So who is James Holmes and why did he do what he did? Is he a lone wolf psycho or a lone psychopath who calculatingly planned a surprise attack on unsuspecting moviegoers; who wired his apartment with high explosives yet alerted police to their presence; who reportedly sent a complete description of his plan to the psychiatrist who was presumably treating him; who planned to survive the attack and did?
Aurora, Colorado is a special place for me. A suburb of Denver situated on that City’s southeastern flank, Aurora is the home of my Colorado relatives. My sister and her husband, who just recently moved into Denver proper, raised their three kids there, my two nephews and my niece. My niece and her husband are raising their kids there now. The younger of my two nephews also lives there, while the older guy now lives in Denver, close by to his Mom and Dad. I was just there with my wife for a family reunion last May.
The day after the Aurora shootings, when I called folks to make sure they were O.K., I was told that my younger nephew, who’s a police officer in Castle Rock, another Denver suburb just south of Aurora, had been pinned down by gunfire a week or so earlier and had narrowly escaped being shot. The shooter was, by my nephew’s description, a white supremacist and convicted felon armed with an AK-47 and night-vision goggles. He was later apprehended by the Castle Rock S.W.A.T. team and charged with multiple counts of attempted murder. It was my niece, the font of family information, who told me that my nephew had subsequently been invited by a friend to attend the July 20 midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” but had declined and gone instead to his gym. Two or more bullets dodged in less than two weeks.
Aurora, indeed Colorado, has an unhappy history. In 1993, Nathan Dunlap killed four former co-workers at a Chuck E Cheese restaurant in Aurora after he had been fired. In 1999, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, students at Columbine high school, killed twelve fellow students and one teacher, shot and wounded twenty-one others and then killed themselves. Littleton, where Columbine is located, is less than twenty miles away from Aurora. On July 20, 2012, James Holmes shot seventy persons in the Aurora multiplex, killing twelve of them. When I asked family members, particularly my younger nephew and his Dad, my brother-in-law, also a police officer, who has been on the Denver police force for over twenty years, about the impact of the Aurora shootings on family members and on the general public, they offered little. Police officers are naturally circumspect. I suspect they have to compartmentalize their work and the often violent and traumatizing events they witness and separate them from their private lives. I had expected the chain of events I enumerated above to have had a cumulative impact on them, given their proximity, and for my nephew and brother-in-law to have developed a unique perspective. Actually, they were as self-protective as everybody else I spoke to, and whatever they might have known, they were reluctant to plumb deep and talk about it. More on this further down.
My nephew, understandably, was focused on his own narrow escape from harm at the hands of the white supremacist. He shared that he was experiencing some post-trauma effects, but he’s young, smart and resilient, with lots of emotional support – he’s got a loving family and a caring girlfriend – and I expect him to be fine. Nonetheless, I still worry … two near misses in less than two weeks.
Which gets me back to James Holmes. I know of one sympathetic remark made about him. The New York Times July 31st edition quoted the great-aunt of the six-year old girl whom he had killed: “Here was a brilliant person that could’ve done a lot of good. What went wrong?” The media pundits have fretted over this one, as they do whenever an incident such as this occurs. The usual consensus is that Holmes, similar to previous mass murderers, is a crazy loner who snapped under some still unknown stress. To be sure, mass murderers have a tenuous grasp on reality, but they’re not all of a type. Two Northeastern University criminologists, James Fox and Jack Levin, have compiled a data base of all mass murders that have occurred in this country since the early 1980’s. They’ve divided the mass murderers themselves into three broad categories or profiles. The first is comprised of older men – nearly all mass murderers are men – approaching middle age or middle aged, who bear a grudge against specific individuals and kill them in acts of revenge for perceived injustices. The Chuck E. Cheese shooter fits this profile, which, as per Fox and Levin, is the most typical of the three. Rarely is the person in this category psychotic, but rather angry and often paranoid.
The second profile is that of persons whose grievances are more generalized and whose need for revenge is directed against an identifiable class or group whose members are nonetheless anonymous. Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, apparently despised the students he shot, seeing them as privileged and self-indulgent. He apparently knew none of the persons he shot. Shooters who match this profile are often quite psychotic and delusional; many, like Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, are depressed and suicidal. Both he and his accomplice, Eric Thomas, as well as Cho, killed themselves as the endpoint to their killing sprees.
Holmes would probably fall into their third category. To quote Fox: “The perpetrator has a grudge against the world and feels that if it were not for the system, things would have gone better for him. He doesn’t care who he kills as long as he kills a lot of people.” About 16% of all mass murderers in Fox and Levin’s database fall into this category, i.e., persons who kill complete strangers with no distinguishing characteristics. Their victims just happen to be individuals in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fox goes on to say that, for all mass murderers, regardless of their categorization, there is “a consistent profile in which someone has a history of frustration and failure despite promise and aptitude. But they also have a very weak support system. They don’t have close friends or family nearby to turn for help or to put their thoughts in perspective.” Yet, “there are thousands and thousands of people who fit that pattern and do not kill anyone.” Nothing, it seems, is simple.
Monahan and Steadman, recognized experts in risk assessment, wrote in their landmark work, Violence and Mental Disorder … (1996), that psychiatrists and other mental health professionals cannot predict with great accuracy who will commit acts of violence. To which I would add that none of the killers described by Fox and Levin strike me as good candidates for mental health treatment. They tend to be paranoid or at least suspicious of others, particularly those in positions of authority. Since they won’t trust, they can’t form productive treatment relationships. I’m confident they wouldn’t seek treatment, would evade complying with out-patient treatment orders and would reject any overtures from mobile crisis teams.
So how to help those who wouldn’t be interested in what the larger society and its helping systems have to offer? I would begin by understanding that these mass murderers aren’t as solitary as we’ve come to see them, that they’re part of a culture of fear that has come to permeate this country. I’m referring to a belief system where fear itself has come to be feared, where many if not most Americans have come to see themselves as “at risk” and have adopted a self-identity as vulnerable persons in need of protection. As Furedi and other sociologists have noted, this culture of fear has been promoted by the mass media and exploited by political forces in this country, particularly those with right-wing agendas aimed at underscoring the ineffectiveness of government in protecting its citizens. Just think National Rifle Association. So if you’re frightened, feeling vulnerable and believe only you can protect yourself, buy a gun. Which applies to mass murderers as well as their would-be victims. And be sure to oppose gun controls of any kind: your second amendment rights to arm yourself are being threatened.
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
The interpretation that the amendment safeguards the rights of individuals to own guns is a recent phenomenon. Prior to the Supreme Court decisions of 2008, D.C. v. Heller, and 2010, McDonald v. Chicago, where District of Columbia and City of Chicago ordinances to restrict handgun ownership were overturned, the amendment had been understood to protect the right of individual States to maintain militias and to block the Federal government from interfering with that right. The NRA began its campaign for the right of individual gun ownership in 1977, after a group of right-wing activists took over leadership of the organization and changed its mission from promoting recreational shooting to lobbying against gun control. The NRA’s campaign was essentially fear-based: that the gun control legislation that had been enacted in 1968 banning mail order sales of rifles and gun ownership by convicted felons and the “mentally incompetent,” would not protect ordinary citizens from the depredations of inner-city marauders. In other words, black men bent on vengeance. In the NRA’s world, the real danger came not from the John Hinckleys but from the Willie Hortons.
Interestingly, constitutional legal scholar Carl Bogus of Roger Williams University Law School in Rhode Island contends that the second amendment itself has racist roots. In an article published in the U.C. Davis Law Review in 1998, “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” he traces its origins to the efforts of James Madison, principal author of the U.S. Constitition as well as the Bill of Rights, to mollify two influential Virginians who opposed ratification of the newly drafted Constitution, James Monroe and Patrick Henry. As understood in its historical time, the intent of the second amendment was to assure slave-owning Southerners that their State militias would remain under State control and could be utilized to carry out their principal mission, suppression of potential or actual slave revolts, without interference from the Federal Government.
Over time, that original meaning has been lost, replaced adroitly by the efforts of the NRA and its supporters to position the rights of individuals to own guns front and center. As David Garland, author of The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, would have it, “… our fears and resentments [of crime], but also our commonplace narratives and understandings, become settled cultural facts that are sustained and reproduced by cultural scripts …” Black men as objects of fear have now been joined, by fears of Muslims, of illegal immigrants, of generalized and anonymous “others.” Ordinary citizens, rather than clamoring for more controls on guns, rush out and buy them. After the Aurora shootings, gun sales spiked in Denver. However, if you were to ask residents of Washington, D.C., mainly African-Americans and plagued by random gun violence; the residents of South Chicago, also mainly African-Americans and terrorized by gang violence; and the residents of Brownsville, Brooklyn, again African-Americans, who saw two children killed by stray bullets in a gang shootout this past Sunday evening… These are the folks the media rarely seek out, preferring the drama attached to the rush for guns.
Data from the National Institute of Justice website reveal that, in 2005, 11,346 persons were killed by firearm violence and 477,040 were victims of a crime committed with a firearm. In 2006, firearms were used nationwide in 68% of all murders, 42% of robberies and 22% of aggravated assaults. As per the Department of Justice, gun homicides have increased slightly each year since 2002. The last meaningful gun control legislation was passed by Congress in 1994 – the Brady Act, which imposed a five-day waiting period and background check for handgun purchases, and the Assault Weapons Ban, which prohibited the sales of designated assault rifles, among them the AK-47. The latter law expired ten years later, in 2004, and a new assault weapons law has never been enacted. The prospects for new gun control legislation, however modest, appear bleak. Congress is variously in thrall to or intimidated by the NRA’s political muscle and lobbying prowess. The president and his right-wing opponent appear wary of arousing the NRA. Despite editorial chastisement by the New York Times, both have maintained silence on this issue. As Lt. Gordon reminds us at the conclusion of part two of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, referring to the Batman, “… he’s the hero Gotham deserves … not the one it needs.”
So where does this leave us? For now, it leaves all of us – my nephew, his fellow police officers, ordinary citizens — vulnerable to individuals like James Holmes, who, fearful of the world, will choose to buy guns, legally or otherwise, and seek to protect themselves by killing those whom they’ve identified as the cause of their fears. At the very least, additional safeguards need to be established for the larger community, principally some form of gun control to limit access to especially lethal guns, such as assault rifles equipped with drum magazines. There are some folks out there who do have some worthwhile ideas about how to accomplish this. David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health has outlined a public health approach to the issue of gun control, arguing that it must be accompanied by a cultural shift from the narcissism that appears to dominate our society and undercuts notions of collective responsibility. It remains to be seen whether a discussion about remedies will take place anytime soon, or whether ideology will trump common sense and preoccupation with political gain continue to outweigh concern for the common good. In any event, don’t mourn, organize!
Begley, S., “Accused Colorado Killer No Easy Fit for Mass Murderer Profile,” Reuters News Service, July 24, 2012
Bogus, C.T., “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” U.C. Davis Law Review, Winter, 1998, Vol. 31, #2
Cullen, D., “Don’t Jump to Conclusions About the Killer,” The New York Times, July 22, 2012
FindLaw, “Second Amendment – Bearing Arms,” http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com
Furedi, F., “The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is the ‘Culture of Fear’ Itself,”
http://www.spiked-online.com, April 4, 2007
Garland, D., The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society, Oxford U. Press, 2001
Garrett, B., “History of the Second Amendment,” http://civilliberty.about.com
Healy, J., Frosch, D., “Colorado Suspect Is Told He Faces 142 Counts As Case Inches Forward, The New York Times, July 30, 2012
Hemenway, D., Private Guns, Public Health, U. of Michigan Press, 2007, 4th ed.
Monahan, J., Steadman, J., eds., Violence and Mental Disorder: Developments in Risk Assessment, U. of Chicago Press, 1996
National Institute of Justice, U.S. Dept. of Justice, “Gun Violence: How prevalent Is Gun Violence In America,” http://www.nij.gov/
The New York Times, Editorial, “The Shootings in Colorado,” July 21, 2012
The New York Times, Editorial, “Candidates Cower On Gun Control,” July 27, 2012
The New York Times, “Brownsville Residents Say Gun Violence Is All Too Common,” July 30, 2012
Nolan, C., “The Dark Knight,” 2008
Winkler, A., “NRA Took Hard Right After Leadership Coup,” San Francisco Chronicle, online edition, http://www.sfgate.com/
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.