Guns, Violence, Rape, and Responsibility

By Sherry Colb

On Justia's Verdict today appears the second part of my two-part series of columns on the question whether rapists ought to have parental rights to visitation with their biological children resulting from rape.  In this second column, I consider the issue of burdens of proof in determining whether a father did in fact conceive his biological child in rape, on the assumption that an affirmative finding should yield divestment of any parental entitlements.

In this post, I want to consider the relationship between causation and responsibility, a relationship on which the denial of parental rights to rapist fathers of children conceived in rape is largely predicated   This issue of causation is on my mind because of the gun-rights/gun-control exchanges that have occurred in the wake of  the tragic killing of twenty children and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday.  Gun-control advocates have argued that the slaughter ought to move us finally to pass serious gun-control legislation, while some gun-rights enthusiasts have suggested either that gun control would not protect innocent people or that greater access to lawful gun ownership might have saved lives on Friday.  Both sides of the gun-control/gun-rights debate have understandably viewed the causation question as crucial:  was the shooting on Friday the result of our current gun laws, or wasn't it?

When we ask what caused the shooting on Friday, we can, of course, identify many answers.  First, there is the gunman himself, though it may seem less relevant to scrutinize his moral responsibility after he took his own life after murdering twenty-seven people.  Still, there are some who want to dwell on the mental state of the shooter, because this focus might yield gun regulations that highlight the mental health status of the person who seeks to purchase firearms.  As of this writing, we know very little about the motives and mental state of the shooter, but some people have reportedly suggested that he might have suffered from Asperger's Syndrome (AS), a condition that appears on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.  To my knowledge, AS is not ordinarily linked to violence, but it is quite easy to lump together anyone whose brain deviates in some way from the ordinary, particularly if one wishes to avoid limiting general access to firearms and instead to burden only those who have some demonstrated history of mental disorders.  Less charitably, one could characterize the rush to marginalize people who share the shooter's diagnosis as basic scapegoating.

A second answer to the causation question, once we look beyond (or take as given) the behavior of the particular gunman is some combination of the law and culture of gun possession.  The law at the moment is relatively lax, and the guns that Adam Lanza used to kill his victims and himself were reportedly owned legally and registered to the shooter's mother, Nancy Lanza, one of the people to die at his hands on Friday.  At the same time, however, there is a culture of gun possession that also might have led Nancy Lanza to purchase weapons rather than -- say -- take up golf, swimming, roller-blading, or volunteering at a homeless shelter.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has assertively encouraged people to exercise their alleged right to own all manner of firearms, probably in part because the fewer people who choose to exercise that "right," the fewer people will become active in defending that right against political efforts to reduce its potency.  Interestingly, this offers a contrast to the right to abortion, because those who advocate for abortion rights  are generally as committed to ensuring that women have the right to decide to keep their babies and take their pregnancies to term.  While pro-choice advocates are typically not pro-abortion (in the sense of favoring abortion over childbirth), pro-gun advocates appear to be affirmatively pro-gun-ownership.

A third answer, given by some Republicans, to the causation question is that if school teachers were legally entitled to -- and culturally inclined to -- carry firearms, then one of the teachers at site of the massacre on Friday might have been able to defend the children effectively by killing the perpetrator before he was able to gun down so many victims.  Proponents of gun control have responded to this claim that in emergency situations, non-violent law-abiding citizens are likely to become confused and use lethal force against the wrong targets (or have their weapons confiscated and used against them by their intended target).  I imagine that gun control opponents might respond that gun owners ought to practice their skills regularly and thereby avoid such novice errors.

It is natural to ask, after such a tragedy, how things could have gone differently.  And if there is a straightforward answer, such as "things could have gone very differently if Adam Lanza had not had access to weapons that inflict so many fatalities so quickly," it seems most sensible to change the law to reflect that assessment of what might have been.

My preference in the "causation debates" would be to enact gun control that would keep automatic and semi-automatic weapons out of the hands of civilians, no matter what their mental health status.  For reasons I discuss here, I regard the selection of "dangerous" people based on their mental health diagnosis or treatment as discriminatory and as offering only an illusory sense of security.

In the case of the rapist who seeks visitation with the child of his violence against the child's mother, the causation inquiry is very straightforward.  If the man had not raped the woman, then the child with whom he seeks visitation would not exist.  Accordingly, whatever "credit" he gets for being the father necessarily carries with it the blame associated with the sexual assault.  His relationship with the child and with the child's mother is accordingly one of culpable aggressor whose actions should entitle him to nothing.  The simplicity of the causal connection in such cases may be why barring rapists from visitation with the children of their rapes likely occasions little or no controversy.

When it comes to mass shootings, by contrast, people with a political agenda may see the causal relationships through the lens of their own legal and cultural subjectivity.  That may be why former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee reportedly offered this unusual causal account of the shooting, with which I shall leave the reader:

“Well, you know, it's an interesting thing,” Huckabee said on Fox News. “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we've systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools have become a place for carnage because we've made it a place where we don't want to talk about eternity, life, responsibility, accountability? That we're not just going to have to be accountable to the police, if they catch us. But one day, we will stand in judgment before God. If we don't believe that, we don't fear that.”