In the wake of the Colorado movie theater tragedy, the Wisconsin Sikh temple hate crime and other incidents, violent mass shootings became an alarmingly frequent occurrence this past summer, prompting national controversy over gun control laws, the prevalence of violence in entertainment and media sensationalism. UCSB global studies research professor and United Nations Special Rapporteur Richard Falk weighed in via e-mail from Istanbul on why such acts of violence should be cause for “national soul-searching.”

According to Falk, the United States is in dire need of a reevaluation of its gun control laws; however, Falk said politicians are often reluctant to discuss the issue for fear of how gun rights lobbyists might react.

“The least we should expect from our political institutions after the human tragedies at Aurora and Oak Creek is the unconditional prohibition of assault weapons and semi-automatic guns of all types,” Falk said. “Such weaponry has no place in modern society, but it is dismaying that our politicians seem so frightened of a gun lobby backlash that they refuse to make such obvious reforms in gun control law, and are even unwilling to propose that such issues should be debated.”

Falk said much of the logic on which the Second Amendment rights were based has actually been rendered largely obsolete.

“I have come to believe that it is necessary for the future security and serenity of the society to raise serious questions about the continued desirability of retaining the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms,” Falk said. “Historically, this right was written into the Constitution mainly to safeguard the citizenry from worries about political absolutism. It was believed that to establish a secure republic based on a written constitution it was necessary that that the power of the state be countered by popular militias, including the ultimate right of people to resist tyranny. To individualize this kind of right in the conditions of 21st century America has been judicially legitimized in recent years, but makes little sense from the perspective of preserving either liberty or security for the society as a whole.”

While the availability of such weapons may be one of the more direct causes of this type of violence, there are numerous cultural and political factors at the root of the problem, according to Falk.

“I would point to three main cultural sources of these types of extreme civic violence: 1) the glorification of gun violence via blockbuster Hollywood films, video games, the celebration of martial virtues, the persistence of a permanent war economy, the continuous engagement in warfare for the past 67 years and the insistence that the right to bear arms is integral to the maintenance of a free society. 2) the traumatic impact of military service in foreign wars that are not clearly associated with the defense of homeland leads to a variety of disturbing developments that shape the cultural background of such events; record levels of suicide among those serving in the military and recent veterans; wartime incidents of American soldiers committing atrocities against civilians in societies where their official role is to liberate such peoples from oppressive conditions [and] shootings of Americans by their supposed allies in such countries. 3) the direct and indirect effects of 9/11.”

According to Falk, the terrorist attacks of September 11 perpetuated a sense of fear and need for self-defense among some citizens. Falk said this, as well as political violence abroad, has led to an increase in racially motivated violence.

“It is difficult to connect the dots, but 9/11 created a widespread apprehension that hostile violence could come at any moment in any place throughout the country. In some respects, it seemed psychologically to justify being armed to act against such frightening threats, although the nature of the threats made scenarios of self-defense rather implausible, although not entirely so.”

Falk said while a segment of the public has likely grown desensitized to the violence because of the frequency of the shootings, a significant number of people have also been spurred by the incidents to speak out against the prevalent gun culture.

“I would hope that political leadership and education will gradually mobilize the sort of popular movement that will change public opinion and political climate sufficiently to encourage our elected leaders and representatives to propose the sort of prohibitions I propose as minimal steps,” Falk said. “As Americans, we should demand nothing less!”