Why Costas Was Wrong

First of all, I think it was pretty courageous of Bob Costas to take on a controversial issue like gun control in the middle of a football game, and just hours after Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself. Surely he knew what he was getting into.

Unfortunately, I feel like Costas missed the larger discussion that needed to be had, both as it relates to Football, and society in general.

If you managed to miss his comments, I’ve included them below.

Its pretty obvious, on the surface anyway, that if Belcher didn’t have a gun he wouldn’t have shot anyone. Its anything but clear that, absent a gun, he or his girlfriend would have survived the events of last week. The circumstances that led to the problem, and the ones that brought the final result might not have been any different.

When things like this happen, the natural and easiest reaction is to go to the thing that “caused” it…in this case people pointed to the gun. A similar reaction has followed other events, like the 2011 shooting in Arizona that killed 6 and wounded 13 others including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

One thing that is clear, guns are not sentient beings. I think everyone on both sides of the debate can agree with that.

Since guns can’t make decisions, blaming the gun is, by definition, missing the point. The old saying “people kill people” rings true here.

And while it is certainly easier to kill someone with a tool like a gun rather than say, a hammer, the result is the same. They’re still dead.

I didn’t hear a loud chorus of hammer control advocates speaking up when this guy killed his parents with one in 2011.

So maybe blaming the tool is misappropriating blame. The ease of use may play a role in the decision, but certain things have to be in place to even seriously contemplate the taking of a life. Maybe there’s something else that binds these three cases together other than the fact that tools were used to kill someone.

Its hard for me to imagine what kind of thinking brings someone to the decision that taking a life is any kind of a solution. Absent the incredibly rare “kill or be killed” moments I can’t imagine why anyone would even consider taking the life of another.

What I do understand is that considering murder as a solution is a pretty good indicator of some kind of mental health issue. What we learned in the wake of the Arizona shooting and the week since Belcher took the life of his girlfriend and himself, is mental health played a role in each.

According to reports, Belcher was struggling with head injuries and addiction. There are reports of domestic violence in the relationship. So do pervasive head injuries and violence in the home, coupled with addiction play a role in the taking of a life? Sure, but they’re not the final determining factors. If they were, we’d see a lot more violent crime than we do.

There has to be more to it.

That’s where things get complicated…much more so than dismissively blaming the gun. See, for someone to decide that taking a life is an option, they must first believe that there is no other solution. For someone to get to the point that taking their own life is the best choice, they must first believe there are no other options.

Of course, there are always other options, but those options can be lost in the haze of the moment, particularly in a society that places a fair amount of shame on mental health issues generally.

If we really want to see a decrease in violence, be it gun violence or any other kind, we need to focus on addressing mental health issues that lead to the violence rather than the violence or guns themselves. That’s the root of the problem. And that’s where Costas got it wrong.

Had Costas chosen to talk about mental health issues rather than the tool used in the violence, the size and scope of his platform might have opened up a discussion about role of mental health in the larger violence problem in our society.

That discussion is valuable, and something we, as a society need to start thinking about if we are serious about decreasing violence generally. An ounce of prevention…

Unfortunately, its just so easy and, to a certain degree, we’ve been conditioned to fall into the “blame the tool” argument that having that discussion right now seems as far away as a distant planet in another universe.

Costas was right about one thing. The outrage from this event has, just a week later, largely faded. We’ve already forgotten and moved on to the next outrage of the moment, in part because Costas chose an argument that pretty much everyone feels is unwinable and unproductive, and partially because that’s just what we do.

Hopefully, one day, we’ll make a decision to really start a dialogue about violence in our society, and work for real long-term solutions to the problem. That’s not in our nature, but here’s to hoping we start acting out of character soon. It would be a refreshing change.

7 thoughts

  1. If there hadn’t been a gun around, a discussion of head injury and its consequences would still be relevant to Belcher’s circumstances. Now it’s not. Arguing that he would have found some other way to off himself is gratuitously self-serving. Hammers and freight trains have purposes other than killing people; handguns do not.

    I have had a traumatic brain injury that required a couple of weeks of hospitalization and has enduring consequences. I know what it can do to one’s judgment. Pretending that a discussion of gun violence is a smokescreen for avoiding a discussion of mental illness is fooling yourself. They’re separate issues that both merit discussion.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your perspective.

      My larger point was that the discussion of gun control generally, only serves to address one kind of violence…gun violence. In this, and most other cases involving gun violence, there was a history of other violence involved that culminated in this final act. From my perspective, we should be seeking to decrease the amount of violence in our society generally. This will, in turn, reduce gun violence as well.

      Our tactic for reducing violence has been to incarcerate people who are convicted of a violent act. While that protects society for a time (the incarceration), it is not a preventative measure to reduce the overall violence generally. Increased availability of mental health services, and de-stigmatizing the use of those services is a preventative measure that policy-makers have shifted away from over the past 40 years.

      While there’s no question about the correlation between access to guns and the prevalence of gun violence, guns themselves do not cause the violence, people do. Guns don’t cause violence any more than poverty causes low educational attainment. The two correlate but if they caused each other, every gun owner would engage in gun violence and every person raised in poverty would not go to college. Clearly neither of these are true.

      The causal relationship between violence generally and more violence is more well defined. So, if reducing violence generally and gun violence in particular is a societal aim, and I think it is, then enacting long-term solutions to reduce that violence through increased mental health services is an appropriate response.

      Should this be coupled with stiffer regulations on guns? I think so, however I am in the minority. Polls over the past 20 years have shown decreasing support for stiffer gun regulation. (Source)

      So, considering this political reality and the deepening stratification on the issue of stiffer gun regulation, focusing on prevention seems a logical tactic as it eventually achieves both aims.

      Just to be clear, I haven’t abandoned my position of wanting increased gun regulation. I have recognized the reality that this is probably not going to happen anytime soon. In the process, I believe a discussion of societal violence and seeking policies outside of the ones we’re using now, is an appropriate discussion to have.

      Finally, I still hold that Costas missed an opportunity to bring this conversation to a viewing audience that has seen increasing violence over the past several years, and is currently engaged in a discussion about the devastating consequences of multiple head injuries on football players. Bringing mental health into that conversation with that audience, I believe, would net positive results.

      Again, thanks for your comment and perspective.

  2. i can’t believe you’re likening guns to hammers. i have several hammers around the house that are useful for constructive purposes. guns kill people. i know the old argument that guns _don’t_ kill people, people do, but honestly i’m not sympathetic to it. by all means, let’s talk about mental health, but let’s not pretend this guy would have been just as likely to kill himself with a hammer as with a gun.

    1. I think you’re missing my point. As I note in the post, there was a history of domestic violence in this relationship. As we have seen over and over again, domestic violence typically escalates and all too often ends in someone dying…usually the victim…usually the female.

      I’m not arguing that the presence of a gun didn’t hasten this outcome. In fact, I specifically state that it did. What I am saying is that Costas missed an opportunity to bring a discussion about mental health, and violence generally to a population of viewers that is currently engaged in a discussion about the long-term effects of head injuries on players. By using his mantle to introduce this topic, I believe he could have had a more positive impact.

      As it stands, the discussion just exacerbated the current stratification that exists on increased gun regulation.

      Finally, the hammers thing. Lets not get caught up in one example and miss the larger point.

      The point is the violence…the escalating violence, that too often ends up in gun violence.

      Gun control doesn’t deal with the guns that are out there. Gun control doesn’t curb the demand for guns. Gun control doesn’t end gun violence.

      Pushing for policy that addresses the underlying issues behind the violence deals with the violence, and in turn, reduces gun violence.

      Thanks for your comment. Cheers.

      1. “I think you’re missing my point.”

        no, i understood your point just fine. i just chose not to respond to it.

        “Finally, the hammers thing. Lets not get caught up in one example and miss the larger point.”

        i’m not addressing your larger point at all and have given up discussing gun ownership and its relationship with violence and death. the choice of examples matters. your example likening guns and hammers struck me as stunning, and it was your example that prompted me to respond in the first place.

        i agree with you that violence is a serious problem in our culture. people do sometimes kill people. they are much more likely to do it with a weapon designed for that purpose than with a tool design for carpentry work. fatal accidents happen. they are much more likely to happen with a gun than with a hammer. i’m not missing the larger point; i’m choosing to object to your example.

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