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Is Public Numb To Mass Shootings?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer and keeper of the shop Jimi Izrael, with us from Cleveland; in New York, Paul Butler, he's a law professor at Georgetown University; Farajii Muhammad is host of WEAA's Listen Up! program in Baltimore, but he was nice enough to come to our D.C. studios; and Mario Loyola is with us from Austin. He writes for the National Review magazine, and works for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a think tank that advocates for limited government.

Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. Welcome to the shop.

PAUL BUTLER: What's up?


IZRAEL: How're we doing?

BUTLER: It's all good.

IZRAEL: OK. Well, it's not all good 'cause we're getting things started - we've got some tough news this week about gun violence. We got a couple of shootings to talk about. Right, Michel?

MARTIN: Yes, and we referred to these earlier in the program. On Monday, Aaron Alexis opened fire and killed 12 people at Washington's Navy Yard before he was killed himself by - probably by a law enforcement officer. And I just want to play part of a statement that Cathleen Alexis, the gunman's mother, made to reporters this week.


CATHLEEN ALEXIS: His actions have had a profound and everlasting effect on the families of the victims. I don't know why he did what he did. And I'll never be able to ask him why. Aaron is now in a place where he can no longer do harm to anyone and for that, I am glad. To the families of the victims, I am so, so very sorry that this has happened. My heart is broken.

MARTIN: Now we're still trying to, I think, unpack what led to that specific chain of events, but I do have to tell you that this - that, you know, last night in Chicago, 13 people, including a 3-year-old boy, were shot in a Chicago park. And I do recognize for those who have been hurt by other incidents of violence around the country that we haven't mentioned, it's been a very violent week in this country. So...

IZRAEL: Thank you for the info, Michel. All right, fellas, so some people say these stories won't get the same attention that earlier shootings did, you know, and that maybe Americans are just getting a little too used to this kind of violence. Paul Butler, you live in the D.C. area. Do you see - do you think there's any truth to that at all?

BUTLER: Of course. I work about a mile from the Navy Yard. And it was kind of weird to go outside on Monday and wait in line at the food truck as if, blocks away, 12 people had not been gunned down. So I don't know if we're desensitized or if we're just suffering from combat fatigue because I've got some bad news - there's going to be another mass shooting this year and then another one after that. We know that from statistics.

But is that supposed to change the way that I live my life? Am I supposed to be scared every time I go to work? I'm not going to live that way. So I wouldn't call it desensitized - I would call it a way of coping with a violent, scary world.

IZRAEL: You know, what I see, and thanks for that P.B., you know, what I see, watching the nightly news, is that they're trying to scare us into becoming a society where we shoot first and ask questions later and kind of live by the gun. I mean, there's just this idea that...

MARTIN: Who is they? Who is they?

IZRAEL: The news, to me. I mean, it seems like - you know, if it bleeds, it leads. And it's always - you know, these incredible - you know, I mean, here in Cleveland, of course, the lead is the Chicago story, but they just underscore that a 3-year-old got shot in the face. And that's such a scary world and it kind of fuels these other conversations.

Like also here in Ohio, in Oberlin, parents want the right, and they have the right, to carry guns on playgrounds. It's like, well, what do you need a gun on a playground for? But I think these are the parents for whom these action news segments are aimed. You know, these gun carriers, these people who - you have the right to carry a gun and if you have the right then you should. But, when every time we turn on the news you're bombarded by what seems like flying bullets everywhere you go - it's going to make you paranoid. In my mind - to my mind. So, Farajii, you live in Baltimore, also known as Body-more in the streets. And that city has dealt with gun violence for years.


IZRAEL: What do you think?

MUHAMMAD: I mean, we definitely are desensitized. I mean, I think the daily exposure to violence through the news that we get - it makes us more desensitized. But if you even look at the conversation that people have amongst themselves, especially in Baltimore, it's like who's got shot, who's got hurt, who's got - who was harmed? And I think a lot of times, you know, which I would just have to disagree with Paul, I don't think this is coping. I think this is really about us not even having enough time to grieve, let alone really feel the pain.

So when we hear stories - you know, I mean, CNN had the Navy Yard shooting on their website for two days straight and then literally the next day it's comments about what the Pope said about gays. So it's like, where's the time for us to move on? But I think the bigger question is once we do hear these stories, how are we supposed to respond? Are we supposed to go into this kind of mass reflection? Or are we just supposed to kind of send cards to the family? I mean, how should we respond? That's the bigger question.

MARTIN: Yeah. Mario, what do you think?

MARIO LOYOLA: Well, notice that we're reporting on the really spectacular mass shootings, but there's almost no reporting on the 25 gun murders that happen every single day in this country, Michel. Michel said a moment ago that it's been a violent week this week - every week in America is a violent week. I mean, and we've sort of decided to accept the conditions that produce that.

And there's something so unserious about the political reaction to these things. I mean, every single gun control proposal that I hear is like a proposal to solve the problem where the problem isn't. Right, I mean, we have mass shootings in Connecticut and Washington, D.C. and Chicago - so the solution is to impose on rural Texas the same gun control laws that we have in Chicago, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. I'm sorry, that doesn't make any sense.

MARTIN: Well, I will say this - I understand your point, Mario, but just as a point of fact - the fact is the homicide rate has gone down significantly in this country, in the last, you know, 10, 20 years. It just has. On the other hand, that the violence, as you pointed out, is often very localized. Like 10 cities, which accounts for most of the violence, the homicide violence, but we're not even talking about the suicide rate. Because you could make an argument that what this man did at the Washington Navy Yard actually was a suicide.

MUHAMMAD: Absolutely, right.

MARTIN: It was a catalyzed suicide. It was a way to get somebody to kill him. I mean, so - you know, the suicide rate has not gone down in this country, in fact, it's gone up. And guns play a role in that too. I take your point, that this is - it's hard to have a serious conversation - just one last question for Mario, what do you think would make it a serious conversation because I don't know what would make a serious conversation if kids getting gunned down in school doesn't make it a serious conversation? What in fact, in your view, would make it a serious conversation?

LOYOLA: I think that people should start by asking what is correlated with gun violence because it's not lax gun-control laws. What's correlated with gun violence is welfare and single-mother households and urban blight, right. So I think that what would make it a serious conversation is to look at the government policies that have produced the disastrous conditions of our violence filled inner cities...

MARTIN: Wait, wait, wait, wait. This man was not on welfare. What are you talking about? I don't understand...

LOYOLA: Yeah, but we're not talking - this incident was like, I mean, you know, a mass shooting at the Navy Yard - it was a tragic incident, but this is not the nature of gun violence in the United States. It doesn't look like this. The 25 people...

MUHAMMAD: I don't think this is a gun violence...

MARTIN: OK, and the 30,000 people who killed themselves using guns, does that have something to do with welfare? I'm sorry what? Does it?

LOYOLA: Well, not that, I'm talking about violent murders, right? Just the category of violent murders. There are dozens of them every day and you have to look at the conditions that produce that violence.


LOYOLA: That is what I think is a reasonable and serious way to look at it.

MARTIN: OK, Paul, do you want to have one more bite of this apple before we move on or not?

BUTLER: Yeah, I think that's kind of deep from a guy who said that that when we think about gun violence we think about all kinds of things that don't matter and then he brings up welfare - I mean, come on welfare doesn't matter to people - young children killing each other.

MARTIN: What would - Paul Butler, if you take his point that we do not have serious political conversations about this in your view, what would make it a serious political conversation?

BUTLER: I do think we need to talk about the conditions that breed kids not to respect each other for those kinds of crimes, and also a serious conversation about mental health.


BUTLER: And the stigma about men, 'cause about 90 percent of these shooters are men, seeking the treatment that they need.

MARTIN: All right. If you're just joining us, you're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We are talking with law professor Paul Butler, that's who was speaking just now. Commentator Mario Loyola, who's also with us. Writer Jimi Izrael and radio host Farajii Muhammad. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK, gentlemen. Start your engines and grab your consoles, "Grand Theft Auto V" is flying off the shelves. And, of course, I'm getting my copy this weekend. Michel...

MARTIN: Sorry, I thought you already had - you didn't somebody to stand in line for you?

IZRAEL: No, I'm not that dude. I'm the dude to stand in line myself.

MARTIN: OK, standing in line is played out. It's played out, OK. All right, so for non-gamers in "Grand Theft Auto" players take on the roles of criminals or gangsters and you get to steal cars and blow things up and hit people. Kind of like right here. Here's a clip.


UNIDENTIFIED CHARACTER #1: We're all professionals, we all know the score.

UNIDENTIFIED CHARACTER #2: This is a legit business.

UNIDENTIFIED CHARACTER #3: 401(k)s, tax returns and all?

UNIDENTIFIED CHARACTER #4: We're going to move quick and we're going to keep cool.

UNIDENTIFIED CHARACTER #5: My job - my score, get your own.

MARTIN: All right, so the game made almost a billion dollars in sales on its first day out. Jimi claims he doesn't have his copy yet, but we'll see about that. Why do you like it so much?

IZRAEL: Well, you know, I gravitate toward games with a really strong narrative. And I love this ongoing tale of sex, drugs and stolen cars in a decadent landscape. A lot like the country we live in. You know, just a passive resemblance to America, but I just love the story and the story line and it just keeps going and going and going. This one in particular is just incredibly innovative, where you can change protagonists mid-game - incredible, incredible stuff. Farajii Muhammad, I know you work with a lot of young people who deal with violence in real life and I also know that you're a gamer and I bet you're a "Call of Duty" type of dude. Are you going to play this one?

MUHAMMAD: How did you figure that, Jimi? That's exactly...

IZRAEL: I'm psychic, bro.


MARTIN: Are you going to get one?

MUHAMMAD: You know what, I thought about it. This is Farajii. You know, I thought about it and one of the things I have to kind of keep myself in the forefront is reality versus fiction. And I think that's the biggest issue with games like this. They are so real, so lifelike that psychologically it causes the gamer to lose sense of what's reality and what's fiction. And when you have that type of thin line that you're crossing constantly, there is - I mean, that just goes to show you why there is so much violence - gun violence and other issues.


MARTIN: That is interesting. Mario, what do you say?

IZRAEL: Wait a second, wait a second, there haven't been any - there have been a lot of studies and there's been no plausible link - indisputable link between games and violence.

MARTIN: That's true.

MUHAMMAD: You know, what, we can say there's been a lot of studies, Jimi, but at the same - there has been many studies - but at the same time, we're looking at people's attitudes and behaviors and studies aren't always there to measure that. If you're talking about - if you listen to a certain type of music, you're going to think a certain type of way. I mean, we're talking about - the country loves violence. And that's - you know, I heard somebody say violence is as American as apple pie.

IZRAEL: Absolutely.

MUHAMMAD: So this is our love for violence, especially in games, this is good stuff for us. And that's why this thing is generating a billion dollars' worth of sales.

MARTIN: Mario, what do you think?

LOYOLA: Well, I see a different danger in this kind of thing. I mean, I used to think that my life was so interesting until I watched all five seasons of "The Wire" in like two weeks.

MUHAMMAD: Oh, come on now.

LOYOLA: When the last episode was over I was like so depressed to go back to my boring, uninteresting life. And if there had been 10 more seasons I would've, like, spent the whole summer doing nothing but watching "The Wire."

MARTIN: Yeah, but you didn't go out and stick people up and start selling crack did you? I mean...

LOYOLA: No, but I'm saying - right. You're right. And it's not like I really would like - exactly, I don't know why it was so interesting because I don't want to be selling crack on corners. But, you know, I don't want to open the door to this thing because I feel like I'm going to get sucked into a virtual reality that has the defect of being much more interesting than my life.

MARTIN: Paul, what do you think?

BUTLER: Well, my dude, the reason why you're interested in that 'cause this was a fantasy for you. And these games are play and that's OK. Americans actually need to play more. And I think most adults are very capable of distinguishing between an imaginary world and the real world. So, Michel, I fantasize about all kinds of things that I wouldn't actually do. And I'm cool with that.

MARTIN: Why are you telling me this?


MARTIN: Am I supposed to play some role in it? I'm sorry.

IZRAEL: A very special Barbershop.

MARTIN: OK, well, let me just raise this, since I'm the only one - a lot of people - one of the contributors in our parenting conversation has thought a lot about this recently, published a book about boys, and one of the things she said is that she used to be one of these people who just reflexively thought, oh, you know, boys shouldn't play this - it stimulates kind of the desire to have violence.

She says, look, too many people play these - it's letting off steam for a lot of people. It's just letting off steam. But what does concern her is this kind of distorted body image thing that goes on, where boys then think that you have to have a six-pack and you have to have bulging muscles, and they think girls are supposed to look like, you know, Barbie doll figures. I don't think I need to be more explicit, do I? It just kind of creates this distorted image of like women and body and stuff like that. And I just wondered if any of you have thoughts about that. It's not so much the violence - it's kind of what it sets you up to think is normal in terms of how you're supposed to look and gender - anybody, thoughts about that?

IZRAEL: American media does that in general. I mean, so I don't want to put that off on "Grand Theft Auto." I mean, you can get that - you can get that just by clicking on TV randomly and just going through the commercials. You know, from "Hip Hop Ab" commercials to, you know commercials for, you know - I don't know. Just all kinds of stuff. I mean, you're going to get distorted body images. You're going to get all kinds of weird messages. So I don't - we can't put that off on video games.

MARTIN: Yeah, but you could say - you can call it out, right, just like you call it out in any other media...

IZRAEL: Of course you can call it out.

MARTIN: ...You say, look, I don't really want - you know, like when people make disparaging comments about natural black hair. People have a right to say, hey, excuse me, step back. But...

MUHAMMAD: Right. This is Farajii. I want to just - and I guess in a piece about body image, I mean, again, it's fantasy. So that's what we want to look like and we - so the game is going to naturally play into our fantasy of who we want to be. We want to be tough guys, even though we might be, you know, 5 feet 2 inches and 100 lbs. So it adds to the fantasy.

MARTIN: I got to ask Mario what his favorite game is. Mario, what's your favorite game?

LOYOLA: I don't even - I don't even know. I mean, a game that's so old that I would be revealing my age.

MARTIN: Pac-Man. Alright. We have only a few minutes left. Jimi, you wanted to talk about an important and controversial issue. OK. This is - OK. I don't know - alright. According to a recent article in Gawker, more black people use washcloths than white people.

BUTLER: Still?

MARTIN: Seriously. Jimi says...

IZRAEL: This is all very apocryphal, to be sure. You know, 'cause, I mean, I don't - I mean, me personally, I don't rock with people like that because I'm not going to walk up to your bathroom, you have like a science experiment hanging on the towel rack.

MARTIN: So you're more of a scrunchy guy. Is that what you're telling me?

IZRAEL: No. I don't call it the scrunchy 'cause, you know, that's a little too dainty. I rock with something called the Axe shower detailer. You know, it looks like a man owns it. You know, if I walk into your bathroom, you got a loofah, I'm going to talk about you real bad, bro. No washcloth either 'cause, I mean, that's something that needs hazmat to take care of. I'm not all about the washcloth. The washcloth - but having said all this, I mean, this all came from time and maturity, you know. And if I'm at my people's house, you know, maybe. But for the most part, you know, I'm strictly an Axe detailer type of dude.


IZRAEL: Yeah. The washcloth is played out.

MARTIN: Paul, I know you're secure in your masculinity so you can admit that you use a poof, right?

BUTLER: Michel, I am a thorough black man so I think sharing washcloths is just nasty. Because I'm black or because...

MARTIN: We weren't talking about sharing. We we're talking are using. Just having one.

IZRAEL: Yeah. I don't know any houses where they share washcloths, B.

MARTIN: I don't know what the share - I don't know where the sharing came from.

IZRAEL: What's up with that?

MARTIN: Mario's trying to slip out the back.

BUTLER: When I go to Europe, and a lot of the hotels don't even have washcloths, I'll call down. I'm trying to be nice, but I have a little bit of an attitude like, you cretins, could you please send up a wash towel?

IZRAEL: They got one washcloth for the whole floor.

MARTIN: Mario, one word answer - loofah, poof or washcloth, which?

LOYOLA: I think I have a policy of not commenting on this sort of thing.

MARTIN: I don't blame you 'cause you might run for president someday. We don't have to have that out there. I get it. I totally get that. OK. Mario Loyola is Chief Counsel at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He's a columnist for the National Review, with us from a member station KUT in Austin. From our bureau in New York, Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University. Here in Washington D.C., Farajii Mohammed. He hosts WEAA's "Listen Up!" radio show. And Jimi Izrael is a writer, an adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. He joined us from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland. Thank you all so much.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

BUTLER: Good to be here.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you.

LOYOLA: Ciao, ciao.


MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.