus of this piece is not to defend nor justify, by any means, the actions of these shooters. Nor does this attempt to neglect the incredible tragedy of not only the shooting victims, but their families, their communities, and the nation as a whole. But beyond rehabilitation or retribution, this is not about the boy who has already pulled the trigger. It is about the next boy who will. And the thousands, if not tens of thousands, who are very well qualified to be the next one to do so. Mental health care and the value of one’s humanity should not be conditional. If it is, that is a very slippery slope.
There’s that famous speech were President Kennedy discusses doing things like going to the moon “not because they are easy, but because they are hard...because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone”. Unfortunately, solving this gun epidemic in 2019 feels just as inconceivable as proposing to land a man on the moon in 1962. Easy is labeling these shooters as monsters. Psychos. Rednecks. Nazis. Racists. Pigs. Terrorists. All of these adjectives very well may feel true to those who state them, but it doesn’t negate the fact that we are all a part of a system that contributes to the evolution of one another. Even to the smallest degree; you either contribute to the kindness of your own life and community, or you withdraw from it.
But it’s not easy. At all. All Americans had to do to land on the moon was wait a few years, sit on the couch, turn on the TV, and then watch. This one is hard; it requires us to act now, we have to stand up and get off the couch, we have to turn off the TV, we have to shut up and listen. The future victims, the future shooters, they all exist. Humanity can not prevail if it is so easily discouraged by inhumanity. And maybe if we do change our dialogue surrounding these tragic killings, maybe if we offer more inquiry and empathy, maybe then will the next soon-to-be shooter feel seen and understood in a way that would disallow them to realize a fate of which they have yet to decide.
Note: My exclusive use of male pronouns was not to exclusively single-out males. Females and other genders could easily be interchanged. A 2013 FBI study shows that of the 160 gun incidents between 2000 and 2013 , 96.2% of them were perpetrated by males. Incidents since 2013 have been committed almost exclusively by males. Though these actions could be committed by any human being, it’s important to focus attention on this being an issue within our culture that is predominantly related to the male experience.
Dakota Lupo is a filmmaker, writer, teacher, and activist. He uses storytelling to bridge the gap between people, issues, organizations, and policy. He works with a wide variety of partners in narrative and documentary film, television, and digital media. He builds impact platforms and joint initiatives alongside some of the world’s leading humanitarian and human rights organizations. He is a decade long yoga instructor as well as one of the best hand models in the game.