In this essay I’ll argue that the public debate over what to do about criminal violence is a debate over symptoms rather than causes. The prime example of that waste of time is the gun debate. I’ll explore that timely topic, but then move onto how both the mental health industry and the justice system defines criminal violence, along with the research on what causes it.
In general terms, the gun debate is one about interdiction in one form or another. The US has a long history with interdiction and its overall results are dismal. Alcoholism wasn’t cured by Prohibition. Anti-abortion laws do not address the issue of unwanted pregnancy. The War on Drugs hasn’t stopped the flow of drugs. In other words, the causes of these social problems are not met head on. This is also true with the issue of criminal violence, even though we do know the causes, and we do know how to treat them.
A. Gun Debate
The debate about whether or not to restrict gun ownership, and/or restrict various types of firearms, and/or prohibit types of magazines has been a topic in the US since 1791 when the Second Amendment was added to the Bill of Rights. It came up again after the Civil War in 1868 when the country ratified the 14th Amendment, which strengthened due process. Citing both amendments, the Supreme Court handed down landmark decisions, in 2008 and 2010, that upheld the right of individuals to possess guns for self-defense.
The dissenting opinion in Heller (2008) argued that the individual right to bear arms was within the context of a ‘well regulated militia.’ During the testimony and debate, the definition of ‘militia’ was hotly examined. The prevailing view was that within the context of the times (1790s), firearms were owned individually, and when the militia mustered for practice or war, it was expected that the individual bring his own weapon to the field; hence, the individual right to bear arms ‘shall not be infringed.’
Since colonial times, as weapons evolved, the debate about gun ownership has continued. The next big shift was in 1934, after Prohibition was rescinded. The National Firearms Act essentially made the ownership of machine guns illegal, which was a response to organized crime during the Prohibition era. A machine gun is one that continues to fire bullets as long as the trigger is held down. As opposed to a semi- automatic firearm, which is one where the trigger must be pulled for each bullet to be fired. Semi-automatic weapons remained legal.1
The next evolution was the Gun Control Act of 1968. Much of the current restrictions on gun ownership derive from this law. Neither gun control advocates nor gun ownership advocates were happy with this law. It didn’t go far enough for the gun control folks; it went too far for the gun lobby.
How one defines and then interprets ‘public policy’ is where they both begin their arguments. “Public policy arguments are based on the idea that the central purpose of government is to establish and maintain order. This is done through public policy, which Blackstone defined as ‘the due regulation and domestic order of the kingdom, whereby the inhabitants of the State, like members of a well-governed family, are bound to conform their general behavior to the rules of propriety, good neighborhood, and good manners, and to be decent, industrious, and inoffensive in their respective stations.’ ” 2
These public policy debates are grounded in gun violence deaths (homicide, suicide, or accidental deaths). The gun control folks cite examples of mass shootings, the fact that the US rates 28th worldwide in shooting deaths, and in developing countries, the disparity between gun deaths. For example, in 2015, there were 36,252 deaths in the US due to firearms, while in the UK there were only 50.
On the other hand, if we use per capita data on all homicides and suicides, regardless of method, other data appear. For homicides in the US it’s 5.3 per 100,000. In the UK, it’s 1.2 per 100,000; 10.82 per 100,000 in Russia; 0.63 per 100,000 in Spain; and so on. For suicides, it’s 1.71 per 100,000 in the US; England is 0.95; Lithuania 45.06; and up to 51.06 per 100,000 in Greenland. In the US, firearms are used in suicides 60% of the time as opposed to other countries. However, many of those countries with higher rates of suicide have strict gun control laws. The argument that guns aren’t the problem because other means would be found if someone wanted to commit homicide or suicide is supported by this data.3
While suicide rates have been increasing over time, homicide rates have been dropping. In the global perspective, the US is middle of the pack in gun-related deaths, along with Argentina, Mexico, Uruguay, and Panama in deaths per capita. Strikingly, though, is that the US is also the highest in per capita gun ownership: 120.5 per 100 inhabitants. Sweden (23.10) and Switzerland (24.45) are the next closest. One argument is that if guns are the problem, the problem should be exponentially larger than the US numbers show.4
Another element in the gun violence discussion is the fact that the majority of gun homicides are gang or criminal related. Should there be an interdiction on guns, it wouldn’t impact the criminals, at least in the short term. The counter-argument is that it’s because of the availability of guns in general that criminals find access to guns in the first place.
It is the availability of guns that seems to push the anti-gun agenda. In 1994, Congress enacted an ‘assault rifle’ ban that also included a ban on high capacity magazines. The ban expired in 2004, and the results of the ban on curbing violence was negligible, if non-existent. Proponents of the ban, which include anti-gun lawmakers who continue to write bills to re-enact the ban, claim that even though there was no overall reduction in gun violence, the ban may have been instrumental in reducing mass shootings.5
The opponents of the ban cite that it was a ‘cosmetic’ ban, in that a mere 2% of firearms deaths were from rifles (all rifles, not just ‘assault’ rifles).6 A further issue, though, is that the assault rifle is a misnomer in that it is characterized as an automatic weapon (e.g., a machine gun). The bullet delivery-system in the AR-15, for example, is semi-automatic (pull the trigger to fire each round), but how the firearm looks is what the law focused on: flash suppressor, pistol-grip handle, folding stock, bayonet lugs, and so on. As far as the high capacity magazine ban, they say that’s also an unrealistic ban because magazine capacity doesn’t slow down a trained shooter to reload a new magazine. Furthermore, for self-defense purposes, a ten+ round magazine is an advantage to a citizen who may not be a trained shooter.7
Other points of contention include: background checks, firearm transfers, age limits, waiting periods, and concealed carry restrictions. Background checks (as well as ‘red flag’ provisions) are an attempt to restrict gun ownership to those who will responsibly own a firearm. While that seems a reasonable goal, and it is derived from the 1968 law, the counter-argument is that it violates ‘due process.’ By complying with a background check, one must prove oneself innocent. As long as the Second Amendment exists, due process will be a factor in gun debates. Due process assumes innocence until one is proven guilty.
Firearm transfers, for example from father to son, have also been attempted, as this idea is also encoded in the 1968 law. The transfer idea is tied to background checks. These transfers, to be legal, would require a background check on the recipient of the firearm, which presumably would also require the recipient to be of legal age (usually 21 years old).
The gun control coalition arguments can be reduced to three: The Second Amendment is not an unlimited right; gun control reduces death by gun violence; background checks, mandatory safety features, and bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines aid in protecting the citizenry. Additional arguments pull in interpretations of the statistics and linked arguments we’ve discussed above and below (guns rarely used in self-defense, etc.).8
The gun debate, according to the gun-friendly Heritage Foundation, urges the arguments include these facts:
- 1 Violent crime is down and has been on the decline for decades.
- 2 The principal public safety concerns with respect to guns are suicides andillegally owned handguns, not mass shootings.
- 3 A small number of factors significantly increase the likelihood that a person willbe a victim of a gun-related homicide.
- 4 Gun-related murders are carried out by a predictable pool of people.
- 5 Higher rates of gun ownership are not associated with higher rates of violent crime.
- 6 There is no clear relationship between strict gun control legislation and homicide or violent crime rates.
- 7 Legally owned firearms are used for lawful purposes much more often than they are used to commit crimes or suicide.
- 8 Concealed carry permit holders are not the problem, but they may be part of the solution.9
Also, part of the discussion about guns that seems not to find its way into the mainstream is reflected in an unpublished report from the CDC, which estimated there were some two million episodes yearly of guns used in a self-defense capacity. The report did estimate those instances where the gun wasn’t fired, so that just the presence of the firearm was the deterrent.10
And it’s to this question we will now turn. Self-defense is its own hotly debated topic, both legally and in public policy. There is dynamic tension between those who think the government or police are there is protect us, and those who see the right to defend oneself as an innate right. For example, in many schools, a student is not allowed to defend him/herself from an attack. A zero-tolerance policy is in effect. The idea is that the adults will keep the children safe, just as the police will keep the rest of us safe.11
B. Philosophy of self-defense
I will start at the high end of a philosophy of self-defense — a position that one would aspire to if one took up training in a martial art. Most of those programs, especially the ones from Eastern cultures, are grounded in Buddhist or Taoist philosophy. An example of that mindset follows.
D.T. Suzuki defines the difference between, what we might call, counter-aggression and self-defense: “The sword is generally associated with killing, and most wonder how it can come into connection with Zen, which is a school of Buddhism teaching the gospel of love and mercy. The fact is that the art of swordsmanship distinguishes between the sword that kills and the sword that gives life. The one that is used by a technician cannot go any further than killing, for he never appeals to the sword unless he intends to kill. The case is altogether different with the one who is compelled to lift the sword. For it is really not he but the sword itself that does the killing. He has no desire to do harm to anybody, but the enemy appears and makes himself a victim. It is as though the sword performs automatically its function of justice, which is the function of mercy… When the sword is expected to play this sort of role in human life, it is no more a weapon of self-defense or an instrument of killing, and the swordsman turns into an artist of the first grade…” 12
Thus, the philosophy that underpins self-defense is paradoxical for the ‘self’ that wields the sword is ego-less. Another paradoxical adage in Buddhist-based martial arts
programs is: You learn how to fight so that you don’t have to fight. The reasoning behind these concepts is that practitioners of self-defense systems do not want to become what they are defending against. They do not want to become addicted to violence, anger, hatred, revenge, and so on. To prevent this, self-defense is approached as cold- bloodedly as a gardener pruning a tree, or a surgeon cutting out a tumor. There is no malice for the attacker. One does what one needs to do to remove the threat to oneself and/or others. The thorns protect the rose.
The journey to this exalted place is not a short journey, but it is one that is grounded in the Buddhist principle of ahimsa, which is described as: “Ahimsa is derived from the Sanskrit verb root san, which means to kill. The form hims means ‘desirous to kill’; the prefix a- is a negation. So a-himsa means literally ‘lacking any desire to kill,’ which is perhaps the central theme upon which Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist morality is built. In the Manu Smriti, the great lawbook of Hinduism, it is written, ‘Ahimsa paramo dharma’: ahimsa is the highest law. It is, as Gandhi puts it, the very essence of human nature.” 13
A simple definition of ahimsa would be that it’s ‘an attitude of non-violence.’ Yet it follows that those who train in martial arts must have some investment in the arts of violence. Or, more pointedly, why would some Buddhist monasteries train their monks and nuns in martial arts? What was the reasoning behind that?
In Buddhism, the natural state of the heart is that it is open with compassion. Fear is what closes the heart. Overcoming fear, then, is one of the important Buddhist practices. Martial arts fits in this category, in that one loses one’s fear of others, at the physical level, through martial arts training. As the fear reduces, the heart opens. Once the heart is open, ahimsa is easier to access.
More importantly, though, taking care of oneself is an act of self-compassion, and self- compassion is the spark that ignites the fire of compassion for others. Helping others at one’s expense, on the other hand, is typically a codependent rescue. Therefore, the regimen one engages in through martial arts training is also in the arena of self- compassion, rather than self-aggrandizement. This principle gets blurred in martial sports if the ego co-opts the training process in search of fame, money, or the thrill of winning a competition. Competing against oneself is the ideal, and seasoned practitioners do so. As Eugene Herrigel said it: “The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art…” 14
It is not, then, about competition, although competition is one method of training that puts the practitioner up against the stress of simulated combat. The challenge is to achieve this ‘no-mind’ state and perform well in spite of the competition — or, indeed, in spite of an actual violent confrontation on the streets or the battlefield.
I will argue that the reduction of fear that leads to ahimsa and the ‘no-mind’ state is the goal of combat training in general. While you won’t see US military or law enforcement combat philosophy endorsing a ‘no-mind’ approach to training, you can find it hidden in the cracks. It shows up in terms like ‘resiliency,’ ‘toughness of mind,’ ‘action instead of panic,’ or ‘follow your training.’ Most of the police or military men and women I’ve trained quickly achieve a ‘no-mind’ state when training in martial arts. Some, who are firearms instructors, already have it before they begin martial arts training. In my view, what is happening is somewhat complex. Facing death head-on and choosing to defend oneself and/or others produces a ‘today is a good day to die’ fatalism that releases the fear, and training takes over. The training is a practiced response to a threat with the idea in mind that ending the threat is all that’s necessary. Once the threat is eliminated, compassion takes hold and the sorrow about what one needed to do engages. There is also a purely animalistic response of relief and celebration that one survived the encounter. Then, of course, the adrenaline let-down comes, and self-care is in order.
With this section as prologue, we can examine criminal violence to highlight the contrasts between these two approaches to violence.
C. Criminal violence ‘philosophy’
“When there is other, there is fear.” (See: Vaitathaya Prakarana, Chapter 2) This ancient wisdom from the Upanishads underpins a lot of what’s wrong with the world. As we discovered above, fear closes the heart. Once the heart is closed, survival instincts kick in to deal with the threat the ‘other’ presents. Then the way the dominos fall is that fear prompts the mind to ‘labeling’ the other. Labeling is somewhat like name-calling, except labeling de-humanizes the other. Name-calling is typically reserved for punishing someone for their behavior. Labeling attacks their essence, making them less-than- human. Various -isms are grounded in labeling (racism, sexism, and so on). Once a person has been de-humanized, violence is authorized.
When the program above is a daily occurrence and becomes habitual, the pre-condition for a criminally violent person is in place. In other words, a certain state of arousal has become a habit.
Researchers in the West use the term ‘proactive aggression’ to describe this state, which they define as the situation when a person operates with a compromised autonomic nervous system. “Blunted autonomic functioning has been associated with increased antisocial behavior, including violence.”15
In simple terms, the fight/flight/freeze nervous system (sympathetic) is out of balance, because it has become the dominant nervous system. The opposing system (para-sympathetic), which is the ‘normal’ or at-rest system, is not dominant, which it should be.16
This, then, is the next domino to fall: conditioning. When one grows up in any kind of dysfunctional system (alcoholic family, gang-infested inner city, targets of racism, etc.), then that person will be constantly vigilant and looking for the next ambush. As one researcher into the alcoholic family system put it, “Growing up in an alcoholic family is like growing up in a concentration camp.”17
There are complexities involved in this conditioning process that are ambiguous and contradictory. The child, for example, will defend his/her abusers. The most straightforward way of looking at it is to think in survival terms. What does the child, and then adolescent, need to do to survive in the system into which s/he was born? A system that is filled with ‘others’ one fears but must also live with. One answer to that question is to make others fear them, while at the same time keep a low profile at home.
From this population, then, come the criminally violent. They are already marginalized, emotionally stunted, operating with chronic stress (another element in sympathetic nervous system dominance), and see no other way to survive as an adult except through criminal activity. Rape, murder, armed robbery, and the comforts of drug and alcohol abuse become their default way of being in the world. Among themselves, the code is ‘street rules,’ which is an accounting system for who is most feared in an agonizing game of king of the mountain.
In summary, I am building a case for how criminal violence is a function of training that is radically different from self-defense training. The above argument approaches it from a psycho-emotional point-of-view. Next, we will examine it from a more scientific angle.
D. Roots of criminal violence
The Kaiser ACE study compiled a lot of what I discussed above into a quiz.18 ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. It is based on abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. The higher one’s score, the higher risk one is for a variety of outcomes, including criminal violence.
The Federal Delinquency Prevention folks took a broader approach and looked at additional factors: age, prenatal/perinatal factors, individual capabilities, competencies and characteristics, family, social setting, peer influences, school factors, neighborhood, ethnographic perspectives, risk factors, environmental and situational factors.19 This report is much more comprehensive, in that the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention program has been in business since 1974. The research as well as the programs they have promoted and tested over the last few decades are well received.
Taken together, the research supports the simple claim I outlined above: grow up in a dysfunctional family system, and the only way you know how to do life is manipulate the system to gets your needs met. Manipulation is in three categories: abuse, playing victim, and rescuing others. These translate into: fear, guilt-tripping, and people owing
me favors. It’s the classic Rescue or Drama Triangle that is well-known in chemical dependency recovery circles.20 This dynamic is what underpins most dysfunctional systems. It’s what drives it and gives it coherence. It’s the systems theory that tells us where criminal violence comes from.
When one grows up playing this game, a power position is identified that is somewhat based on one’s personality. So I may prefer to be the abuser rather than the victim or rescuer, because I’m better at abuser and it suits me. Then, when I reach the teen years, I will polish the abuser role and get even better at it. As I gain points in the ‘street rules’ game, I move up in status. Eventually, I become a violent criminal.
Ironically, what also powers this transformation is a sense of victimization. I may not fully play the victim role, but I will use my sense of victimization to justify my abuse. How I do that is grounded in the idea that if I’m at the top of the mountain, if I have all the power, then I have to always be right about what to do. When I’m wrong, I can’t admit it, so I blame (which is the weapon of the victim). The blame-game, then, is an intrinsic part of the justification for criminal violence. The blame-game also marginalizes the ‘other’ so that they can be abused.
I will also rescue those above me in the king of the mountain game. I will excuse their mistakes, take responsibility for their problems, and enable their addictions. I will do so to prevent retaliation or random violence from coming my way. Even so, the role I identify with most is ‘abuser.’ I’m tough, strong, and don’t take anything from anybody…
In reality, this is a simple system — abuser, victim, rescuer — that manifests in wildly creative ways that make it seem complex. It’s not complex. It is a social system, learned through childhood, on how to manipulate those in that system to get one’s needs met. That it is also a dysfunctional system, in that it’s not a healthy social arrangement, is also true.
One of the necessary elements in quality problem solving is to adequately define the problem. At the beginning of this essay, I argued both sides of the gun debate, because the goal for both sides is to address criminal violence. The gun control lobby sees banning, restricting, and otherwise controlling access to guns as pivotal to achieving that goal. The gun lobby sees protecting ourselves from the criminally violent through concealed carry as well as strict enforcement of the laws already on the books as pivotal to achieving that goal. What I’m saying is that both approaches address symptoms not causes. The cause of criminal violence is that children are trained in it through the medium of their up-bringing. Bring children up in a different way, and the problem is addressed at its root. It is addressed by preventing it.
The Federal Juvenile Justice agency has developed programs to address these issues, and I see that as the remedial training necessary to help teens recover from the consequences of their childhoods.21
A deeper analysis of the issue, though, demands that children be raised in healthy, rather than dysfunctional, families, schools, and neighborhoods. What would that look like?
The first take on this is that psychology can’t really define what is healthy or normal in any empirical way. Psychology is good at defining what is abnormal or pathological, but normal is wildly diverse.22
Healthy, on the other hand, is easier to wrap one’s mind around. Again, the research on this goes back, in modern times, to at least the 1940s. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book, Baby and Child Care, was the bible for women who raised the Boomer Generation. He was a pediatrician that cross-trained as a psychoanalyst and concluded that children should be raised as individuals and treated with respect, flexibility, and affection.
Parent Effectiveness Training (1962) was the next evolution of looking for better ways to raise children. This program was grounded in assertiveness principles and no-lose conflict resolution. It was also widely popular, and GenX was raised with this type of parenting at its core.
Other programs evolved as the 1970s opened the door to the evolution of Positive
Psychology within the broader envelop of Humanistic Psychology. Now there are key principles that govern the guidelines for raising healthy, emotionally intelligent children. 23
The problem I’ve consistently seen is that the wisdom coming from parenting research, as well as delinquency prevention research, isn’t reflected in junior and senior high school curricula. At worst, it’s still a ‘teach to the test’ agenda. At best, there is lip service paid to ‘trauma informed’ care of children, and programs geared towards developing ‘emotional intelligence.’ Still, that is movement in the right direction. The problem, in reality, is the lack of commitment to underwrite the successful programs with the money, resources, and staff to insure each child will benefit from these programs. In short, we are not investing in our children.
Therefore, my final conclusion is that criminal violence will only be adequately addressed when we do invest in our children by providing them with the healthy environments we know they need.
Bruce Bibee’s experience extends over 35 years as a counselor and teacher. He specializes in Recovery Paradigm Counseling, PTSD, bereavement, and teen issues. In addition to working directly with clients, Bruce developed individual, group and residential programs including spouse abuse treatment. He holds a Master of Transpersonal Psychology and is a Licensed Profession Counselor in the state of Alaska. Additionally, he is the Master Instructor of the Kung Fu San Soo Center in Anchorage, AK, which is accredited by the International Kung Fu San Soo Association. He’s also taught women’s self-defense classes for decades.
2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Gun_politics_in_the_United_States#District_of_Columbia_v._Heller
3 https://ourworldindata.org/homicides; https://ourworldindata.org/suicide
9 For further development of these arguments, see: https://www.heritage.org/crime-and-justice/commentary/here-are-8-stubborn-facts-gun-violence-america
11 https://connectusfund.org/16-pros-and-cons-of-the-zero-tolerance-policy-in-schools 12 http://isme.tamu.edu/ISME07/Meadors07.html
15 Baker et al., 2009; Choy, Farrington, & Raine, 2015; Gao, Raine, Venables, Dawson, & Mednick, 2010; Portnoy & Farrington, 2015
17 Alice Miller, For Your Own Good. Rf: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B007237VUA/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
20 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karpman_drama_triangle 21 https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/programs