Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Causes and Remedies for Mass Homicides

Copyright 2012 Average Joe's  Handgun Reviews

I recognize that the senseless slaughter of innocent school children at Sandy Hook Elementary is a horrific tragedy. Nothing in my commentary should be considered as a minimization of the event in Newtown, Connecticut; my sole intention is to discuss the true causes so that the energy being put into prevention efforts will be effective.

My Professional Experience
  • For the past 21 years a good portion of my work has been in the realm of assessing threats & disturbing behavior and putting together plans to keep intended victims and the people around them secure.
  • I have attended the Gavin DeBecker and Associates Advanced Threat Assessment Academy on three occasions.
  • I am a member of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals the membership of which is made up primarily of Law Enforcement, Private Security, and Mental Health Professionals.

Firearms and the American Culture

Although the BATF tells us that firearms are in the homes of about a third of Americans, there have been times in our history when that number was higher. Guns have been a part of the American culture since the 1600’s and the rate of gun ownership per household has been higher than our current time.  Not including incidents that took place during the Civil and Indian Wars, these mass homicides appear to be a recent phenomenon. The first one I can recall was committed by Patrick Purdy at the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton California in the late 1980’s. Purdy fired 106 bullets from an AK-47 killing 5 students and wounding 30 others including one teacher. Purdy was known to authorities to have a mental disorder that included fantasies of committing a mass homicide.  He also had a criminal record for the illegal possession and sale of firearms and attempted armed robbery.  If memory serves me correctly this incident was the stimulus for the first high capacity magazine ban.

Contributing Causes to Mass Violence

(I would encourage everyone to read Out of the Shadows: Confronting America's Mental Illness Crisis by E. Fuller Torrey, Gavin DeBecker’s fantastic work entitled The Gift of Fear as well as Lt. Colonel David Grossman’s books; On Killing and Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill.)

So what has changed in our modern society around that has contributed to the mass shooting and are privately owned firearms the cause?

  1. Care of the Mentally Ill: Beginning in 1955 the US and individual states began closing down their large mental institutions throughout the next 10 years. People with dangerous mental conditions had no place to go. In 1955 there were over 500,000 patients in hospitals with mental conditions; by 1974 there were only 72,000 mental patients institutionalized even though the population had increased by 96 million people during that time. If the rate of mental illness had stayed the same then by 1974 there would have been a population of 885,000 severely mentally ill people in the US but yet only 72,000 of them were institutionalized by then.
  2. Life Stresses caused by air pollution, population density, unemployment or underemployment, economic uncertainty, family instability etc. have all increased over the years.
  3. Family Instability: Fewer families have two parents, more families have both parents who work, children spend less time at home, when they are home they spend most of them time in solitary activities without family involvement. This results in fewer opportunities for the development of inter-family role models and also makes it less likely that mental illness or disturbing or anti-social behavior will be noticed by the family or noted to the point of realizing the severity of the behavior.
  4. Violent Media: From the Vietnam War forward the population has been presented with more images of brutal violence. News reports from Vietnam frequently came with disclaimers that children should leave the room before the footage from the front lines was shown. There were advances in the TV and film making industries that allowed producers to make more realistic scenes of violence—and those movies sold.

Creating A Culture That Does Not Value Human Life:

The Music Industry: In the 1980’s a segment evolved in popular music and their subsequent music videos that glorified gang violence, violence toward women, and violence toward the police. The youth that was drawn into that culture received a double dose of violent messaging through watching the videos and listening to the music. By having this media coming at them through their TV sets as well as their radios and personal music players meant that the amount of daily time that they were exposed to the violent imagery increased as never before.

The Video Game Industry: Lt. Colonel David Grossman, who taught psychology at West Point, relates that the military has long kept records on a soldier’s marksman ship both during training as well as battle along with measuring their moral hesitation to shoot, or shoot accurately, at a human target. With the advent of more violent media from post WWII forward the military noted a gradual increase in marksmanship with a corresponding gradual decrease in the moral hesitation of shoot at another human. However, in the early 1990’s the recruits who entered the military possessed greatly increased marksmanship skills with little hesitation in accurately shooting someone. As they interviewed these recruits, most of them who had never fired an actual firearm, they found that their skills had been honed by playing a particular “first person shooter” video game. The Army went out and bought scores of copies of the game and the US Military’s Virtual Scenario Training Program was born. 

Psychologists in Amsterdam have determined that violent video games pose more of a danger than violent TV and Movies as those forms of media are passive while in the “first-person” shooter games the user is not passively watching, they are actively participating in the violence. Further the game rewards the player for engaging in anti-social behavior; the more people they kill the bigger their virtual rewards.

In many mass shootings addiction to violent video games has been a prominent pre-incident indicator. One of the most recent examples is Anders Breivik who killed 77 people in Oslo, Norway on July 22, 2011. Breivik told psychologists that he routinely spent 16 hours a day playing World of War Craft and Call of Duty. The Indiana University School of Medicine has found that violent video games stimulate the brain’s production of dopamine which can physically alter the brain’s function in as little one week of fairly continuous play.

To clarify this I want to make it clear that playing violent video games does mean that someone is more prone to committing an act of violence.  The key is addiction to the violent video game by people under 26 years of age.  Psychologists report that the true physiological range of adolescence goes through age 25 as  portions of the brain that control judgement capabilities are still in developing through a person's 25th year.   So the people at risk are those in that range of adolescence who spend so much time in the video game that they begin to lose contact with their friends, family, work, etc. and the virtual world becomes more important to them.  The recent shooters who were addicted to the violent video games all spent more time in the games than anything else in their life and Lanzo (Sandy Hooks shooter), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech shooter), Jared Loughner (Gabby Giffords shooter), and Holmes (Aurora Movie Theater shooter) were all between 20 and 24 years of age.

It is fairly obvious to conclude that the increase in mass violence is due to poor mental health care, increased stress factors, decreased diagnosis & intervention by family members, and the bombardment of violent media that has desensitized a generation from the horrors of violence, glorified a violent culture, and honed their skills at killing. Access to a firearm may make the execution of their violent plans more efficient but it did not cause the violence and removing guns from the culture will not stop the violence. This is evidenced by an incident in Central China which occurred on December 14th where a man stabbed 22 children as they reported to school.


Parental and Family Responsibilities
1.Keep firearms tightly secured from being accessed by family members, friends, and burglars. If you have a firearm you should have a good quality safe to store it in when it is not in your possession. Small lock boxes, document safes and hiding places are too easily located and defeated.
2.Learn what the signs of mental illness are and do not deny that a family member needs treatment.
3.You and you alone have the responsibility to guide your child into adulthood. It is neither the school’s responsibility nor the government’s responsibility to raise your child and provide them with the proper moral compass. You may not be able to keep them from playing violent video games but you can set sensible time limitations. Wouldn't it be great if they read a book, or helped do the laundry or other household chores? Occupy their time with productive activities.

Government Responsibility
1.Train the public on the signs of mental illness and how to get the person into the appropriate treatment program.  One of the main findings reported by Gavin DeBecker is that the perpetrator of planned violence always shows warning signs of pending violence. While there is no complete listing of all of the warning signs it can be frequently described as disturbing behavior. Go back and look at my description of Patrick Purdy the Stockton, CA shooter and look at what was known about him before the shooting occurred---the signs were all there. The same with Cho at Virginia Tech, Holmes at Aurora, Colorado and Jared Loughner the shooter of congresswoman Gabby Giffords. The signs were all there and if people knew what they were looking for and how to report it many of these situations could have been prevented.
2.Work with mental health professionals to build the facilities and train the staffs to deal with seemingly vast number of mentally ill people. (We do not want to go back to the institutional facilities that we had during the 1950’s. There were some good reasons for closing them down. We need effective treatment facilities not just places to house people we no longer want to deal with.)
3.Remove firearms from people who are no longer eligible to own them. During my experience I have observed a great deal of incidents involving firearms perpetrated by people who bought them legally but, at some point, they were adjudicated as having a severe mental illness or they committed a crime which voided their eligibility to own a firearm. Unfortunately few jurisdictions have the processes or resources to mine this data, revoke permits, and confiscate firearms from those who have lost the right of their ownership.

Imminent Threat Training

Don't be a victim, do something.  Most training programs stress these three easy to remember steps:
  1.       Run if you can
  2.       Hide if you can’t
  3.       Fight if you must 
I would expect that some of you might be questioning my sanity about point #3 Fight if you must but let me ask you these questions: 
  •    When John Hinckley was in the process of shooting President Reagan, who was the first person to stop him?
  •    When Colin Ferguson shot and killed six commuters and wounded nineteen more on the Long Island Railroad in 1993, who stopped him?
  •    Who stopped the shoe bomber?
  •    Who stopped the underwear bomber?
  •    Who stopped Jared Loughner as he was shooting Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and others who came to see her?
The answer is unarmed citizens.  You can fight back if you are determine to do so.

Lastly, there is one other cause and solution to consider.  Many of the perpetrators of mass violence do it to gain the notoriety through multiple homicides that they cannot otherwise gain through any other means. Seung-Hui Cho, who murdered 30 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, interrupted his shooting spree to send a package to the NBC news department containing video clips, photographs, and his statements of purpose. Why did he do this? Because he knew that it would make him the subject of front page news, magazine covers, and dedicated TV news spots and he was right. The images of the Aurora, Colorado shooter James Holmes, with his bright orange hair, have been indelibly burned into our memory and although the contents have been legally sealed, he sent a package to his psychological counselor prior to the shootings.  Anders Breivik would not allow his attorney to enter a plea of insanity as he did not want his actions to be written off as the mere work of a madman. So, I offer up that we should remove the prospect of notoriety by making it a crime to publish the name, photo, videos, or any writings from anyone who commits an act of mass violence. The event can be reported on but do not give the perpetrator the satisfaction of personal publicity on the TV, newspapers, magazines, or the internet.

Gun Restriction is a Political Issue Not a Safety Issue

When I look at the true causes of violent deaths it is clear to me that guns don’t cause the homicides and removing them from society is therefore, not going to bring violence to a halt. As long as there are evil or broken people in the world they will cause violence and death. While that is logical and obvious to me there has always been a segment of the population that feels that private citizens have no legitimate need to own a firearm and mass shootings give them all the reason necessary to press their agenda. Again, logic tells me this is a political issue, not an overall concern for preventing unnecessary death and here’s why I say that:

  1.    The U.S. Center for Disease Control reports that firearm related deaths number 16,799 a year and that is all firearm related deaths including suicides, accidental deaths, etc., not just mass homicides.
  2.    They also report that the number of deaths caused by smoking tobacco is 443,000

Deaths related to smoking are 26 times higher than firearm related deaths. Yet I see no one demanding mandatory background checks for someone buying a box of cigars, I see no legislation requiring a waiting period before a container of pipe tobacco can be sold and I see no one mandating that a pack of Virginia Slims contain no more than 10 cigarettes or limiting the purchase of cigarettes to one pack a month. So, when all the smoke clears, it is obvious to me that gun restrictions are a personal agenda being turned into a political issue.


Lazy Bike Commuter said...

Blaming video games makes as little sense as blaming gun ownership. There has never been a positive correlation shown between violent video games an violent behavior--if there was, two generations of Americans would be nothing but mass murderers.

Grossman's weird insistence that they are a problem is completely baseless. The only study he has ever cited was one that showed violent television might increase violent behavior, but the study concluded that it was so effective because the viewer had to be completely passive. This can obviously not be extended to video games.

The only reason the military has used games for training had nothing to do with desensitization, but only to teach teamwork and tactics.

Sadly, Grossman has lost all credibility with me and many other people for simply making things up on the subject, and it makes me question whether anything he says is based on fact.

Unknown said...

All death is tragic it is horrible to see, be it a newborn child or a 100 year old, as a nurse with critical care background I have seen it all.
We have as you note moved death out of first hand witness into movies, TV news, games and sterile hospital settings.
But each of us will in fact die at some point.
The politics of using an event to further a political gain is worse than the actual event, because it reduces the sanctity of the life that was lost. We work ourselves into action that seems good but doesn't deal with the underlying issue.

These are all numbers pointing to child deaths in any given 24 hour period based on long term statistics, not just one day

Auto accidents 12

Suffocation 3

Child abuse and neglect 5

Drowning 2

Child deaths by firearms less than 2
(500 per year)

I will add one more that may get this comment rejected but it points to the larger issue of loss of respect for life.

Abortions 2149

Average Joe's Handgun Reviews said...

Lazy Bike Commuter,

You reminded me of something that I want to go back in and clarify. Playing violent video games does mean that someone is more prone to committing an act of violence. The key is addiction to the violent video game by people under 26 years of age. Psychologists report that the true physiological range of adolescence goes through age 25 as there are still portions of the brain that control judgement capabilities which are still in development through a person's 25th year. So the people at risk are those in that range of adolescence who spend so much time in the video game that they begin to lose contact with their friends, family, work, etc. and the virtual world becomes more important to them. The recent shooters who were addicted to the violent video games all spent more time in the games than anything else in their life.

Eclectic Breakfast said...


"Keep firearms tightly secured from being accessed by family members, friends, and burglars. If you have a firearm you should have a good quality safe to store it in when it is not in your possession."

Well and truly said. If Mrs. Lanza had kept her guns locked in a sturdy safe most of us would never have ever heard of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Lazy Bike Commuter said...

Well, that's reassuring.

I think singling out video games is still a bit harsh though, I have a feeling it would pretty much be the same with anything else they call an addiction--except that drugs and alcohol would, of course, be much worse, since they have actual physiological effects.

I have said to a few people that since the biggest common ground in these incidents is unemployment, maybe we should blame Obama since it's his fault the economy is so shitty.

Bill Barr said...

Once again, it's not the gun (or the sword or the knife or the bomb or the car or the airliner ...), it's the nutball wielding the weapon. There will always be killing.

We also have a culture of any publicity is good publicity. Reality TV shows: I rest my case.

There is another cultural issue, however. The culture of youth. I conjecture that if any one of these psychopaths walked into a retirement community and committed the same horrific act, it would disappear in the news just as quickly as the coverage of the Clackamas Mall shooting in Oregon did. It seems that the younger the victim is, they more value they have, which is completely ass-backwards. Most humans don't start making viable contributions to their society for their first two decades on this planet. Now before you go crying about the children being innocent and defenseless, ANYBODY unarmed going up against a nutball with a weapon intent on murder is innocent and defenseless. There is no inequality here.

Finally, there is a very good reason that people don't shoot back, even if they have the ability to do so when threatened. If they are not in their home and therefore not covered by castle doctrine, the legal penalties for returning fire are just as bad for the defender as for the attacker in far too many states. I have talked to prosecutors about this and the consensus is, if the barrel isn't pointed at you or in the process of immediately being pointed at you, you can't shoot without a good chance of criminal repercussions. Even just the accusation is devastating in our culture of publicity.

All in all, it comes down to money, as ususal. The symptoms are guns. Banning guns is cheap. Ban guns. The root cause is mentally ill people. Treating mental illness is expensive, therefore, ban guns (treat the symptoms).

youngjoeclark said...

Like so many NRA members and their admirers evidence, AJ's essay exhibits an almost pathological denial. There is no reason that I am aware of to refuse to accept the assault-atyle rifle as *part* of the cause of many mass murders. There is a reason that it is the favored weapon of mad killers, and no reason that I am aware of for us to accept its continued availability and possession in the USA. This has nothing to do with possession and sale of defensive handguns, such as those I possess, or hunting weapons.

The only reason to own an AR15 is paranoia about military attacks on our society. Those attacks wouldn't be affected by the mosquito bites of the relatively few semi-military semi-automatic rifles out here.

Get rid of these unnecessarily threatening weapons. Now! They are not covered by the 2nd Amendment. They are not justified by experience-based reason. Get rid of them!

Average Joe's Handgun Reviews said...

Young Joe Clark,

It is interesting you bring up the subject of Military patterned weapons with high capacity magazines as I neither endorsed nor condemned them in the piece I wrote. You have assigned me a stance I did not take. If you go back and look at my piece on "The 3 Gun Battery" (June 10, 2012) which was my take on the three guns (pistol, rifle, shotgun) which might be appropriate for for four different environments; urban apartment dweller, homeowner, rural environment, and mountain environment there is not a military patterned rifle mentioned in the four scenarios. But while that is my preference, this is the "land of the free" and people have the choice to choose what they want and many of them have chosen the military patterned rifle as they have always been sales leaders. Now, in terms of the second amendment when it was written it was the right of the people to own the same firearms as the military. The intent was to allow citizens to protect themselves from a tyrannical government so I can offer the argument that the second amendment was enacted to keep a level playing field so that the government never had the upper hand.

Lastly, in the wrong hands a firearms can be an enabler of violence but it is not the cause of the violence. These mass homicides have been committed by men who were severally broken with serious and obvious emotional problems. The purpose of this article was to give a historical perspective over what has changed in this country that has caused the mass homicides which were virtually unknown until 1987. Have high capacity firearms enabled the mentally and emotionally crippled person to commit mass atrocities? Absolutely they have. Have these firearms caused the atrocities? Absolutely not. Any firearm cannot kill anyone until someone pulls the trigger. The purpose of this article was to point out that if you want to get to the root cause that propels these homicidal maniacs you need to dig deeper than merely restricting certain varieties of firearms and anyone who solely focuses on firearms restriction is merely pushing their own political agenda.

To serve and protect said...

I believe that in the aforementioned incidents; which are being used to further another "assault rifle" ban. (And true assault rifles have been banned from general ownership since 1934). The weapons used to inflict the most damage have been handguns not "assault rifles" as it seems the media and ban proponents would have us believe. And as a side note, Columbine occured during the 1994 AWB. the perpetrators used handguns, shotguns, and homemade bombs. I have to agree with Average Joe's comments it's become a political issue, and political issues are fought with propaganda and impotent solutions not the truth and logic.

Anonymous said...

I see you attended the Gavin DeBecker and Associates Advanced Threat Assessment Academy. I am considering going, but it is incredibly expensive and I would have to pay for it myself. What are your thoughts on if it was worth it?

Average Joe's Handgun Reviews said...

Anonymous, it is the most important training seminar I have ever attended in my 41 year career. My business partner and I ( are writing a book that will be delivered to the publisher this summer. I think that will be an important work as well and I will publish updates on my Facebook page as well as this blog as the publishing process progresses. If you have any other questions please let me know.