This Friday morning, 28 people were murdered in Newtown, Connecticut. The news reports say that a 20-year-old man first killed his mother, who he lived with, then went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 people. Six of them were adults, twenty of them were children. All of the children murdered were between 6 and 7 years old.
To me, at least, it did not feel like a surprise anymore.
The pundits came out with their usual soundbites. The conservative Christians said we need more prayer in schools. The gun-control advocates said we need less guns around. The gun-rights advocates said we need more. The rest slapped an after-the-fact mental illness diagnosis on the shooter and said we need to lock more people up who are diagnosed with same.
The president gave a tearful speech, as expected.
None of this feels new anymore. There’s been too many of these widely publicized mass shootings in the past decade or so. None of the soundbites offered feels like a real solution.
Changing gun policy? Probably won’t effect much: criminologist Grant Duwe, who’s written an extensively researched history of mass murder in the U.S., has found that right-to-carry concealed firearms laws did not have a significant impact on the incidence of mass public shootings, and that the U.S. mass murder rate doesn’t seem correlated with the availability of automatic weapons. Also probably not going to happen, as historically opinions on gun control in the U.S. have not changed after mass shootings and are fairly evenly split:
Going after mental illness, whether in the form of better access to treatment for those who want it, screenings to catch out and diagnose those with problems, or an outright policy of forced long-term institutionalization for the diagnosed? Going after the wrong problem: those who’ve actually studied the question find that schizophrenia isn’t a good predictor for violence–but substance abuse is. As Clinical psychologist and writer Vaughan Bell put it in the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords rally shooting in Tucson, “it’s likely that some of the people in your local bar are at greater risk of committing murder than your average person with mental illness.” Also, focusing on mental illness is essentially a witch-hunt on the innocent: better access to treatment for those seeking it would certainly help people, but treating people who act weird or hallucinate or are depressed as ticking time bombs will inevitably lead to tons of false alarms, to many people being locked up when they’ve harmed no one, and to an increase in stigma against those suffering from mental problems that will further discourage people from seeking help.
I’ve compiled some reading for those who want to think seriously about mass murder, and what, if anything, can be done to stop it.
The first thing to understand is that it’s a rare event. As Grant Duwe puts it, your chances of dying in a mass shooting are “probably no greater than being struck by lightning.” In “A Circle of Distortion: The Social Construction of Mass Murder in the United States”, he examines the media hysteria around mass shootings and how it has influenced public policy.
Duwe’s analysis of FBI homicide records and newspaper accounts has found two waves of mass murders in the 20th century, one in the 1920’s and 30’s (peaking in 1929), the other from 1966-1999. The more peaceful period between 1940-1965 also had lower crime rates in general. This review of his book on mass murder provides a good overview.
Can mass murder be prevented by making it harder to get guns? This article, written in the aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting, looks at the data and concludes no.
When trying to understand the motivations behind mass murders, looking for “mental illness” is not helpful, for reasons mentioned above. But looking at the whole life histories of the murderers, and the wider social context in which they commit these crimes, may bear more fruit. In “Inside the Minds of Mass Killers”, and “Jared Loughner Has a Violence Problem, Not a Mental Health Problem”, Daniel Lende tries to do this.
This “research roundup” from journalistsresource.org has tons of info on the relationship between firearm ownership and homicide rates, the history of gun control, the social science research into the causes of mass murders, the question of whether mass murders can be predicted, and more. Well worth a read.
I’ll close on a hopeful note: there are things we can do to reduce violence in our society. They involve talking to people, helping them without labeling them, giving them economic opportunities and mentoring from people who understand. Here are two programs that have achieved significant results:
The Violence Intervention Program provides victims of violence access to services like substance abuse rehabilitation, job training and G.E.D. tutoring, as well as consistent social support from the intervention team. It has resulted in an 83 percent decrease among participants in repeat hospitalizations for violent injuries, a 75 percent reduction in criminal activity and an 82 percent increase in employment.
Cure Violence (formerly known as CeaseFire) employs Violence Interrupters, people who are from the neighborhood and have first-hand experience of the violent “street life”. They go looking for potentially lethal situations, then step in and de-escalate them. Outreach workers mentor people in the neighborhood and connect them to services to improve their lives, like job training and drug abuse counseling.
Both of these are part of the National Network of Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Programs.