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The concept of rugged individualism has been a virtual mantra for denizens of the United States for generations. We have prided ourselves on self-reliance, independence, strength, and fearlessness. We approach the world with a big stick. We adore such phrases as: “bomb the shit out of them”, “take ’em down”, “kick their ass”, “waste ’em”, “kill the s.o.b.’s”, “knock ’em dead”, and so on. We view the world through a us versus them lens.

We use these phrases when it comes to sports as well as all other competitive activities. Victory demands strength. And victory, at almost any cost, is what is most important.

I remember as a young boy and as a youth playing games of “cowboys and indians”, “war”,  and “gangsters”, where we donned our toy guns and shot it out with one another. One of the first toys that boys received as children was a toy gun, or, if we were lucky, the coveted B-B gun. Rural kids often receive .22 caliber rifles or shot guns as soon as they are able to hold them.

We learn quite early that the most expedient resolution of a conflict is through violence. Strike and think later. This way of thinking is encouraged by everything we see and hear. Our television shows, video games, movies, and even our music, is replete with violent references. Wherever we turn, there is someone shooting, killing, punching, harming someone else. On television we can watch wars occurring in real time around the globe. Even the rhetoric coming out of the White House and Congress is laced with violent references. Weapons of mass destruction are being tested around the world. One can purchase such weapons and learn how to buy materials for making bombs through the internet.

Everyone is exposed to this culture of violence. This is not new. It is common for disputes between individuals, families, and countries to be settled with violence. Children and youth, as well as the population in general, react to adversity with an almost reflexively violent thought or action. What is new is the magnitude of the exposure and the extent and availability of weapons to make the impulse into an action. Now, instead of merely relying on fists or a knife, we have AR-15s with which to settle disputes. We have millions of guns available for purchase by almost anyone. Today, instead of waiting outside of school to fight a fellow student with whom one has a grudge, a youth will wait with a handgun.

The U. S. was founded on violence as we massacred tens of thousands of indigenous people to tame the “wild west.” It is in our DNA. When we combine the notion that disputes and hurts should be settled through violence with the concept rugged individualism, the easy availability of weapons of mass destruction, and add the incessant exposure through the media to violence, it is not surprising that we have one of the highest rates of homicide in the world.  Is it surprising that the U.S. has had a greater number of mass murders than all the other industrialized nations combined? Other cultures in the industrialized world seem to have transitioned from a culture of violence to a culture of respect, civility, and cooperation. When will we join them?

The problem is not going to be resolved easily or quickly. It has taken generations to develop the culture of violence and it is not going away any time soon. It is necessary to have a national, in depth dialogue on the subject of violence. It is a systemic issue.  It will require a multi-pronged approach on a national level. And various approaches will have to occur in conjunction with one another, not one at a time. Merely to do one without the others will not yield the kind of results necessary for substantive change. Change requires a multifaceted approach.

We have always been a violent nation. I don’t know whether we are more violent today than when I was a boy or are the results more violent because of the availability of more violent methods. Highly destructive technologies in the hands of violent people leads to more destructive outcomes. We tend to focus exclusively on the violent outcomes and not on the systemic violence built into our national consciousness. Both have to be confronted.

There is no single solution to the changing the culture of violence. However, eliminating the epidemic of gun related violence is a crucial first step and perhaps the simplest to address. One way to control the number of gun-related deaths is to make it more difficult to obtain a gun, especially military grade weapons. This could be done through requiring registration of all guns, requiring license for gun users, and reducing the shear number of guns available for purchase. A second prong of this multi-pronged approach would be to reduce the amount of violence presented by the media, especially movies and television. A third would be to increase the efforts at teaching nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution in homes, schools and churches, as well as in congress and the White House. A fourth would be a greater national emphasis on psychological diagnosis and treatment for people confronted with emotional trauma, drug and alcohol related problems, family disruption, economic hardship, and a host of other issues. Circumstances can make even nonviolent people violent. And this is just a beginning.

Hand-wringing, empty promises, prayer, and head shaking will not solve the problem. Violence is a deep-seated, chronic issue in our culture and the world around us. The movement from rugged individualism to violence on a mass scale was gradual. Playing a game of cowboys and indians gradually evolved to video games of mass destruction. Similarly, a movement from violence to respect and civility will take time and considerable effort.  It won’t happen automatically. It must be a conscious decision on all levels of society. A major campaign will be required. However, so far even baby-steps have been difficult; we cannot even get bump stocks off the shelves.