Republished with permission from Thom Hartmann[Note: This is an excerpt from Thom Hartmann’s book The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment.
Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck me with greater force than the equality of conditions. I easily perceived the enormous influence that this primary fact exercises on the workings of the society. —Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835), on how economic equality in America strengthens democracy and reduces violence
While Ronald Reagan ran for governor of California, his campaign promises to “send the welfare bums back to work” and “clean up the mess at Berkeley” were a thinly veiled code for the fact that he planned to gut the social safety net and suppress dissent. And that’s what he did, kicking off a half century of neoliberal austerity economics that have caused inequality in America to skyrocket.
As governor, Reagan deployed armed state police and the National Guard to put down student protests, telling reporters in 1970, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.”1
As discussed earlier in this book, Reagan signed the Mulford Act into law in reaction to the Black Panthers’ arming themselves for protection against racist policing, thereby affirming the racist roots of the Second Amendment.
As a presidential candidate, Reagan dog-whistled to gun-toting southern racists when he declared himself, in his first public speech since being nominated for president, the “law and order” candidate in Philadelphia, Mississippi—in the same county where gun-toting southern racists had brutally tortured and murdered civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner just 26 years earlier.
And as president, Reagan attacked the American social safety net and pursued economic policies that destroyed the American middle class and drove economic inequality to new heights. As part of his attacks on the social safety net, Reagan also cut funding for federal mental health programs, simply tossing mental health patients out on the street.
Research over the last 25 years shows that there is a close connection between inequality and mental illness, and between inequality and gun violence. Because Reagan gutted federal mental health programs and began the disintegration of the American middle class, his policies have played a large role in creating the current crisis of gun violence and mass shootings.
The Equality Trust is a United Kingdom–based charity that studies the impacts of inequality and “works to improve the quality of life in the UK by reducing economic and social inequality.”2
According to the Equality Trust, “The link between inequality and homicide rates has been shown in as many as 40 studies, and the differences are large: there are five-fold differences in murder rates between different countries related to inequality. The most important reason why violence is more common in more unequal societies is that it is often triggered by people feeling looked down, disrespected and loss of face.”3
Mark Kaplan, a professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, highlighted this connection between gun violence and inequality in a lecture on January 26, 2017. “You all hear about poverty, but inequality is another measure of economic well-being. And there is a strong correlation between homicide per million and income inequality,” Kaplan told students.
Even the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia has pointed to research out of Belgium showing that “the lower the income per person and the greater the wealth inequality, the higher the expected rate of homicide.”4 That study looked at 52 nonconflict countries with “moderate political regimes,” excluding the United States and Australia.5
A Mother Jones analysis in 2018 found 98 mass shootings in the United States between 1982 and 2018. In 97 of those shootings, the shooter was male. In 56 of those shootings, the shooter was a white male. The average age of the shooter was 35.6 This means that based on the trend over the last 40 years, the most likely person to commit the next mass shooting in the United States is a relatively young white male.
Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan at Mother Jones add that “a majority were mentally troubled—and many displayed signs of mental health problems before setting out to kill.”7
It’s no coincidence that since 1966, and especially since 1982, we’ve seen an uptick of young white males taking up arms to shoot civilians in the United States.
It’s a matter of social history and economics.
In the 1960s, poor and working-class white Americans, particularly in the South, felt that they were losing something because of the civil rights movement. During this time, the gun was used frequently to preserve the South’s racist status quo.
Most notoriously, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death as he worked to unite poor whites and poor blacks along class lines. That effort would have disrupted the story about southern hierarchy that had been maintained since the failure of Reconstruction: being a poor white was supposed to be better than being a poor black.
A current example of racism leading to a mass shooting is the case of Dylann Roof, who assassinated a South Carolina state senator and shot eight other people to death after he had scrawled a racist manifesto. He wrote explicitly that he hoped to start a race war.
White men in America also felt like they were losing out to women as a new wave of feminism swept the nation following the 1961 introduction of the first birth control pill and the 1973 legalization of abortion.
Revealing how some American males felt about second-wave feminism, New York Post reporter and satirist Art Buchwald wrote dismissively of a protest against the Miss America pageant. “As we saw in Chicago,” Buchwald said, “there are still many men who would like to club women over the head, if they’re given the slightest excuse, and there is no better excuse for hitting a woman than the fact that she looks just like a man.”8
Women in the 1960s had started vying for access to more traditionally “male” jobs, and women started demanding more than just the Leave It to Beaver role of stay-at-home wives and homemakers.
This assault on the “old boys’ club” left some men feeling emasculated by so-called feminazis as men saw their traditional roles of hunter and breadwinner eroding. Buchwald summed up the misogynist response in his reporting on the Miss America protest: “The protesters think they’re bringing about a revolution,” Buchwald sneered, “when in fact they’re turning back the clock to pre-civilization days when men and women did look and smell alike.”
This sense of emasculation continues on today with “men’s rights activists” declaring that they need to take back traditional men’s roles and push back against perceived discrimination. This type of alienation drove Elliot Rodger, an avowed men’s rights activist, to commit the 2014 killings in Isla Vista, California.
White American men felt further alienated as jobless white Americans were competing more and more with black Americans when the American economy suffered massive inflation in the 1970s. Then, in the 1980s, Reagan started the disastrous experiment in Reaganomics, waged war on unions, implemented austerity measures, and declared an explicit war against the social safety net. As a result, the generation that came up during this time was the first generation to experience less social mobility than their parents.
According to a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents.”9
Also in 2015, the Congressional Research Service published a report that found that the rate of mass shootings in the United States steadily increased from 1.1 mass public shootings per year in the 1970s to 4.1 shootings per year in the 2000s.10
As Eric Levitz pointed out at MSNBC, “The slight increase in mass public shootings in the last four decades is noteworthy, considering that the overall rate of gun crime has declined significantly over the same time period.”11
In 2017, data scientists Adam R. Pah and Luis Amaral and sociologist John Hagan published research showing that school shootings increase with economic insecurity.
The Northwestern University study looked at the period between 1990 and 2013. According to Hagan, it found that “the link between education and work is central to our expectations about economic opportunity and upward mobility in America. Our study indicates that increases in gun violence in our schools can result from disappointment and despair during periods of increased unemployment, when getting an education does not necessarily lead to finding work.”12
Based on the evidence, there is a clear connection between inequality, gun violence, and mass shootings. The last 38 years of failed neoliberal economics, combined with social changes over the last century, have left white men in America feeling disadvantaged and desperate.
Because they feel disempowered and emasculated, they pick up a gun to try to exercise control by lashing out at society in the most direct and most potent way: indiscriminate killing.
Reagan’s economic policies marked the beginning of the neoliberal experiment, which weakened the middle class and caused inequality to skyrocket in America. And no president since Reagan has ever seriously addressed the fundamental economic and social issues that are driving inequality and social despair—which in turn are driving America’s culture of gun violence and mass shootings.
Addressing mass shootings in America requires also addressing the economic and social conditions that help create mass shooters.
Thom Hartmann, one of America’s leading public intellectuals and the country’s #1 progressive talk show host, writes fresh content six days a week. The Monday-Friday “Daily Take” articles are free to all, while paid subscribers receive a Saturday summary of the week’s news and, on Sunday, a chapter excerpt from one of his books.