Curbing gun violence: If not now, when?

At the end of my interview yesterday with forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner, I noted that we’d had a similar discussion just five months ago, after Aurora, when I was writing a piece on the causes of mass shootings. I hated having to write another version of that same story, this time about Newtown. Dr. Welner said, “The sad thing is, you’re gonna write it again.” Meaning this is likely to keep happening.

The president said last night at the prayer vigil in Newtown:

“This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?”

A moment later he said: “Since I’ve been president, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings, fourth time we’ve hugged survivors, the fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”

This is a gun issue and a mental health issue and a culture-of-violence issue all rolled into one. No one thinks there’s a magic wand to stop the carnage, but such mass shootings are not an inevitable part of our society. I don’t know how this will play out and whether it will become more of a story about mental illness or more of a story about gun laws. We don’t know very much about the shooter. We’ll know more in the days ahead.

Support for tighter gun control has waned the last two decades, but I have to think this tragedy will make a lot of people look hard at ways to reduce the lethality of mass shootings, if possible. If not now, when? What would it take? In a matter of minutes the guy killed six adults and 20 first-graders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The killer used a military-style rifle to fire hundreds of bullets from 30-round magazines. The hospitals mobilized to care for an influx of wounded people, but the influx never materialized, because the attack was so lethal.

Bill Bennett said yesterday that maybe one person in each school should be armed. Really? That’s going to help? We need MORE guns in schools? (BTW, there was an amazing story from the school nurse on 60 Minutes: During the attack she hid in a closet and didn’t emerge for nearly 4 hours. By that point it had long since been a national news story, and SWAT team members supposedly had combed every nook and cranny of the school. She finally came out, much to the surprise of the state police.)

Here’s a link to my story from Friday.

And here’s the story in today’s paper, headlined “Anguished Search for an Explanation.

 Excerpt:

Slowly, amid rumor and misinformation, a picture of the killer is emerging, and it is dismayingly familiar. Adam Lanza was yet another young, withdrawn, middle-class male who for some unimaginable reason graduated from his adolescence as a mass murderer.

What happened Friday in Newtown, Conn., was a variant on what the country has witnessed repeatedly in recent years. Once again, it was a pseudo-commando attack, as if the killer were playing a video game and racking up points for every victim. Once again, the crime appeared to be staged for maximum shock value. And once again — just as in Aurora, Colo., this past summer — there was the element of overkill, with multiple weapons, a military-style rifle and massive amounts of ammunition.

Lanza, 20, shot his mother, Nancy Lanza, at home, and then invaded Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he killed 20 first-graders and six adults, firing 30-round clips from a .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle before taking his own life. How many bullets? “Hundreds,” Connecticut State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance said Sunday.

Detectives recovered evidence at the Lanza home that might help explain the killer’s thinking, but authorities have not revealed what they found. For the moment, the Newtown massacre remains as inexplicable as it is horrifying. “We don’t have a specific reason,” Vance said.

The location and lethality of the Newtown tragedy, and the preciousness of the victims, have turned the holiday season into a period of national soul-searching and calls for action to curb gun violence. Newtown dominated the Sunday talk shows. President Obama flew to Connecticut to join the mourning, and people nationwide revisited with new urgency the complex issues of gun laws, mental illness and access to mental health care.

The Newtown discussion necessarily sweeps in the news media, which give the killers a notoriety they couldn’t have achieved legitimately. The discussion touches on Hollywood, which markets spectacular make-believe violence. Also implicated: The computer gaming industry, which profits from ultra-realistic shooting games that are bloodier than ever.

“I point the finger unreservedly at the entertainment industry, which has spawned and cultivated gaming that by design is increasingly real, geared to action as the shooter’s point of view, increasingly dehumanizes victims, and increasingly rewards players by how many they kill,” said Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and chairman of the Forensic Panel, who works on more than 20 homicide cases a year.

Although the profile of the mass shooter is often a familiar one, that is true only after the fact — when it’s too late. And the overwhelming majority of young men who play violent video games and are social misfits do not commit any crimes at all, much less shoot up a grade school.

How does society tell the truly dangerous ones from the ones who are just a little weird?

“We’re not even good at predicting minor violence. When you’re talking about preventing a mass shooting, that’s a needle in a haystack,” said Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. “You can’t just go out and lock up all the socially awkward young men in the world.”

[Click here for take 2 of story]

 

 

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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Joel Achenbach · December 14, 2012