Suicide, Sisyphus, and the Absurdity of American Gun Violence
On May 15, 2023, an 18-year-old gunman drove through a New Mexico community with at least three firearms, killing three and injuring three more, making it the latest instance of American gun violence on a mass scale.
Authorities say the gunman had no particular target, taking random aim as he prowled the streets, firing at will. According to Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe, the shooting was “one of the most horrific and difficult days that Farmington has ever had as a community.”
Investigators have yet to identify the attacker’s motive, although the shooter’s family has been interviewed for further information. But, as previously stated, the event seemed untargeted, given the shooter shot indiscriminately at cars and homes without direction. So the attack, while deadly, seemed meaningless.
American Gun Violence: Suicide Rates
In the case of Farmington, the shooter did not take his own life, although in many cases, gunmen end up doing so. However, while many mass shootings end with the shooter turning the gun on themselves, most gun-related suicides happen without a homicidal precursor.
Studies reveal a fatal link between guns and suicide in the United States. For example, an initiative by the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed cases across all 50 states and confirmed a strong relationship between firearm ownership rates and suicides. Researchers found that states with high firearm ownership rates — such as Wyoming, where 63 percent of households reported owning guns — experience higher ratios of suicide. The inverse was also true: Where gun ownership was less common, suicide rates were lower. But suicide remains a prescient national issue.
Within the last few years, suicide has become the second leading cause of death in the U.S. for people ages 10 to 34; a 2018 report by the CDC showed that between 2007-2018, suicide among youth ages 10-24 increased by 60%. After 2018, suicide began to decline but increased sharply from 2020-2021. In addition, a report published Thursday by the CDC shows that adolescents were most likely to visit the emergency department for suicidal thoughts in recent years.
So what lies at the crux of these thoughts? Is it a mental health issue? A lack of fulfillment that instigates the acts of American gun violence and self-harm we see today?
Excavating the Motives of American Gun Violence and Self-Harm
People carry on with their lives daily without the assurance that their activity will lead them anywhere significant. Despite the fact that life consists of long-term and short-term goals, some hit a crossroads, causing them to wonder: What is the point of it all? In psychological terms, we define this as an existential crisis.
Albert Camus, a French philosopher, author, dramatist, and journalist, was one of the first to introduce the concept of “the absurd.” With this exploration, he focused heavily on the concept of suicide.
In his first major work, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus states, “There are many causes for a suicide, and generally the most obvious ones were not the most powerful. Rarely is suicide committed (yet the hypothesis is not excluded) through reflection. What sets off the crisis is almost always unverifiable. Newspapers often speak of ‘personal sorrows’ or of ‘incurable illness.’ These explanations are plausible. But one would have to know whether a friend of the desperate man had not that very day addressed him indifferently.”
Camus goes on to conclude, “Killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.”
Camus’s interpretation suggests that life, with its bountiful supply of struggle, is a kind of battle, one that requires a choice: Fight or give up fighting. To give up, or take one’s own life, can be linked to surrender, an admission of defeat or unwillingness to continue. Camus lived with a sense of pride or hubris that would not let him submit or capitulate to the stress or redundancy of life. As he saw it, marching on was an act of ironic defiance against the inevitability of death, something he viewed as an attribute. He supports this through his references to the myth of Sisyphus.
The Sisphyan Struggle
Sisyphus is a figure of Greek mythology, punished by the gods for cheating death. To atone, he’s sentenced to the arduous task of rolling an enormous boulder up a steep hill. When he reaches the top, the boulder rolls back down, and the task starts over. So Sisyphus is made to do this tiresome and monotonous task again and again for all of eternity. Although his punishment seems like the worst form of torture, Sisyphus becomes resolved to his fate. He recognizes his job, accepts his duty, and performs without complaint. This, Camus states, is the fate of every living person, and it’s up to them how they deal with such a burden.
Camus’s text vividly depicts the source of this character’s steadfastness; “A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself. I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
Sisyphus endures, fully aware of his condition, which Camus uses to exemplify his theory of “the absurd.” He understands the eternal fruitlessness yet perseveres. But for absurdity to be present in someone’s life, one must be sober enough to recognize the futility of all actions.
From Where Does it Come?
Maybe this is the dilemma many Americans face daily: Toiling at a job they hate, for a wage they cannot fully support themselves on, for an ultimately futile purpose. Then, in their awareness of the absurdity of existence, they find the tools to commit the ultimate surrender right at their fingertips or for sale behind a glass case down the road. While philosophical debates rarely lead to policy changes, it’s still worth asking: To what extent can this mindset be the driving force behind American gun violence, both towards the self and others? Is it all absurd? And is there a remedy?
Of course, there’s always more than one theory. But still, is it what might cause an 18-year-old to act with such recklessness and apathy toward human life? This week’s events in New Mexico and the victims they left behind should have us all in deep contemplation, asking ourselves: What is the value — and meaning — of life?
Suicide Rises to 11th Leading Cause of Death in U.S.