From the D.C. Sniper to Today's Gun Violence

A new films shows that mass shootings will continue until we figure out a way to break the chain of violence.

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Convicted sniper John Allen Muhammad, center, stands with his attorney's Peter Greenspun, left, and Jonathan Shapiro as he is sentenced to death for the shooting of Dean Meyers at the Prince William County Circuit Court in Manassas, Va., Tuesday March 9, 2004. Muhammad, 43, was convicted of capital murder on Nov. 17 and a jury recommended he be sentenced to death for the murder of Dean Harold Meyers at a gas station near Manassas.

Movie theaters are filled with films about violence and guns, generally celebrating the use of violence by good people to counter violence against bad people. The ostensible bad guy is someone you grow to despise so much, you don't bat an eye when the hero – maybe sporting a broken limb or other injury that won't stop him (it's always him) from ensuring justice by pumping rounds and rounds of bullets into Bad Guy. Good Guy nods to the adoring woman in his life (who has stopped pouting and walking around in fancy underwear to hail our hero), gets himself patched up and goes on to the next mission.

Gunplay doesn't tend to happen that way, whether it's the shooting being done by Bad Guy or the shooting done by Good Guys (generally law enforcement). Cops get shot, sometimes killed. Bad Guy, it turns out, is more than just Bad – he has a life story that does not in any way justify the terror he has wreaked, but which could give us insight into how to keep tragedies from happening again, if we bothered to pay attention.

Such is the unnerving lesson of "Blue Caprice," a powerful and refreshingly un-Hollywoodlike film about the D.C. sniper case in 2002. Two people, John Allen Muhammad and teenager Lee Boyd Malvo, went on a chilling, apparently random killing spree in the D.C. region that ended up taking the lives of 10 people and wounding three more. A pregnant woman, a guy who was just pumping his gas – there was no reason to murder these people except for pure, undealt-with anger. And the movie, so unlike other gun-centric films, gets at that.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Isaiah Washington, who brilliantly plays Muhammad, describes what struck him about the dark, evil character. It wasn't just a crime story, Washington said in a Skyped q-and-a with a Washington audience recently. It was about fatherlessness, bad parenting, isolation and anger. Muhammed and Malvo were both fatherless. Muhammad's mother had died when he was five; his father abandoned him, and his grandfather – one of the people who raised Muhammad – beat him. Muhammad himself abused his wife, Washington noted, and could no longer see his children after she kidnapped them and took them to Antigua.

Muhammad's anger over the loss of his children is threaded through the entire film (which does not get into the details of Muhammad's defense of the 9/11 attacks, alleged misbehavior in the military and other character matters Washington said would have complicated the story line too much). And the creepy idea starts to emerge: Did a man manipulate a vulnerable and deeply troubled youth into becoming  a killing team of random people for no other reason than that he was mad about the custody ruling against him?

The backstories don't matter when it comes to apprehending, prosecuting and punishing violent criminals, and the movie impressively doesn't turn Muhammad and Malvo's arrest into some hyped-up drama with dozens of cop cars and SWAT teams. It told the story as it happened – an almost happenstance discovery of the murderous duo. It's not that we need to cut murderers slack when they go on a shooting spree. Lots of people have bad childhoods and don't end up pointing a gun out of a hole in a blue sedan and shooting at whomever looks unluckily calm at the scene. But if we don't spend more time figuring out how social and mental health triggers end up enabling a deadly trigger, when will it stop?

Washington notes that the sniper terror is almost forgotten, given the litany of gun tragedies that have occurred since then. Aurora, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and now Navy Yard. Muhammad's life, which ended in 2009 when he was executed by lethal injection, was all about violence. And until we figure out a way to interrupt that chain, the Navy Yard will continue.

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