Thoughts on the Tragedy in Newtown

It is totally unfathomable that a man would kill his mother, several teachers, and 20 young children. I don’t think any of us can imagine either what was happening inside his head at the time, and few of us can understand what it is like to lose a child to violence. None of us want to. I think all of us want an end to senseless killings like these, but no one has any concrete answers.

There are certainly no shortage of opinions as to why it happened. For example, Mike Huckabee, a former candidate for President of the US and Brian Fischer, an influential Christian radio host, insist that more God is needed. We can easily set aside these as ridiculous and possibly harmful.

More difficult is the debate on gun control. Ezra Klein at the Washington Post takes a look at attitudes, violence, and gun ownership in what appears to be a reasonable look at some of the facts. There is no way to predict the effect of specific gun control policies on an individual incident such as this one, but it appears that overall there is somewhat of a relationship between levels of gun ownership and deadly violence.

More difficult yet, is the discussion of mental illness. It seems impossible to believe that anyone who is in complete possession of their faculties could commit such horrendous acts. However, blaming mental illness for this is totally non-productive and only serves to increase the stigma associated with mental illness. A perfect example of this is Lisa Long’s open letter “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” that has been circulating. In this article, the author discusses her 13 year old mentally ill son and makes a completely unfounded connection between his illness and these and other shootings. I can only sympathize with her struggles with her son’s mental health and the overloaded health system. However, she is totally wrong in linking her son to Adam Lanza.  Those who suffer from mental illness are much more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violent crime. Further stigmatizing and isolating the mentally ill can only increase the violence against them and provide absolutely no protection for society.

John Wihbey at Journalists Resource has a list of scholarly articles and professional articles on mass violence. Here is just one of the articles he links to.
Predicting the Risk of Future Dangerousness. Robert T. M. Phillips, MD, PhD, Virtual Mentor. June 2012, Volume 14, Number 6: 472-476.

Research, in fact, confirms the error in associating dangerousness with mental illness, showing that “the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses. The absolute risk of violence among the mentally ill as a group is still very small and…only a small proportion of the violence in our society can be attributed to persons who are mentally ill”. Violence is not a diagnosis nor is it a disease [9]. Potential to do harm is not a symptom or a sign of mental illness, rather it must be the central consideration when assessing future dangerousness.

In reality, no one can predict future dangerousness precisely and with absolute certainty. Assessments of future dangerousness therefore may be more accurately described as the identification of factors associated with potential dangerous behavior by a given individual.

We do need more support in our society for the mentally ill, but this has nothing to do with the discussion on mass murderers or violence. We need to stop speculation in the media about the thought processes of perpetrators by armchair psychiatrists who have never met the individual and have no expertise in the psychology of mass murderers. This is an area where we need to step away from lobbyists, political and media grandstanding, and playing to public fears and look at the solutions that research has to offer.

TV, movies, video games, mental illness, gun ownership, religion, bullying, all of these things are bandied about as causes, but all I can say is that there are no easy answers.  All I know for sure is that life is uncertain and can be extremely fragile.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on the Tragedy in Newtown

  1. lance says:

    Re: Ezra Klein’s 12 “facts” about guns etc:

    Lets start with #7 on Mr. Klein’s list:
    – “7. Gun ownership in the United States is declining overall.” One could also show Gallup reports that show “Self-Reported Gun Ownership in U.S. Is Highest Since 1993”

    Mr Klein’s point #8 refers to Harvard research that shows “More guns tend to mean more homicide.“
    A Yale legal scholar has done extensive empirical research that shows more guns leads to less crime.

    Mr Klein continues with point #9: “States with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.” But there are also studies that show “Murder Rates Remain Same in Tough Gun Law States”

    Mr Klein does not mention the crimes prevented and lives saved though gun ownership. Studies conducted by Dr. Gary Kleck of Florida State University’s School of Criminology found:

    – For every use of a gun to commit a crime, there are three-to-four cases of guns being used in self-defense of a crime.
    – Assault and robbery rates are lower when victims are armed with a gun.
    – A gun is used in self-defense to protect its owner from crime 2.5 million times per year, an average of once every 13 seconds.
    – Fifteen percent of the gun defenders interviewed believed someone would have died if they had not been armed. If true, that’s an average of one life saved due to firearm self-defense every 1.3 minutes.
    – In nearly 75% of the cases, the victim did not know his attackers. In nearly 50% of the cases, he faced at least two attackers and in nearly 25% of the cases, there were three or more attackers. A quarter of the incidents of self-defense occurred away from the home.

    • I see two issues here that may or may not be related. First there is the incidences of these mass killings. The articles that Wihbey links to, attempt to look at these, but since they are relatively uncommon, and many of the perpetrators die, it is impossible to look at their motivations directly, and the ability to predict who might be a mass or serial killer is non-existent.
      As far as overall levels of violence it is difficult to isolate the causes. The US is unusual in the western world in a number of ways, only one of which is gun ownership. The level of religiosity is higher and the disparity between the upper and lower classes is greater. They have the highest rate of incarceration in the world and the most expensive health care. There is a high percentage of Americans who see the world through red, white, and blue (or perhaps black and white) lenses.
      I mostly agree with you that increasing controls are not the answer.

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