Editorials, Opinion

Maslow’s gun: Shoot first, question later

In addition to the seemingly inescapable mass shootings, wrong-place-wrong-time shootings are skyrocketing, too. 

In the last few weeks, we’ve had reports of a Black teenager shot by an elderly man for knocking on his door; a young woman killed when she and her friends turned around in a man’s rural driveway; two cheerleaders shot for accidentally getting into the wrong car; two parents and their 6-year-old daughter shot after a neighbor opened fire because some kids’ basketball rolled into his yard; and five members of a family, including a 9-year-old, slaughtered by their neighbor after they asked him to quit firing his gun after 11 p.m. Then, on Monday, a 14-year-old girl was shot in the head by a neighbor after she and her friends used part of his yard for a game of hide-and-seek. 

They are all unique tragedies, but when looked at as a whole, these shootings reveal some common threads: fear, anger and a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality. 

The psychologist Abraham Maslow famously said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Maslow’s hammer is the idea that over-reliance on a specific tool — literal, as in a hammer, but also metaphorical, as in a coping mechanism — makes it harder to respond creatively to problems and to process change. 

In a country where firearms now outnumber people, are guns the new Maslow’s hammer? According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 63% of people who owned a firearm said they did so for protection reasons. So if the tool you rely on is a gun, does every problem look like a target and every stranger like a threat?   

It doesn’t help that Americans perceive crime as on the rise, even though most types of crime have decreased over the last few years. According to an October 2022 Gallup poll, 78% of respondents felt crime had increased nationally and 56% felt it had increased in their area. 

“If it bleeds, it leads” dates to the sensationalized “yellow journalism” of the 1890s and took on a new meaning with cable TV news. But the premise is simple: Crime grabs people’s attention.  

While news media does have a responsibility to report on crime, some entertainment-news outlets take it too far. The Washington Post analyzed transcripts and found, “Over the past three years, for instance, Fox News anchors and guests spotlighted crime 79% more often than those on MSNBC and twice as much as voices on CNN.”  

The over-emphasis some conservative networks have put on crime is reflected in how people perceive crime: 95% of Republicans said national crime had increased over the last year, compared to 61% of Democrats; and 73% of Republicans said crime was worse in their area compared to 42% of Democrats. 

We can’t say there is causation between the two, but there is certainly correlation. And that correlation is reflected in gun ownership as well, as people who own firearms are more likely to identify as white, male and/or Republican. The grandson of the elderly white man who shot a Black teenager on his doorstep said his grandfather consumed a steady diet of conservative media, and he believed that played a large part in his grandfather’s actions that day.  

The three things — wrong-place-wrong-time shootings, media coverage of crime and people’s perception of crime — all seem to be linked, perhaps feeding into each other in a dangerous cycle. 

Is there a solution? We continue to assert fewer guns — especially high-capacity guns like AR-style weapons — will mean fewer acts of gun-related violence. At the very least, training and licensing should be required to own firearms. But entertainment-news media will need to do its part by covering crime responsibly, without sensationalizing it or giving it excessive airtime. And individuals need to do their parts by remembering that not every interaction is an altercation, that not every altercation requires violence and that, unless there is an obvious and immediate threat, one should always ask questions first, shoot later.