What Really Causes Mass Shootings

Why we can and should enact laws regulating possession of guns and ammunition

I can't remember crying while watching a news story the way I did while looking
at the photos of those beautiful children at Newtown -- not even during the grisly images of the Twin Towers massacre on 9/11   And, to a certain extent, grief has stayed with me as though, somehow, those children were part of my family.  One of my daughters is a teacher, and I know she'd be one to try to protect her little students.  I know it.  The slaughter at Newtown has gotten into my soul, and I know I'll never get over it.  I can't imagine the blackness of the world in which their parents much be living.

I even felt grief for Adam Lanza.  The demons that drove him to shoot his own mother, those children and then himself must have been ghastly.  I don't even want to try to imagine what was going on in his head.  But you know, nobody could have predicted that on that day at that time he was going to grab his mother's gun (WHY was that accessible to him?) and commit mayhem.  As a Clinical Psychologist who worked seven years on an admitting ward at St.  Elizabeths Hospital, I can tell you that that kind of violence is unpredictable.  Unpredictable.

Oh, we can talk about risk factors and do risk assessments and score tests, and I have.  But we can only use those tests to classify someone as a member of a group who could conceivably become homicidal or suicidal.  We cannot predict the time or place or manner of the violent behavior in that person's case.  And some mass shooters don't even fall into any of the categories one would think predictive of such behavior (you know, drug users, binge drinkers, people with serious mental illness).

Identifying violence-prone adolescent males is even harder because many of them go through a period of monosyllabic social withdrawal. For the general public, there's no screening tool for violence and nobody expects that there ever will be.  We really are pretty helpless. 

But as I looked at the photographs of those sweet-looking children whose parents had probably already hidden away their Christmas presents, I screamed at the television set and then at my husband. "THIS CANNOT STAND!  We have to do something! " I think I even scared our dog.

And talking about better mental health with more nuanced privacy restrictions so teachers can talk to parents who can talk to the police would be a very good thing.  But really?  The mental health conversation can also be used as a big distraction.  It is being used, in certain quarters, as a big distraction...a substitute for what would really help.

It's the guns, Stupid! I yell at the television a lot. Did you know that while Adam Lanza was shooting those children, a man with a knife was running amok in a Japanese school?  He hurt some people...maybe about 20.  But because there are no guns allowed in Japan, people were hurt, but not killed.  It's the guns.  It's the guns.  If it hadn't been for the availability of that nightmarish- sounding weapon of mass destruction, maybe Adam would  have had to use a knife or a scissors or a bat or a rolling pin.  Maybe he'd have just beat his mother. Awful!  Scary! But the number of deaths could have been zero.  "It's the guns, Stupid!" just keeps
running through my mind. 

As Adam Gopnik said when summarizing Franklin Zimring's findings[1]

"...the central insight of the modern study of criminal violence is that all crime ... is at some level opportunistic.  Building a low annoying wall against it is almost as effective as building a high impenetrable one...Those who hold themselves together enough to be capable of killing anyone are subject to the same rules of opportunity as sane people.  Even madmen need opportunities to display their madness and behave in different ways depending on the possibilities at hand."[2]

Okay. I am not arguing here against the Second Amendment.  With America's history, that would be like spitting in the ocean to make it less saline.  In fact, I earned a sharpshooters medal in high school with an M-1 rifle (we had a shooting range in our high school).  That's fine with me.  We don't need to get rid of the Second Amendment. 

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion in the landmark decision that essentially stripped the "well-regulated militia" clause from the second amendment. That decision made possession of guns an individual right. But in that decision Scalia said,

"...nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."[3]

So it's constitutional for the for the federal government to pass some regulations. I'd like the NRA to back down a little. I'd like straw-purchasers of guns to go to jail.  I'd like the people who are coming to Virginia to buy the guns that they are shipping to terrorists to go to jail.  I want it harder for just anybody to own a weapon of mass destruction!  Because it's the guns!

[1] Zimring, Franklin, The City That Became Safe. Nw York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control, Oxford Press. 2012. isbn 978-0-19-984442-5


[3] District of Columbia v Heller


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Kathy Keith February 04, 2013 at 01:21 PM
I'm no gun lover--however, I think if you check the stats you will find far more children are killed by drunk drivers and alcohol related abuse than guns. So, shall we ban alcohol? Oh, wait, I think we already tried that. Didn't work and led to lots more crime. Alcohol during prohibition was in the hands of the criminals. Don't you think the same thing would happen with guns???
DGeorge February 04, 2013 at 02:28 PM
Sally, your appeal for the enforcement of our gun laws puts you on the same page as the NRA. The NRA has been advocating for enforcement for years. It is the liberal court system that refuses. For example, in DC a young man was caught with an illegal firearm. The court gave him probation and he walked out of the courtroom. Six months later, while in the act of stealing a car he shot and killed a policeman. The same thing is happening in Chicago. If you get caught with an illegal firearm you should go to prison for a long, long time. Straw buyers you say? How about Eric Holder of our justice department. He and his ATF have been the biggest offenders of that law by far. Read about the Fast and Furious program. By the way, what high school did you go to that had a shooting range capable of safely containing a 7.62 caliber M-1 round? I don't believe there are many indoor ranges with that capability, you certainly cannot fire M-1s at the NRA indoor range.
Mike Jewell February 04, 2013 at 03:06 PM
We have been much tougher on drunk drivers and are reducing those deaths.. But your logic seems to be that we have to have a huge supply of weapons easily accessible and not try to reduce that supply because Prohibition didn't work. Or maybe just abolish jails because of the high rate of repeat offenders?
Mike Jewell February 04, 2013 at 03:09 PM
You've got it Sally. Reduce the supply but also reduce do universal background checks for sure
Skip Endale February 04, 2013 at 03:26 PM
the promoters and speculators of doom and gloom will experience their minsky moment in the near future as the self protection racket and related defense bubble has a good chance of bursting. don't be caught holding the bag
Dave February 05, 2013 at 04:00 AM
A psychologist telling us guns are the problem?! That's the scary thing... Not the people hearing voices in their head, not the depressed suicidal people, but inanimate objects that require a person behind them to pull the trigger?! Makes sense. So someone willing to pull a trigger dozens of times on innocent children isn't scary, but the fact that guns exist is? None of the gun laws proposed would have prevented the sandy hook massacre, but lets continue forcing people who abide by existing laws go through more hoops while crazy people and thugs continue killing people. What happens next when someone walks into a populous place with a couple revolvers and speed loaders, or someone with a "hunting" rifle or shotgun mows down innocent people, are we going to outlaw those weapons with more "common sense" laws? Too bad "common sense" doesn't exist anymore...
Java Master February 05, 2013 at 04:29 AM
The Supreme Court decison in the Heller case did not "strip " the well-regulated militia clause from the 2nd amendment, but interpreted the language of the amendment as being sufficiently broad to include both a "collective" right to bear arms under the militia clause, ,as well as an " individual" right to own firearms. This was a correct conclusion, after sweating every word, phrase and comma of the amendment's awkward language. But the Court reminds us that even constitutional rights and privileges are not absolute, and reasonable regulation of 2nd amendright rights is permissable. This will be the subject of court cases for years to come, as a variety of future local, state and federal laws and regulations to this end are tested in the courts.
DGeorge February 05, 2013 at 11:19 AM
And again Java. Lets try and enforce the laws that are already on the books and see how that works.
Java Master February 05, 2013 at 06:53 PM
Fine, that's not enuff, DGeorge, it's past time to try fresh approaches. That is why I put my faith in the legislative process and the courts, and not in the NRA or the radical 2nd amendment lobbyists and big mouths.
Mike Jewell February 05, 2013 at 07:21 PM
Everything that happened in Newtown was legal. We will never eliminate bad judgement or intended criminal behavior. As Sally points out we cannot know when an odd child or abnormal personality becomes a mass killer. So reduce the supply and accessibility of weapons so the wrong people are less likely to get them. Start with universal registration and a ban on weapons that only the armed forces and law enforcement should possess. We moved heaven and earth to prevent another 9/11 where 3000 people were killed but nothing but lift a ban on AK-47s as more than 270,000 in the US been killed by gunfire since.
DGeorge February 05, 2013 at 08:18 PM
Java says," Fine, that's not enuff, DGeorge,..." How do you know? The laws have not been enforced. Since 9/11 you say 270,000 people have been killed. Also since 9/11 27.5 million people have defended themselves against violent crime using a firearm. If you do not like that number then use the number the anti-gun people came up with and you have 16.5 million people defending themselves against violent crime using a firearm in that same period. See whats happening in happy gun free Great Briton
DGeorge February 05, 2013 at 08:20 PM
DGeorge February 06, 2013 at 02:25 AM
And no-one wants to comment on those statistics?
Dave February 06, 2013 at 03:48 AM
Facts and statistics aren't convenient for their argument. I earlier made the argument that rifles ( ALL rifles, not just assault rifles) were responsible for less deaths than clubs, bats, tire irons, fists etc. and that the function of assault rifles, were no different than several hunting rifles, and a response to my comment included something along the lines of "no one wants to take away gun rights for hunters and target shooters" and in the same breath, although maybe in jest, also said in essence "your arguments have convinced me that we need to ban and confiscate all guns". True colors shown? I replied to that comment, but not a peep back....
Mike Jewell February 08, 2013 at 10:18 PM
The UK is 13th in homocides. I would trade places with that any day. The subject is mass killings. Violence varies from a slap in the face to murder by any means
Mike Jewell February 08, 2013 at 10:23 PM
Of course "all other forms" of murder exceed those committed with guns. Everyone doesn't carry a gun. The issue is how many fewer deaths would there be if the supply wasn't so large, so unregulated and so easy to access
John February 09, 2013 at 05:28 PM
More innocent children are killed by abortion than guns. Care to comment?


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