On Friday, the National Rifle Association, a special interest group of 4 million members, released a statement about the Sandy Hook tragedy that occurred a week earlier. In that tragedy, 20 children were murdered by 20-year-old Adam Lanza. Few details have been officially released yet about Lanza’s life, because he had few friends, was shy, and apparently was socially awkward.
However, that hasn’t stopped the news media from focusing on some statements of relatives who believe Lanza either had a “personality disorder” (says his brother), “was autistic” (again, his brother), or had Asperger’s syndrome (told by an unidentified member of the family).
This second-hand information is then held up by both the news media and now by the National Rifle Association as evidence that Adam Lanza must’ve been “crazy” or “insane” to have killed 20 innocent children, and six adults who tried to protect them.
After all, who would do such a thing but someone who’s crazy?
Without evidence, it is premature to suggest Adam Lanza, an honors student who kept to himself, had murderous thoughts that could’ve been somehow magically detected by the authorities beforehand. As this AP article notes, we have no reliable methods for detecting violent behavior before it occurs:
But warning signs “only become crystal clear in the aftermath, said James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminology professor who has studied and written about mass killings.
“They’re yellow flags. They only become red flags once the blood is spilled,” he said.
But after the article lists a number of these “warning flags,” the author fails to note the most important point — the vast majority of people (greater than 99 percent) who have one or more of these warning signs doesn’t commit murder, much less an atrocity of this proportion.
We don’t know what tips the balance in a criminal’s mind — where they go from hurting someone to killing them. We have a lot of theories, but theories don’t matter much when a person demonstrates quite clearly how easy it is to take a life.
The NRA’s Prescription
Sadly, the NRA’s prescription to stop these rare incidents from occurring are short-sighted, prejudiced, and discriminatory — more guns, a national blacklist of people who are mentally ill, and censoring Hollywood.
Wayne LaPierre suggests that what we need are not less guns, but more guns — every school should be equipped with armed security guards who could put an end to violence as soon as it begins (after children have already apparently been killed).
But we already know that doesn’t really work in the real world. Columbine had at least one armed security guard (and perhaps two) on campus that fateful day on April 20, 1999 when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher. The chances of a shooter being in proximity to one or two security guards roaming a large school building are probably less than 50/50. Meaning that while an armed guard might help contain the sheer amount of killing, it would do little to stop it.
Let’s Keep Track of the Crazies
LaPierre also says a national database on anyone who has a mental illness is needed:
The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn’t planning his attack on a school he’s already identified at this very moment? […]
A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation’s refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?
As we’ve shown time and time again, there is little relationship between mental illness and an increased risk of violence. The landmark 1998 study showed no significant relationship between mental illness and violence. The relationship can only be found when substance abuse enters the picture.
The link between Asperger’s or autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and violent behavior — much less a murder spree — is even weaker. As Mouridsen (2012) reported, “Currently, there is still no body of evidence to suppose that people with ASD are more prone to commit offences than anyone else.” Furthermore,
Insofar as people with [autism spectrum disorders] have offended, it has typically been connected with arson and sexual abuse. But due to lack of valid community based studies of offending relating to people with ASD, these findings must be interpreted with caution.
In other words, even where there exists a weak relationship, we must be cautious in over-interpreting its meaning given the methodological concerns noted. And the relationship doesn’t highlight a relationship with violent acts of murder — but rather with a slightly elevated risk for arson and sexual abuse.
Another problem, as I wrote about in October, is that we do a pretty horrible job of enforcing the laws already on the books. Do we really need more laws, or a database of discrimination, when we don’t use the tools we already have?
And if you single out people with a mental illness to suggest they are not responsible enough to own a gun, your law will have a predictable, inevitable side-effect — people will just stop talking to health or mental health professionals about their mental health concerns:
In fact, such laws may have a serious unintended, negative consequence, as Applebaum & Swanson (2010) note: “The laws may deter people from seeking treatment for fear of losing the right to possess firearms and may reinforce stereotypes of persons with mental illnesses as dangerous.”
It becomes clear that more guns will only have the potential to reduce the amount of carnage after-the-fact, and that a national database of people who have mental illness will have no measurable impact on these events. In fact, it will further discriminate against people with mental illness, likely leading to people reporting fewer symptoms that might “give them away.”
Blame Hollywood and Video Games
Last, LaPierre continues to play the blame game on everything but guns — suggesting that violent video games, TV and films are also the root cause of such incidents. In other words, it’s not the easy access to guns that lead to the death of 20 children — it’s Hollywood’s fault!
We know from the research this is unlikely to be true. A good summary of the findings of the research in this area are presented in Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do. In 2011, the US Supreme Court and the Australian Government described the current research into the effects of video game violence on human behavior as “non-compelling and fundamentally flawed.”
A 3-year longitudinal study of 165 youths meant to help fill the gaps in our knowledge of the relationship between video games and violent behavior was published earlier this year. It found that “exposure to video game violence was not related to any of the negative outcomes:”
Depression, antisocial personality traits, exposure to family violence and peer influences were the best predictors of aggression-related outcomes.
The current study supports a growing body of evidence pointing away from video game violence use as a predictor of youth aggression.
Yeah, so much for pointing the blame on video games.
The Answer: There is No Answer
Gun owners should be upset with the NRA and its latest anti-common sense and anti-science rhetoric. The NRA represents a tiny fraction of gun owners in the United States (just 4 million, out of 80 million gun owners — that’s just 5 percent). The NRA’s extremist, discriminatory views are increasingly out of step with most American gun owners’ views. And they are based not on the data or science, but on fear-mongering and prejudice.1
The real answer is something the news media, policy experts, and others don’t want to admit — it is nearly impossible to stop these rare acts of mass killings. No amount of laws, databases, or good intentions can stop someone who is dedicated to carrying out an act of violence. It’s like the TSA checking your shoes for the next possible bomb brought onto an airplane — nobody’s going to be hiding the next one in their shoes.
Does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course not. But it does mean we should be careful and measured in our approach to trying to stop this aberrant behavior. Extreme actions — such as creating a national database of the mentally ill — are not appropriate and would do nothing to stop something like this from happening in the future.
We must also separate out the discussion of mass killings from mental illness. Repeating myths and half-truths about a relationship — where the science tells us time and time again that no strong relationship exists — is detrimental to anyone who’s ever been diagnosed with a mental illness.
Appelbaum, P.S. & Swanson, J.W. (2010). Gun laws and mental illness: How sensible are the current restrictions? Psychiatric Services, 61, 652-654.
Ferguson, C.J., San Miguel, C., Garza, A., Jerabeck, J.M. (2012). A longitudinal test of video game violence influences on dating and aggression: A 3-year longitudinal study of adolescents. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 46, 141-146.
Mouridsen, S.E. (2012). Current status of research on autism spectrum disorders and offending. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6, 79-86.
- I should note that NRA’s angry rant on this topic includes zero references to research or science. [↩]