When I went to high school about 25 years ago in Oshkosh, Nebraska, my classmates frequently brought guns to school to hunt geese or pheasants or whitetail deer either before or after school. They would leave them in gun racks, on dashboards or on seats in their cars and pickups that were often unlocked.  Back then, it wasn't off limits to talk about people shooting other people because deliberately shooting a person seemed incomprehensible.

Now, after a string of public shootings in the U.S. with death tolls in the tens and twenties, stretching back to Columbine High School in 1999 and including several in 2015, it makes a person wonder what changes have occurred in our society to make this type of killing more likely.

Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman in his book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” lays out some compelling theories about what may be occurring.

Grossman opens up his book with a description, borrowed from Garrison Keillor, about the annual fall ritual of slaughtering pigs.  The story is a reminder that most people do not kill their own meat these days, so maybe they don't eat their steaks with the same reverence that their grandfathers had.  And if you're a vegetarian, you shouldn't feel too smug; even vegetarians have to kill to keep pests away from their food.  Grossman asserts that when people are insulated from death, they become fascinated with it, hence the rise in depictions of violence in movies, television, the internet, and video games.

A young man strikes a pose with two realistic-looking video game accessory rifles in an arcade.  If decades-old research conducted by the military is correct, there may be a link between depictions of realistic gun violence in modern media and the frequency of mass shootings in the United States. By Crid newm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsA young man strikes a pose with two realistic-looking video game accessory rifles in an arcade. If decades-old research conducted by the military is correct, there may be a link between depictions of realistic gun violence in modern media and the frequency of mass shootings in the United States. By Crid newm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

From there, the book moves on to a discussion of WWII general and historian S. L. A. Marshall who began to study why only about 15 to 20 percent of men in a given battle would attempt to kill.  Those soldiers wouldn't necessarily run from the battle; they would just find something else to do, or they would fire slightly above the heads of the enemy.  What General Marshall found out through his research is that, within most men, there is an intense resistance to killing; however, with the proper training, it can be overcome.  This is why, in Vietnam, the firing rates were closer to 95 percent. 

This drastic change in effectiveness was accomplished by changes in military drills and exercises to emphasize a combination of desensitization, realism, operant conditioning, and dehumanization of the enemy.  While many studies have concluded that today's veterans are not more likely to commit violent crimes, a person should think about this in terms of the unrestrained desensitization inherent in popular movies and television, music, or video games like “Grand Theft Auto.”  When you consider that, it seems more obvious why today's youth might be more inclined to kill. 

In the wake of the recent mass shootings, it's essential that we find a thoughtful and realistic way to prevent mass murder from happening like this again.  And in doing so, we must employ real democracy and have real discussion and real listening.  Democracy done right is messy and inefficient and time consuming, unlike autocracy, which is quick, efficient and dehumanizing. 

Participants in a democracy take personal responsibility, and we need to take that responsibility personally.  We need to educate ourselves about why people kill and what makes mass shooting incidents possible.  We need to listen to everyday people, to real experts who disclose where their income comes from, and to the representatives of the economic and government interests that will be affected by any change in policy.  After all that listening and discussing, we should vote and act and then talk and listen some more.  Some of those discussions should take place at schools, like MidAmerica Nazarene University, where tomorrow's leaders are being shaped.