Saturday, December 15, 2012

Shootings In Context Part 1 - Focus, Guns, Mental Health, and Suicide

It's a time for us all to send our good thoughts to the families of the 27 killed in Connecticut Friday.   But what about to the families of the 88* people killed by firearms in the US every day?  Or the families of the 93 people killed in traffic crashes daily in the US?  Shouldn't they get our sympathy too?  Why are these 27 particularly deserving?


A large part of the credit goes to the media. From all that happens in a day, they decide what is newsworthy. One NPR newsman today said something like, "Americans are riveted to news about the shootings today."  Well, since NPR and other media outlets were spending most of the day focused on the killings,  if people left the radio or tv on, one had little choice.  But why don't the media focus with such concentration on the shooting and traffic deaths that occur every day?  The total dead from those causes on a daily basis is eight times greater than the total in Connecticut Friday.

27 or 28 in one location at one time is easier to cover.  But such coverage distorts our perception of how many people die in the United States of different causes.  We become fearful of things that statistically aren't likely to happen to us, and become casual about things that are more likely - like getting hurt or killed in a traffic accident or by guns we keep in our homes. 

If we focus only on firearm deaths, about 32,000 a year, can we reduce the number of such deaths?  We have several options.  I heard several newscasters talking today about characteristics of mass killers.  Is there a way to identify them before they go on the rampage?

Characteristics of a Mass Murderer

Dr. Tom O'Connor's (Assoc Prof, Criminal Justice/Homeland SecurityAustin Peay State University, Clarksville, TN)  website  offers a long paragraph of characteristics from which I've made this list:  
  • almost always male
  • is probably White, and is 
  • in his 20's or 30's.  [data I'll put up in another post soon doesn't quite support this]
  • He loves weapons, particularly guns, 
  • is a loner with no friends and few acquaintances
  • no criminal record or any lengthy history of mental treatment.  
  •  has festering "real or imagined grievances, frustrations, disappointments, and outrages done to him by others over a long period of time"
  • most . .  are psychotic and probably qualify for a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict.
  • motivation is often for no apparent reason at all, or sometimes for an apparent but perverse (often sexual) or private reason.  
  • usually not under the influence of any intoxicant during the episode.  They don't need to be under the influence because in their minds, their self is already dead (society has destroyed it).  
  • rarely know their victims, but their choice of victims is usually not random or coincidental (at least in their mind).  In their mind, the victims represent people they are envious of  
  • triggering event may be a loss of job, being spurned by a woman, or something similar (usually an economic or academic crisis of some sort).    

 Two Different Strategies To Reduce Mass Murders
  1. Watch out for potential mass murderers and prevent them from killing. 
  2. Focus on factors in society in general and reduce, overall, the factors that increase the likelihood that an individual is going to go out and kill.
The first strategy seems pretty hopeless.  There are so many people who will never go out and kill, but who share many of those characteristics.  Do we try to monitor them like TSA checks all airline passengers?  But many of the characteristics in individuals aren't apparent until after the fact.

The second strategy creates public infrastructures to minimize those factors that lead to mass murders.  This more like a public health strategy.  The classic public health examples of clean public water and sanitary sewage systems did more to improve health than any other health measures world wide. 

In this strategy we'd identify those factors that need to be reduced or increased.  Going through the list above there are some factors that we can't eliminate, like gender and race.

But there are other factors that should be on the table:
  • Mental health problems, particularly
    • Feelings of isolation, rejection, victimhood, humiliation
    • Inability to handle rejection at work, school, or from a woman
  • Love of guns
And let's remember that far more people (about 30,000 more) die from other firearm situations than mass murders.  
The Republicans, and many Democrats, have said that talking about guns is totally off the table.  While some who advocate gun-control are probably overly zealous in their cause, not allowing any discussion of guns and ways to limit them seems to say that these 30,000 people who die from firearms each year don't matter.  It's a far different approach from the zero death policy taken for airline passengers.

This was the kind of position the tobacco companies had concerning any control of cigarettes.  Imagine trying to limit tobacco in today's political world.  Smokers' rights would be a major plank of the Tea Party and the Koch brothers would be funding 'research institutes' that pumped out studies proving there was no connection between smoking and lung cancer.  Oh wait, I forgot.  That's what the tobacco companies did.   But they didn't have the talk shows and Fox News to push their lies.

The National Rifle Association website does give a sense of the money and power they have in this area, but the tobacco companies were that powerful once too.  Unstoppable power has a way of outliving its welcome.  We've seen that with the Soviet Union, with Gaddafi, and Mubarak.  The NRA's time will come too.

But in the mean time are there ways to cut firearms deaths that wouldn't affect legitimate gun users (people who don't shoot at people, except as a last resort self defense), but would cut down on firearms deaths?

Firearms Deaths, Suicide, and Mental Health

If we look at the statistics, a number of studies** show (among other things) that
  • about half the annual firearm deaths are suicides 
  • four times as many men as women commit suicide
  • a large percent of elderly men who commit suicide do so with firearms
  • people in homes with guns are four times more likely to be killed by guns
Many of these studies conclude that it is necessary to find ways to limit gun ownership.  That option might well decrease the number of firearm deaths and certainly should be pursued.  But given the current political opposition to gun control, I'd offer an alternative that focuses on mental health services, including suicide centers.    Those opposing gun control should be challenged to support the kinds of mental health improvement programs that would reduce both individual firearm deaths (by far the most common) as well as mass murder firearm deaths.

Suicide centers could offer the possibility of assisted suicides to those with painful terminal diseases that would allow people to avoid huge medical costs to keep them alive and to die with some level of comfort and dignity.  They would also assist those who are not terminally ill, but are depressed or have other mental health issues that temporarily make death seem a good option.  Ideally, most people going to those centers will find options other than suicide, but the centers would be available to all those considering suicide and offer support and assistance to get them past the immediate crisis.

General attention to mental health, to constructive, non-violent conflict resolution strategies, anti-bullying programs, and programs that help people understand those who appear unusual, even strange (including for those people themselves) should be developed in schools and workplaces.  Not only would this cut down suicides and firearm deaths, it would lead to greater mental health among the population in general.  But that's only a stopgap measure.  I would argue that most mental health problems are due to people living in a system whose emphasis on efficiency over decency is fundamentally hostile to human beings.  Again, this is a societal public health problem, not an individual misfit problem.

This has gone on in a direction I hadn't anticipated when I started.  Much of the data I was going to present seems somewhat irrelevant to this line of reasoning,  so I'll stop here and offer more in a later post.

Here's the link to Part 2:  Shootings In Context Part 2: What Can We Learn From The Last 61 Shootings?

*Number comes from the Firearm and Injury Center at Penn Resource Book 2003 figure of an average of 32,470 traffic deaths per year, divided by 365. 

** 2003 Resource Book Updated
**The Epidemiology of Firearm Suicide in the United States
**American Society for Suicide Prevention
**Surveillance for Violent Deaths — National Violent Death Reporting System, 16 States, 2009
**NRA Violence Policy Center


  1. Young white males without options or hope . . . . thanks, Steve.

  2. I think it’s worth noting two bookends to the mental health/firearms debate here in our neck of the woods:

    "The Court of Appeals ruled in November that the Alaska law on concealed deadly weapons did not allow general concerns about mental illness to play a role in issuing permits."

    “Alaska is among half the states not complying with a post-Virginia Tech law that requires them to share the names of mentally ill people with the national background-check system to prevent them from buying guns, an Associated Press review has found.”

    Another link that I’ve stumbled across today has an alternative perspective from Roger Ebert from 2003:
    “In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of "explaining" them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.”

    Thanks for broaching the subject here, and starting a discussion – it needs to be talked about, even though it seems that there are more and more questions and no easy answers. There’s a lot of anger, fear and pain - and apathy - around this issue.
    One of the most effective and immediate ways to start change is the simple act of connecting with folks, looking out for them, and letting them know you care. I’m trying to reach out and let more people know that they aren’t alone and always have someone to who will listen. That’s particularly important around this time of the year up here.

  3. Alaska ranks in the bottom on this interactive map.


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