Another dark day in America, one of 62 similar days in the last 30 years according to statistics compiled by Mother Jones. Despite the shootings having occurred in a state with some of the more restrictive gun laws in America, the acts of a single deranged white male has again brought the nation to its knees in sorrow, along with renewed calls for stricter gun controls.
Adam Lanza, an introverted 20-year-old, woke up the morning of December 14, 2012, killed his mother, and drove to the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Approximately 15 minutes after shooting his way into the locked building, Lanza killed himself with a single shot to the head. In less than one-quarter of an hour, Lanza massacred 20 first grade boys and girls and six of the school’s teachers and staff. The day after the shooting, Lanza’s distraught father released a statement including, “We are in a state of disbelief and trying to find whatever answers we can. We too are asking why.”
One of the worst massacres, however, did not involve guns, but explosives. In 1927, Andrew Kehoe, a disgruntled former school board member, murdered his wife and exploded a bomb of dynamite and pyrotol in the basements of the Bath Consolidated School District in Tecumseh, Michigan. After the school explosion, Kehoe drove his dynamite-laden Ford pickup filled with “burs, bolts, scrap iron, drag teeth, and rifle shells” to the site, fired his rifle into the dynamite, and set off a second explosion to kill and maim rescuers and citizens who had gathered at the scene. The 45 killed and 58 injured were mostly children in the second to sixth grades. Kehoe’s apparent motive was revenge for his failure to be elected as the Bath Township Clerk.
On August 1, 1966, a 25 year-old former Marine climbed the steps of the famed University of Texas Tower in Austin, Texas and began shooting. In an hour and a half, Charles Joseph Whitman killed 13 people including an unborn child and wounded 38 others. He had previously stabbed his wife and mother to death the same day. An autopsy of Whitman revealed an undiagnosed large, aggressive brain tumor.
In the past 40 years, the names of Harris and Klebold at Columbine and Patrick Purdy at the Cleveland Elementary School, now joined by Adam Peter Lanza at Newtown, have become familiar to parents across the United States fearful that their children might find themselves in a similar deadly situation.
Unfortunately, more restrictions may not deter crime, as more than three-quarters of the weapons used in the killings were legally obtained. In the Newtown incident, the weapons were legally owned by the shooter’s mother, who was also a victim.
Gun Ownership in America
The latest ownership statistics indicate that Americans have more guns than any other country in the world, one for every man, woman, and child. According to the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action 2013 Fact Card, there are almost 300 million privately owned guns in the country, including 100 million handguns.
While gun ownership by individuals has declined during the past 30 years, more than 4 of every 10 American households continues to have a gun, and those who have firearms generally own two or more. It is a fact that the vast majority of these guns are used only for hunting, locked up in gun safes, or hidden away in drawers and on the upper shelves of closets where they can be reached in the event of a home invasion (a rare event). The number of guns already in the populace effectively eliminates any possibility of a gun-free America despite the hopes of anti-gun lobbyists.
Laws to allow a person to either conceal or openly carry a firearm have neither resulted in public shootouts nor reduced crime or gun deaths. Few licensed owners commit crimes, and few find themselves in a situation where they have to defend themselves. The most visible impact of less restrictive gun laws are an escalation in the political and public positions between pro- and anti-gun advocates.
Why Mass Shooting May Continue or Increase
Mass murder events are typically carried out by a “pseudo-commando” who kills in public during the daytime, plans his offense well in advance, and comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons. He has no escape planned and expects to be killed during the incident. Many criminologists and psychiatrists believe mass killing events are likely to continue, if not increase, in the future due to the following:
1. Access to Guns With Huge Killing Capacity
Practically speaking, Americans can purchase and own almost any type of firearm, depending upon their state of residence, occupation (purchase of some weapons like machine guns, cannons, and short-barreled rifles and shotguns are limited to federal firearm licensees), age, and personal status (such as mental health and criminal background). At the same time, instructions and kits to convert semiautomatic guns to automatic fire, as well as high-capacity ammunition magazines, are readily available to a persistent buyer. And virtually anyone can buy a gun from a private seller.
2. Ineffectiveness of Poorly Funded Mental Health Programs
The common features in a profile of mass murderers (depression, resentment, social isolation, tendency to blame others for their misfortunes, a fascination with violence, and interest in weaponry) are fairly common in the total population, which suggests a need for greater study to better identify potential mass murderers. Unfortunately, since 2009, the economic recession has led to a reduction in state public mental health spending of more than $4 billion, a trend that is expected to continue for years, even though the number of persons receiving treatment increased by almost 10% during the same period.
3. Stresses of a Declining Economy
Some believe that economic stress – working longer hours for less pay while living costs continue to rise – leads to more depression, isolation, feelings of persecution, and rage, particularly for young white men, a group which historically had enjoyed a privileged entitlement.
4. Possible Connection to Media Violence
According to a 2003 University of California study financed by the major TV networks, more than two-thirds of network and cable television shows have one or more violent events, averaging six acts per hour. A study in 2010 by the University of California at Riverside stated that by the age of 18, an average child has witnessed 200,000 acts of violence, including 16,000 murders. According to a study in the Psychological Bulletin, “the evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect and for decreased empathy and prosocial behavior.” Isolation and focus on video games or television can be a reinforcing defense mechanism, masking or hiding the need for intervention and treatment.
There is no question that the easy access to guns contributes to the death toll, but it’s not accurate to suggest that random mass killings would be eliminated if there were no guns. Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people in Oklahoma City using a fertilizer bomb on April 19, 1995; Andrew Kehoe’s weapon of choice was also explosives, not guns.
Practical Remedies to Reduce Mass Killings
Understanding that there is no perfect solution, there are several legal and political changes that could be instituted and would be approved by most Americans. According to a CNN/ORC poll taken in August of 2012, more than one-half of Americans believe in background checks, no guns for felons or the mentally ill, gun registration, and the banning of high-capacity clips and semi-automatics.
Accordingly, these changes should be implemented:
- Standardize and Enforce Gun Ownership Laws Across the Country. Some states require a permit to purchase a gun, while others do not. Some restrict assault weapon (with varying definitions) sales while others do not. The law should be the same in each state to facilitate enforcement while protecting the rights of citizens who legally have guns to move unrestricted across state lines.
- Fund the Federal Government Program to Perform 100% Background Checks. No felon, known drug user, adjudicated “mentally defective” person, illegal immigrant, or person convicted of domestic violence should be permitted to buy or carry a gun.
- Require Private Sellers to Run Background Checks on Potential Purchasers. Federally licensed gun dealers do so now; unlicensed dealers – the guy you met at the local gun show – don’t have to do anything. The fine for selling without running a background check should be extremely penal.
- Ban the Sale of Semiautomatic Weapons and Magazines Holding More Than 10 Bullets (Excluding Licensed Law Enforcement Officers). If we can identify a potential killer, we should at least make it harder for him or her to get a weapon. As Daniel Nagin, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, said, “It’s technologically impossible to kill a lot of people very quickly without access to these assault weapons.” Extra “firepower” is not needed in a hunting situation and a competently trained gun owner is unlikely to be involved in a running gun battle.
- Harden Potential Scenes of Mass Murders With Restricted Access and Better Security Measures. This includes schools, malls, large employers, and office buildings. School doors, for example, should be of steel and only open from the inside. Panic buttons should be located throughout the facility. Children are our future and our most precious assets – we need to protect them at all costs.
- Equalize the Physical and Mental Health Programs of the Country. We treat people when they are physically sick or injured, but neglect those with mental problems. It is particularly important to institute strong programs in the schools so that kids a greater risk of turning into mass murderers (loners, the bullied, bullies, and outcasts) will receive early help. Teachers and school administrators should receive special training to assist with the identification of disaffected and isolated individuals who need help.
- Tax Television, Movie, and Video Game Producers for Depiction of Violent Content. The Greatest Generation didn’t miss seeing guts and gore when they were young. Having no standards at all, except profits, is insane.
While the likelihood of any individual being involved in a gun incident is extremely remote, a single event – whether the magnitude of a Newtown or the story of a neighbor’s cousin’s cousin – triggers our palpable fear of becoming a victim. Furthermore, America will never be without guns; they are in the nation’s DNA, fed by the Western myth and our conviction that a gun makes all men equal. Gun ownership is considered a constitutional right by many.
A public uproar follows every massacre with strong words, pledges to change, and consolation for the victims. Yet nothing changes. Have we grown so callous that we accept events like Newtown over and over in the belief it can’t happen to us or anyone we know? None of our children are truly safe. The time to act is now.
What do you think? Are there commonsense changes we could agree upon to improve the safety of our kids?