Whenever I hear a report of any newsworthy tragedy, and of a mass shooting in particular, my reaction is not limited to sadness on behalf of those left wounded or bereaved by it; nor anger towards the perpetrator. It also includes something like this thought: “Oh, no. What are the politicians going to say and do in response to this?”

I confess that is one of the first things to come to mind after I heard about the Charleston shooting last week.

To some extent, that may be a kind of coping mechanism. I’m not comfortable fully sympathizing with the victims of such violence, nor do I want to crawl inside the  twisted mind of the perpetrator. But I can’t just ignore the event. I’m not that callous. Instead, I suppose I tend to deal with it obliquely by considering an issue that is related to it, but separated to some degree from it.

But come to think of it, isn’t that exactly what the politicians do when they inevitably turn a tragedy into a political football and start kicking it around? And more important than the politicians are the general public. Looking at editorials and forum posts about the Charleston shooting reveal that the event was being leveraged by both sides of the gun control issue, within hours of its occurrence.

The gun control debate is, and always has been, a form of scapegoating. By making the issue about guns, we can avoid talking about the real problem, which is much deeper, holistic, and long-term than any politician or political polemicist, on either side of the issue has to offer.

The problem is not guns. The problem is not ultimately racial hatred, although that issue is far more important than guns, in my opinion. The problem is that people are addicted to violence as a method of solving problems. And so, they tend to look at the symptoms of the problem to the exclusion of its cause.

Let me be clear up front: I believe this applies equally to both sides of the debate. I am a gun owner; I enjoy hunting and target shooting, and I believe that people have the right to bear arms for defensive purposes. Not only that, but I believe the principle of the right to defend one’s self and others extends well beyond guns to other military hardware as well. So let no one accuse me of being an anti-gun liberal. But the simplistic slogan of “more guns, less crime” fails to address the root of the problem of gun violence just as completely as the position that blames gun ownership itself.

Proponents of gun ownership often cite places like Kennesaw, Georgia as an example of high rates of gun ownership leading to lower violent crime. Anti-gun folks like to counter with densely-populated urban areas as examples of places with high crime rates alongside high firearms ownership rates. But neither of these examples really prove anything.

There are places with a lot of guns and few murders. There are places with a lot of guns and a lot of murders. But there are also places with few guns and a lot of murders, and with few guns and few murders.

The fact is, it is actually very difficult to demonstrate a causal relationship between the rates of gun ownership and violent crime. Comparing the US to other countries, and comparing rates of firearms ownership to rates of homicides by firearm, confounds the simplistic narratives of both the pro- and anti-gun positions. And while I’ve never seen such a study, I would expect that comparing local areas in one country to similar areas in other countries would reveal even more nuance.

The US stands out as having an unusually high relationship of gun ownership to gun crime; but here as always, correlation is not causation. I suggest that the explanation for this particular case of “American Exceptionalism” is not the unusually high rates of gun ownership in the US.

I believe it is actually more closely related the Drug War in the US. The US spends far more per capita on drug enforcement than any other country in the First World ($170 per year per capita, compared, for example, with $102 in Australia, $73 in the UK, and $18 in Canada—a country not far behind the US in gun ownership, but much lower on the list when it comes to violent crime). The US also has more people in prison for drug-related activity than any other country in the world, as well as having the highest general incarceration rate in the world.

This cannot help but to lead to more crime in general. It is fairly well-known that legal prohibitions of things that are highly demanded, rather than eliminating them from the market, instead drive them underground. There, they can no longer be regulated by the public, either through government or by the market itself. Prohibition raises the prices of the goods, which creates additional incentive to produce them. But because of the criminal environment in which that market operates, those profits are only available to those who are willing to engage in violence to obtain it.

In other words, prohibitions lead to violence. Drug-related violence is the largest category of violent crime in the US, and that is related to the inherently violent nature of the underground drug trade. So with the US being the country with more guns per person than anywhere else on earth, and more violent underground markets than most other places on earth, how can anyone be surprised that the US has more gun violence than most other countries?

Violence, as it has been said, begets violence.

But this is not to say that the drug war is the root of the problem. The root lies deeper still. The drug war is only one of the more obvious exhibits of America’s reliance on violent solutions to its problems.

Another, far more subtle example is the school system.

I’d like to make a preemptive clarification here: while I am talking about explanations for violent behavior, I am in no way offering excuses for that behavior. Ultimately, individuals who commit violent acts must be held individually responsible for them. But we can hold them responsible while at the same time looking at other contributing factors.

So: a system funded by the threat of force and attended by children under the threat of force, where children are made to learn under the threat of force, and are forcibly removed from their naturally-formed relational environments and forced into highly segregated cliques, is not the sort of system we should expect to produce well-adjusted young adults. Yet we often hear the process referred to as “socialization”, as though children would never learn to socialize without a series of general and sustained threats! And then we are surprised when some of those children grow up to be violent, in effect acting out the model of behavior they were forced to endure during their formative years.

Related to schools is the issue of the forced medication of children, which has been brought up in conjunction with the Charleston Shooter. Dylan Roof, the shooter, was discovered with the addiction treatment drug Suboxone. While it is true that the medication of children has a very strong relationship to mass shootings, and to school shootings in particular, it does not seem likely that Suboxone is to blame for Roof’s actions. I believe that a far more important aspect of that issue is that the “disorders” being treated by such medication are often nothing more than the completely natural reaction of an energetic and curious child to being compelled to spend so much of his time what amounts to both a physical and intellectual prison.

Which is not to say that ADD, ADHD, and ODD aren’t real disorders; but it is too easy to diagnose a child with one of them simply because he isn’t doing what is expected of him. And when that expectation is that he should react in a calm and cooperative manner to a process that is adverse to his energy, curiosity, and individuality, such a diagnosis is likely to be very dangerous.

And whether we blame overmedication or not, the fact is that school shootings tend to be committed by people with long histories of mental illness, which I suggest may have at least something to do with the environment of school itself. But how often do we hear the effects of adverse childhood experiences related to a school system founded on, run on, and preserved by force brought up in discussions about gun violence? I never have, personally, unless it was from someone, usually a fellow libertarian, who had already extensively studied the issue.

Because to bring up that issue would shine an unfavorable light on something that is precious to many people: the ability to control a population through compulsory education.

And yet, again: violence begets violence.

The most obvious social issue related to the Charleston shooting is racism. Roof, it seems, wanted to start a race war, and his is of course not the first racially-motivated mass killing in the United States.

But racism can also be a scapegoat.

Perhaps we should ask why racial violence so common in the United States when compared to other parts of the world. The answer underlying racial violence, again, is political violence:

  • The US is the only country in the West to end slavery through a war (setting aside the numerous other important reasons why the War between the States was fought, I defy the position, unfortunately common among lay-level revisionist history of the war, that slavery had nothing to do with it). Every other nation managed to do it without a war. We cannot expect a conflict of which race was a significant factor, resulting in 600,000 deaths, to come without a long-term cost.
  • Segregation was done by violent means. Despite the common misconception that most businesses in the Jim Crow Era South excluded black people because they were racists, in fact segregation was a legal issue; and many business owners were frustrated by it. Segregation came at a high opportunity cost to white business owners who, whether they were personally racist or not, would just as soon have served black customers. Money, as they say, is all green.
  • Segregation was ended by violent means. Despite its origins in peaceful civil disobedience, black and white communities were ultimately forced together by legislative action. While we rightfully celebrate the end of segregation, we often do not count the cost of its being accomplished by the political means. Forced association always creates friction which can be expected to lead to violence. And political solutions in general tend to be short-sighted, shallow, and to have unintended adverse consequences.

Today, the politicization of race through identity politics has not served to heal the sores collectively felt by one race against another. It has only served to further divide us. That is inherent to the nature of the political system, wherein one group of people attempts to gain power over another. It is only natural that the other group should fight back.

Violence begets violence.

Dylan Roof wanted a race war. And he might have gotten one, if the conversation had been entirely dominated by identity politics, or if that issue had run on in the background while everyone talked about the gun issue.

But what actually happened, revealing the true solution to the problem, is something that completely transcends politics.

One by one, many of the families of those whom Roof had killed spoke to him via closed circuit television at the Charleston courthouse. They acknowledged that what he had done was evil. They acknowledged that they had been hurt and may never fully heal.

And then they forgave him. In the words of the sister of one of the victims,

That was my sister, and I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.

Their actions will not, by themselves, solve the problem of violence in America. They won’t solve its symptoms, either: the gun issue, the drug war, or the problems of compulsory education. But they demonstrate the fact that the solution lies beyond the political means. More than that, it is antithetical to it.

I am a Christian myself, and I see what they did as exemplifying the correct Christian response to evil committed against one’s self. As one of my friends wrote,

This is what grace and forgiveness, the most basic tenets of Christianity, looks like. It is also why the world has such a hard time adhering to it, and why governments are completely incompatible with it. It’s why it is so easy to find hypocrites to point your finger at. It is what is meant by taking up a cross of self denial. It is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he said, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.” It is why I, and the vast majority of Christians, fail so hard. It is why Christ had to die and rise again.

But while it is out of my Christianity that I understand peace to be the solution to the problem of violence, I don’t believe that this is just a moral teaching. I believe it is also practical advice. The political means is inherently violent. It can only offer violence in response to violence, or to any other problem. It can only offer scapegoats in explanation for its constant failures. And it offers itself as the only solution to the problems for which it is itself responsible.

People look to the state for security at the cost of ever-increasing threats. They look to it for the provision of their material needs at the cost of deadly famine in the long run. They look to it for the preservation of the “public morality” at the cost of the complete deterioration of personal morality.

America’s problem is not a gun problem. It is not a drug problem, either, or even a race problem. It is a violence problem. And the solution to the problem is to abandon the political means with all its shortsighted, shallow, divisive reliance on coercion.

The only way to end the problem of violence is to refuse to participate in it.