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After Uvalde, Some Are Suggesting Conservation Corps Service As a Solution to Gun Violence

We need to address the cultures of isolation and poor mental health that turn men into killers. Could giving them purpose and community in nature be one part of the solution?

When 19 elementary school children are senselessly murdered by an 18-year-old with an AR-15 style rifle, it’s clear we’re experiencing a multifaceted crisis of culture. We’re living in a death cult where not even the lives of innocent children seem to have any value, and where politicians would prefer to turn their heads then intervene. 

The obvious first step would be to do something to address access to weapons that allow people to kill entire classrooms. But we also need to address the social ills that inspire people to carry out mass shootings at such a high rate, too. The solution, from some perspectives, might be mandatory service in the style of the 1933 Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal. 

While the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) wasn’t obligatory, it allowed for young men between the ages of 18 and 25 to enlist in work programs with free housing, food and a living stipend in exchange for their help in improving America’s public lands, forests and parks. When the CCC was first created, 25 percent of the total workforce was unemployed. According to the historical and alumni site CCC Legacy, the program brought crucially needed employment and housing to over three million young men during its nine-year existence, and is credited with boosting both the economy in the short term and creating a legacy of conservation. 

But today, some argue that participating in programs like these could reduce the sense of isolation and purposelessness that fuels violent mindsets in young American men. “The solution is a massive conservation corps,” reads today’s top post in r/RedScarePod, a subreddit devoted to the podcast Red Scare with 57,000 members. “You have a bunch of angry, aimless men who need guidance. We need to have these dudes chopping wood and planting trees… two years traveling around America, helping preserve her beauty and combat climate change.” 

In the U.S., we currently have programs like AmeriCorps, where people can exchange their labor in service of the environment, education, disaster relief and other fields for a living stipend, education assistance and debt relief. Similarly, JobCorps offers young people free career training, meals and a place to live. Both are government-funded, but their utilization is relatively small — AmeriCorps currently has 250,000 members, while JobCorps serves around 60,000 per year. Our military figures exceed these many times over, with just under 1.4 million active military personnel. 

What those like members of r/RedScarePod argue, however, is that programs such as AmeriCorps should become mandatory for people upon graduating high school, just as military service in countries like South Korea is required of grads. But rather than serve our country’s already bloated militaristic agenda, these programs could target other areas of need, such as national park maintenance and infrastructure. In turn, young people would, theoretically, be forced to get offline and develop a sense of community and purpose. 

It’s hard to know how effective this would be, as there aren’t many other countries with high rates of both civil service and gun ownership to compare the U.S. to. Regardless, as many in the Red Scare subreddit state, there’s still plenty of interest in such a development based on the success of AmeriCorps and others like it. “A close friend of mine walked out of the depressed gamer-to-incel pipeline via the youth conservation corps,” one wrote in the sub. 

To be fair, there’s also plenty of criticism of these programs, too. “I did conservation corps when I was 20, and it was basically slavery,” another argued. “They’d have us working 12-hour days in brutal sun, no pay, just a $200/month living stipend plus food stamps. I got a UTI and felt super sick for a few days and they made me keep working. Most of you would not love it.” Many would argue, though, that this is better than our current approach to gun violence, which is nothing at all. 

While the concept of mandatory service in any form might seem improbable, there is some potential for the revitalization of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Last year, President Biden called for $10 billion toward a revitalized CCC as part of his American Jobs Plan. New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey have made similar proposals, but so far, no measures have been passed. There is hope, however, that such programs could be presented as an alternative to military service, particularly among those who may feel other educational and job opportunities are unattainable. 

Again, is it the solution to our nation’s gun violence? Not entirely, and it’s not like any politicians are discussing it in this context, anyway. But the fact that people are dreaming of mandatory corps-based work shows the extremity of the measures many believe we need to take. We need gun control, but we also need a way of overhauling the culture and conditions that produce the type of young men who commit shootings, too. 

Maybe a revitalized Civilian Conservation Corps could help — at least we’d be doing something.