This is the third time in less than two years that I’m writing an article about young men walking into public venues and shooting a dozen or more people at a time — first Tucson, then Aurora, now Newtown. The Newtown killer, Adam Lanza, didn’t just walk into the Sandy Hook elementary school where he shot and killed 26 persons, he broke in, determined to carry out the plan he had. “Why?” and “Where Next?” seem to be the questions we are always left with, along with “How can we prevent this from happening again?” Many Americans are also asking, finally, “What is happening to this country?”
We’ll never know the answer to “why”, at least not fully, since Adam Lanza is dead, killed by his own hand. Whatever record he might have left might well reside in a laptop found by the police in his mother’s house totally destroyed. No one who knew him, including his father and his older brother, has come forward to offer an explanation. I’m sure both those men have their theories about what prompted Adam to do what he did, but they are not being forthcoming about what they’re thinking and might never be. In the absence of hard facts, the rest of us have developed theories, from the FBI to whoever watches or listens to the daily news. My own is informed, at least in part, by two Northeastern University criminologists, James Fox and Jack Levin, who have compiled a data base of all mass murders that have occurred in this country since the early 1980’s.
As I wrote at some length in my post about Aurora – “Aurora: Shrouded in Myths” – “…… [Drs. Fox and Levin] have divided the mass murderers themselves into three broad categories or profiles. The first is comprised of older men … who bear a grudge against specific individuals and kill them in acts of revenge for perceived injustices … 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 … [but] … knew none of [them]. Shooters who match this profile are often quite psychotic and delusional; many, like Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters, are depressed and suicidal.” Cho , Klebold and Eric Thomas, Klebold’s Columbine accomplice, all “… killed themselves as the endpoint of their killing sprees.”
Dr. Fox describes his and Levin’s third category as follows: “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.” James Holmes, the Aurora shooter, would seem to meet Fox’s description for Fox and Levin’s third category. Adam Lanza, on the other hand, would appear to fit the profile for category two, given his suicide when he stopped shooting. However, that conclusion is largely conjectural since nothing is known of his emotional state in the days, even the weeks, preceding the shooting. The only person who would know, his mother, Nancy, was shot multiple times in her face by Adam with a 22. caliber rifle. He killed her, apparently collected several of her legally registered guns, notably her semi-automatic long rifle, and drove in her car to Sandy Hook school. How he must have hated her… or so I imagine.
Fox summarizes his findings as follows: “… all mass murderers, regardless of their categorization, … [have] 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 to 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.” It would seem, then, that Fox and Levin’s work has little predictive value. The same can be said of assessments carried out by psychiatrists and other mental health clinicians — none can predict with any great accuracy who will commit acts of violence.
What we can anticipate, if not predict with any exactness, is that the next mass shooting that occurs will take place in a very public place. It would seem that these killers have developed a copy-cat ritual wherein their acts of violence are carried out before as many people as possible, with a mass viewing audience only waiting to be told to turn on their TVs or smart ‘phones and look at their e-mails or Twitter feeds. The notoriety thus gained – their 15 minutes and more of fame – will, they appear to hope, more than compensate for their inadequacies and their heretofore insignificant lives. The murders they perpetrate, their own deaths by suicide and they themselves will not go unnoticed. How sad and how deadly.
Ultimately, the answers to “Why?” and “Where next?” remain elusive. And so we resume asking ourselves what can be done – what we can do; what the government and our elected representatives can do – to stop this violence. The responses from equivocating politicians are invariably the same: gun control, usually the re-enactment of Federal legislation banning the sale of assault rifles; more comprehensive gun purchase screening to prevent gun sales to persons with histories of mental illness; and, even more guns. All are fraught with correlated problems — specifically, gun control and the National Rifle Association, the NRA, the 900 pound gorilla that succeeds in intimidating virtually every politician in Washington; the scapegoating of persons presumed to be mentally ill, which lets the NRA off the hook; and Wild West politicians, beards for the NRA, who declaim the Sandy Hook killer could have been stopped if only school personnel had been armed.
Surprise of surprises, the Republican Governor of Michigan just vetoed a bill that would have allowed just that. Go figure. On the other hand, the Republican governor of Ohio recently told the 12/19 N.Y. Times he plans to sign a law allowing state employees to keep guns in their cars while parked in the Statehouse garage; and finally, the Times reported that his Democratic counterpart in Colorado was calling for enhanced screening to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. And, yes, I do see the NRA at the core of the problem.
Since Sandy Hook, private citizens, many of them Newtown residents, have begun voicing concern about the state of the United States and an intent to address the as-yet-unnamed something that is eating away at the country’s moral fiber. In my Aurora story, I named it the “culture of fear” promoted variously by the U.S. government, and the NRA, aided and abetted by an irresponsible U.S. Supreme Court, whose intent appears to be to quash political dissent and distract people’s attention from the erosion of personal privacy and related civil rights that has taken place since 9/11. The remainder of this article will be devoted to those issues.
The core leadership of the NRA appears to have extreme right-wing political beliefs, subscribing to a variety of conspiracy theories, principal among which is the belief that the U.S. government intends to deprive gun owners of their presumed Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms,” and endorsing the use of violence to overthrow presumably despotic governments, including the currently popularly elected U.S. government, to protect that right. Their guiding ideology can probably be summed up in this oft-used quote from Thomas Jefferson, the most prominent of our slave-holding Presidents: “The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government;” and at the root of their political paranoia is still another Jefferson quote: “The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.” To take the NRA at its word is to see it as a beleaguered bulwark of freedom, fending off an intrusive and authoritarian U.S. Government – which, of course, can often be the case with an entity as powerful as the U.S. Government.
However, prior to 1977 when the right-wing putsch was carried out and the right-wingers commandeered the leadership, the NRA’s mission was apolitical and its primary objective was to promote the use of handguns and rifles in recreational and sporting endeavors. Since 1977, the NRA has functioned as the self-appointed guardian of individual freedoms, elevating gun ownership to the status of pre-eminent symbol of those freedoms, as enshrined in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As I wrote in the “Aurora …” article, “The Second Amendment … 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 …”, embodied in two Supreme Court decisions – D.C. v. Heller, 2008, and McDonald v. Chicago, 2010 – which overturned Washington and Chicago city ordinances restricting handgun ownership. I went on to write … “Interestingly, constitutional legal scholar Carl Bogus of Roger Williams University Law School in Rhode Island … traces [the Second Amendment’s] origins to the efforts of James Madison … to mollify … [James Monroe and Patrick Henry] … who opposed ratification of the newly drafted [U.S.] Constitution … 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 … slave revolts, without interference from the Federal Government.”
How far we have come … or have we? When any organization such as the NRA espouses extreme and intransigent positions, others pay the price – at the very least, the 91 victims of mass murders that have occurred in schools in this country since the Columbine shootings in 1999. It’s time to stop tip-toeing around gun owners’ alleged “right” to own guns of their own choosing, as professed by the NRA. I very much like two gun control proposals put forward recently, one regulating the purchase of ammunition in California, as reported in the 12/19 edition of The New York Times, the other proposed by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York. Dr. Sachs suggests that we look to Australia where, “after a particularly horrible massacre in 1996 …, prime minister John Howard … instituted a severe crackdown on gun ownership and forced would-be gun owners to submit to a rigorous application process and to document why they would need a gun … [He] also implemented a rigorous ‘buyback’ policy to enable the government to purchase guns already owned by the public … The policy worked … there has not been a single mass shooting since 1996 …”
The California legislative initiative was introduced to control the sale of ammunition rather than guns and would require “a background check and an annual $50 permit to buy any type of ammunition.” The Times quoted the bill’s sponsor, Kevin de Leon: “We don’t think about the fuel that feeds the violence and that’s ammunition … If you want to fish, you have to secure a license to fish … Yet anyone who walks into any gun store in California can buy all the ammunition they want.” Since the Democrats won control of both houses of the legislature in November, the bill will most likely be passed and signed into law by Governor Brown. Such a law would have a greater impact if it were a nation-wide law, particularly if coupled with re-enactment of the assault weapons ban, which succeeded in curtailing sales of these guns during the ten-year period, 1994-2004, it was in effect. Senator Diane Feinstein reportedly will introduce a new assault weapons bill in January of the new year. Despite protestations by the NRA that it “was potentially reconsidering its position”, the NRA can be expected to ferociously oppose all gun control legislation, so large-scale citizen involvement supporting any such initiatives will be crucial to their passage. More tough times ahead.
As for the continued scapegoating of the presumed mentally ill and the ensuing call for tougher gun purchase screening to snare folks with histories of psychiatric hospitalizations, what else would you expect? Who else but a crazy man would commit mass murder? The answer to that one is, “One in a million!” Folks who’ve received a serious mental illness diagnosis simply don’t commit murder and rarely commit acts of violence against other people. To quote Dr. Richard Friedman in his 12/18 N.Y. Times article, “In Gun Debate, a Misguided Focus on Mental Illness”: “Only about 4% of violence in the U.S. can be attributed to people with [presumed] mental illness … the NIMH’s Epidemiologic Catchment Area study … found that the lifetime prevalence of violence among people with [presumed] serious mental illness – like schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder – was 16%, compared with 7% among people without any mental disorder …” Please remember Dr. Friedman is talking about violence not murder; more on that and the 16% below. Dr. Friedman continues: “… mass killings are very rare and … people with [presumed] mental illness contribute so little to overall violence … Consider that between 2001 and 2010, there were nearly 120,000 gun-related homicides … Few were perpetrated by people with [presumed] mental illness…” He concludes and succinctly summarizes the argument against tougher gun screening measures aimed at presumed mentally ill persons: “All the focus on a small number of people with [presumed] mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing … the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group. But … the majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.” Absolutely no need to tar all with a brush needed for only a handful. Conversely, no need for gun control restrictions aimed primarily at persons presumed to have serious mental illnesses when universally applicable restrictions are what’s called for.
One other issue needs to be addressed here, one that is invariably ignored and one that might provide at least a partial answer to the “Why?” asked at the outset of this article. The neuroleptic medications prescribed persons who receive diagnoses of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and, increasingly, major depression, have been implicated in causing violent behavior. Outcomes from research currently being undertaken in the U.K. and described in a lengthy article posted on the MIA website back in August by Catherine Clarke and Jan Evans reveal that all neuroleptic medications can produce toxic behavioral effects, principally akithisia, agitation and restlessness. This includes the atypical neuroleptics, which were originally marketed as devoid of such side effects. Of significance for this discussion is the finding that akithisia and its accompanying agitation and restlessness can result in violence on the part of the individuals prescribed them. Specific conditions resulting from prolonged neuropletic dosing – neuroleptic withdrawal; neuroleptic serotonin disruption, i.e., mood disturbance; and neuroleptic acetycholine disruption, i.e., disruption of the flight or fight mechanism, to name just three – increase the risks for acts of violence by those affected. Similarly, persons prescribed neuroleptics who are “poor metabolizers” of these medications are also at greater risk for committing violence. As per the data, the single largest group of poor metabolizers is comprised of persons of black African descent. In Great Britain, these tend to be ethnic Jamaicans and sub-Saharan Africans.
Unfortunately, this is not new information. Dr. Peter Breggin, widely known researcher and clinician, has been testifying to the link between psychoactive medications, including the SSRI’s, and violence for over thirty years. A benchmark book, Medication Madness: The Role of Psychiatric Drugs in Cases of Violence, Suicide and Crime, published in 2008, represents the compilation of his many years of clinical practice and his direct experience with these issues. To quote from an interview with Breggin published online at wnd.com on 12/18, when asked why the medication/ violence connection has been ignored for so long, Breggin responded that the “[mainstream] media ‘ignore the scientific evidence linking psychiatric medications and violent behavior because psychiatry is the religion of the mainstream media, and they don’t want to see the dangers of psychiatrically prescribed drugs. Besides, the drug companies also have incredible influence through advertising such that they can call the shots. … ’ ”
If prescribed medications might cause and certainly contribute to the problems they’re expected to ameliorate, what’s the alternative to today’s customary treatment, which begins and ends with psychoactive medications? Where does that leave the politicians, who are expected to launch the initiatives and draft the legislation that will prevent or at least forestall a repetition of the violence? In his 12/19 press conference, President Obama announced the formation of a “Gun-Violence Task Force,” headed by Joe Biden, stating that gun control cannot be the only solution to the problem and expressing support for making it easier for Americans to get access to mental health care, “at least as easy as access to a gun.” Nice sentiments, but barking up the wrong tree. Where does that leave the NRA, which has amended its customary mantra, “It’s not guns that kill people, but people who kill people,” to “It’s not guns that kill people, but mentally disturbed people who killed people”? Up a creek, without the proverbial paddle, let’s hope. Finally, where does that leave ordinary folks, who want help for themselves and their loved ones? Breggin would tell them, to quote again from the wnd.com interview, that “instead of psychiatric treatment, children of this kind [– outsiders who live in the shadows, who deal with a lot of shame, humiliation and isolation –] need ‘more reaching out, more socialization, more caring, more involvement … these are really hurt kids.”
And yet, for me, all the foregoing still begs the question, “Why did Adam Lanza and those like him choose to go to public venues and, armed to the teeth, proceed to shoot and kill innocent people?” A recent op-ed in The NY Times by Adam Lankford, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, entitled “What Drives Suicidal Mass Killers,” and published on 12/18, resonated with me and my notion of a “Culture of Fear.” To quote Dr. Lankford: “But underneath the pain, the rage and the desire to die, rampage shooters like Mr. Lanza are remarkably similar to aberrant mass killers – including suicide terrorists – in other countries. The difference rests in how they are shaped by cultural forces and which destructive behaviors they seek to copy.” (Italics mine.) As I’ve written before, the predominant cultural model for aggrieved and frightened folks in this country is that advocated by the NRA – “If you’re frightened or angry and you know it, buy a gun!” It embodies a culture of fear of and threat from “the other, ” and it calls for a violent, intimidating response. Just to underline this, after the Aurora shootings, gun sales spiked in Denver; when Obama won re-election, gun sales spiked nationwide.
One day, perhaps, we’ll have cultural precepts that will allow us to respond to persons in mortal pain and fear like Adam Lanza in the manner espoused by Dr. Breggin, with kindness, understanding and acceptance. Until then, the antidote to fear and violence is, as I have always believed, collective action. To borrow some Jungian wisdom quoted by Laura Kerr in a post aptly titled “The Long Shadow of Massacre:” “A collective problem, if not recognized as such, always appears as a personal problem, and in individual cases may give the impression that something is out of order in the realm of the personal psyche. The personal sphere is indeed disturbed, but such disturbances need not be primary; they may well be secondary, the consequence of an unsupportable change in the social atmosphere. The cause of disturbance is, therefore, not to be sought in the personal surroundings, but rather in the collective situation …”
Or, as I would put it, a collective problem calls for the assumption of collective responsibility. In this instance, mourn for all we’ve lost, then organize. Remember, we’re all prisoners of hope!
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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.