When I agreed to go to Colorado to talk about mass murderers, I knew I'd have to do a lot of research. I had no way of knowing then--and am deeply saddened to discover--that not only would I have to dig deeper into past instances, but that there would be brand new ones to study.
Clackamas wasn't a mass murder, by official standards (four victims, not including the shooter, in a single incident), but likely only failed to be because the shooter's weapon jammed. I believe that during those moments he couldn't get it to fire, he had an instant of clarity, realizing the consequences of what he had done, because once it was working again instead of continuing his rampage, he turned it on himself.
I don't subscribe to the notion that people are possessed by rage, incapable of making decisions--I think every one of these people knows what he is doing in the moment, but has decided that it's the "right" thing to do. The reasons for that decision are unique in every case, and have much to do with the killer's upbringing and early life, which starts the individual down a dark road. But in spite of whatever conditions existed, in the end the killer still has the option of not carrying out the act, and at every moment during the act, has the option of not pulling the trigger, not aiming at others. Most people, however damaged, never commit such horrific acts; that is testament to the fact that the decision is always there.
We're just learning about Adam Lanza. Early reports are that he might have had some sort of "personality disorder," some mental issue, but it's still vaguely definied, and the motivation behind his attack on an elementary school is still unknown. Even his connection to the school is uncertain--there are reports that his mother substitute-taught there, but others say that's not the case. As always, I think we need to let law enforcement do its work, find out the facts, and try to draw whatever lessons we can from the truths that come out.
There are a few lessons, however, that we should have already learned about mass murder.
We can't prevent every instance of it. People are unpredictable, and always will be.
But while people are unpredictable, there are some elements common to most cases. Most killers, whether serial, mass, or one-time, have a history of violence, a history at the very least of behavior that causes concern among peers and/or authorities. These behaviors should be taken more seriously, should be considered warning signals that something is wrong in this individual's life, and it needs to be addressed. This requires making mental health care easier to obtain, affordable for anyone, and destigmatizing it so people don't feel like if they seek treatment, they've already lost.
Mental health care is job one. If these people can get help sooner, they'll never graduate to murder.
Job two is domestic violence intervention. Most killers learn violence first in the home. We need more effective and appropriate mechanisms for stepping in when abuse is happening, for making it safe for people to report it, and for making it possible for people in the situation to get out of it. Renewing the Violence Against Women Act would be s small step, but it would be moving in the right direction. We need to think about legislation that can address the issue in a more comprehensive way, and we also need to think about societal approaches that can address it outside the system of police and courts.
Job three is guns. We can't prevent every damaged person from becoming a killer, and we can't prevent some of them from getting their hands on guns. But we should be able to make it harder for a person with the internal issues that drive him toward murder--especially mass murder--from being able to access weapons with enough firepower to take out multiple victims. Adam Lanza used legally obtained handguns (legally obtained by his mother, that is--I think when he killed her and took them from the house, that probably constitutes theft), but Holmes in Aurora and Roberts in Clackamas and Loughner in Arizona, among others used weapons and/or magazines that had been banned for a decade, from 1994-2004, under the assault weapons ban. Since 2004, those weapons and magazines have become easy to acquire, and they allow people to shoot far more rounds and kill far more victims than they otherwise would have.
The Supreme Court has affirmed the right of individuals to own a gun for self-defense. The "slippery slope" argument many would make doesn't hold up--banning assault weapons again doesn't mean the ATF will come for your guns. But nobody needs an assault weapon for self-defense. Nobody needs a clip that holds 30 or 50 or 100 rounds, for that or for hunting or for recreational target shooting. And we all have a public health issue to address, and a freedom issue--we all should have the freedom to go to the mall or to send our kids to school without worrying that someone with a semiautomatic weapon and hundreds of rounds of ammunition will open fire.
If you want to drive a car, you have to be licensed and the car has to be registered. You have to prove you're capable of operating it safely. You have to buy insurance in case you hurt someone with it.
In the United States in 2011, gunshot deaths almost caught up to motor vehicle deaths. 2012 isn't over yet, but this might be the year that gunshot deaths pass motor vehicle. Cars and trucks are made for transportation; they're tools that we use in our daily lives. Guns are not, for all but a very few who shoot for a living. Guns are made to kill. Shouldn't they be regulated at least as carefully as cars? Shouldn't buying ammunition be at least as difficult as buying Claritin-D?
Cities, counties, and states have data in storage that should go into a federal database, against which background checks should be made every time a gun changes hands. But the money to populate that database has never been appropriated, and gun-show and private sale loopholes allow anybody--felons, terrorists, the severely mentally ill, anybody--to buy guns. And even gun shops that do background checks aren't getting accurate results because of those database failures. Most recent mass murderers have used legally obtained guns, which means that it's too easy for people who are or will become dangerous to get them.
We, as a society, need to decide that mass shootings are unacceptable. We need to address the mental health issues, the violence issues, and the gun issues that make these shootings not only possible but likely. A one- or two-part effort won't work, but all three, in combination, can help.
And the NRA, accomplices before and after the fact to tens of thousands of murders, needs to shut the hell up and get out of the way of this public safety issue. Since 2009, they've helped push through 99 laws around the country rolling back restrictions on guns and ammunition. The number of gunshot deaths and the number of mass shooting victims has risen accordingly. Coincidence? Not at all.
Graph from Mother Jones
Graph from the Washington Post
To pretend we can address the rising tide of mass murder without addressing the gun safety issue is the height of lunacy. Violence and guns are inextricably linked.
The events in Newtown are tragic and horrible. What will be worse is the events in the next case, and all the ones after that, if we sit back and do nothing.