Speaking of crazies: the NRA speaks

In the midst of exploding public outrage over gun violence, the NRA finally broke their silence and it’s lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre, said this: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” According the Huffington Post:

He blamed video games, movies and music videos for exposing children to a violent culture day in and day out.

“In a race to the bottom, many conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate, and offend every standard of civilized society, by bringing an even more toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty right into our homes,” LaPierre said.

LaPierre announced that former Rep. Asa Hutchison, R-Ark., will lead an NRA program that will develop a model security plan for schools that relies on armed volunteers.

Predictably, the NRA’s answer is more guns to help the “good people” combat against the “bad people.” This statement is truly astonishing. New York mayor Bloomberg described it as “a shameful evasion of the crisis facing our country.” Forget for the moment the problem that people are good until they do something bad. Also forget that a significant number of schools already have armed security. By deflecting blame onto movies, television and video games, the NRA is calling for Orwellian-scale mind control that would be necessary to sanitize the thoughts of every person in the US. Moreover, there is the matter of Constitutionally-protected free speech. Is the NRA really suggesting that “gun rights” are more basic and more fundamental than thought and speech?

Beyond the NRA, many other groups have pointed fingers at video games, mental health and other straw targets in the hope of explaining this violence. But there is no evidence that video games contribute to youth violence. In fact, according to of TIME:

In fact, during the years in which video games soared in popularity, youth violence has declined to 40-year lows. And while it’s natural, in such an emotional time, for people to search desperately for answers, that often results in misinformation. In 2007, after the Virginia Tech Massacre, pundits such as Dr. Phil immediately blamed video games. Only later did the official investigation reveal that the perpetrator was not a violent game player after all. In the Sandy Hook case, after the shooter was misidentified as Adam Lanza’s brother Ryan, the Facebook page of the video game Mass Effect (which Ryan “liked” on his own Facebook page) was attacked by angry hordes.

At this point, we don’t know much about Adam Lanza’s media use history. Given that, as researchers Cheryl Olson and Lawrence Kutner note in their book Grand Theft Childhood, almost all young males play violent video games at least occasionally, it’s playing the odds to say Lanza did too. But that has all the predictive power of saying that he sometimes wore sneakers or ate breakfast. In their 2002 evaluation of school shooters, the U.S. Secret Service found no evidence to suggest that these perpetrators consume more media violence than anyone else.

Why then, when the evidence is so poor, do we always return to media to blame for societal ills? The notion that simply removing video games would make these events go away is as understandably tempting as it is nonsensical. After the 1999 Columbine massacre, the nation uselessly diverted itself into a decade’s worth of video game violence laws that were struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Let us hope that Senator Rockefeller’s efforts do not distract us from the bigger tasks at hand: gun control and improving our mental health system.

As of now, there is no evidence that Adam Lanza played video games, or that he had a diagnosable mental disorder that could have predicted this tragedy. Let’s consider what we DO know:


Which of these can we control?

If we really want to reduce gun violence, the straightforward answer is to reduce the number of guns, and to reduce their availability to all persons. Gun control works. It appears to have been extremely effective in Australia, and it can be effective here. Here are just a couple of academic articles on the subject:

  • S Chapman, P Alpers, K Agho, M Jones, “Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms: faster falls in firearm deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass shootings,” Injury Prevention, 2006 [pdf link].
  • L Hepburn, D Hemenway, “Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature,” Aggression and Violent Behavior, 2004 [link].

The Hepburn/Hemenway article offers a very clear conclusion in the abstract:

Individual-level studies (n=4) are reviewed that investigate the risks and benefits of owning a personal or household firearm. The research suggests that households with firearms are at higher risk for homicide, and there is no net beneficial effect of firearm ownership. No longitudinal cohort study seems to have investigated the association between a gun in the home and homicide. Two groups of ecological studies are reviewed, those comparing multiple countries and those focused solely on the United States. Results from the cross-sectional international studies (n=7) typically show that in high-income countries with more firearms, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide. Time series (n=10) and cross-sectional studies (n=9) of U.S. cities, states, and regions and for the United States as a whole, generally find a statistically significant gun prevalence–homicide association. None of the studies prove causation, but the available evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that increased gun prevalence increases the homicide rate.

The best available evidence (along with common sense reasoning) points to gun control as the obvious answer for reducing gun violence. There are simply not enough gun-toting noblemen to protect the rest of us from ourselves. Even as the NRA press conference began circulating in the media, there was another shooting, this time aimed at apparently random victims in Pennsylvania. Among other victims, a church volunteer was shot while putting up decorations. How does the NRA proposal protect her? It doesn’t.

David Frum has assembled an impressive list of shooting incidents on his twitter feed, demonstrating that armed guards are a nonsense proposal when considering the variety of gun-violence scenarios that occurred in recent years. Here is an abbreviated list:

we need a federal agent to protect every little girl with a stupid relative. http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/22/relative-shoots-costumed-girl-after-mistaking-her-for-a-skunk/ …

We need a federal agent at every cancer hospital http://www.wlwt.com/Cancer-Patient-Shot-On-University-Hospital-Campus/-/9838586/10427550/-/t6q0ep/-/index.html …

We need a federal agent at every marriage proposal http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/22/robert-allen-kleman-fired_n_906873.html …

We need a federal agent at every gun range. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vPnMbLr5nc …

We need a federal agent at every zoo http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=95258&page=1#.UNUUKKX5gfM …

We need a federal agent at every public swimming pool http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/25/shooting-se-kids-pool_n_1625223.html …

The list goes on, and the point is well made.

Who are the bad people?

Everyone is a good person, right up to the moment when they do something bad. Everyone is sane until the moment they do something crazy.

Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz has added his two cents to the dialogue following the Newtown incident. He thinks the answer is better mental health services; better screening:

The Utah Representative has suggested he would be in favor of legislation that would make it harder for the mentally disturbed to gain access to guns–and especially assault weapons, which was used in the Friday shooting.

Chaffetz said he still thinks most Americans should have access to guns, but that there needs to be something done with regard to quote “lethal weapons and how it relates to mental health.”

This opinion exposes the root fallacy beneath the gun culture: Bad people are “others” — the trick is simply to spot them early, keep guns away from them, and properly arm the “good people” so that they can defend themselves from the others.

What gun advocates ignore is that this event happened because of one of THEM. It was a responsible gun owner, concerned about teaching responsibility to her children, concerned about self defense. It was her kid who did this with her gun.

So when someone like Gohmert or Chaffetz suggests that we need more guns, this is my response: YOU are the problem. You expect US to assume that you are a “good person,” but I don’t trust YOU. I don’t trust your spouse, your kids, your friends and relatives, your neighbors or all the other random people who may gain access to your weapon. Everyone around you is at risk, should the day arrive when you suddenly lose control of your weapon or your senses, all because YOU DEMAND the unconstrained power to kill another person at will.

I have deep sympathy for someone who loses a life or a loved one. I have zero sympathy for someone who loses a gun.

Kate Donovan reminds us that “mental illness” is not the same thing as “evil.”

When we see something like yesterday’s school shooting, many people instantly turn to “mental illness” as the explanation. To some, it seems more compassionate to speak about mental health services, on the assumption that we could avoid these tragedies by providing better detection and screening processes, and better treatment options for those with mental illness. To others, the mental health discussion provides a convenient diversion from politically charged debates about gun control.

But Kate Donovan points out that we should not rush to associate evil with mental illness. The shooter wasn’t necessarily crazy — he could be a mostly sane person who chose to do something extraordinarily evil.  Donovan makes some exceptional points:

But I’m asking you–begging you, really, to not decide that Lanza had a mental illness. I’m asking you not to make “being a good person” the standard for mentally healthy.

Do not try to rationalize this away with mental illness. Stop talking about how it could have been schizophrenia, stop saying he had to have mental health issues. You do not know.

You do not know his state of mind. When you decide to armchair quarterback him, to stamp him with an “obvious” diagnosis, do you know what you are saying?

Here is a terrible thing. The only thing that could possibly cause someone to do such a terrible, tragic thing is to have This Disorder. Because only people with This Disorder could be so dangerous/awful/scary. 

And you, you people who want to look for signs of schizophrenia, who want to talk about how he ‘went crazy’, how he just needed medication, I want you to consider how much harder you are making it for someone to seek treatment.

I want everyone to seek the help they need, and I’d bet you do too.

I want the next person who hears things or sees things, or has invasive thoughts to reach out and have a place to land. I want them to be listened to and to find employment. I want their safety net to care for them and call on the bad days.

I don’t want them torn up with worry that they could be the next shooter, to isolate themselves because they ‘could be dangerous’. I don’t want their friends to worry for their lives. People with mental illness are four times as likely to be the victims of violence. They are more likely to suffer than perpetrate.

You want to care for the living? You want mental health care to be better? Stop making mental illness the scapegoat. You are causing stigma. You are making it harder. You are part of the problem. If today, seeing a therapist was free, treatment was covered as long as it was needed, do you think everyone who needed it would go? If the dominant narrative is that only ‘crazy people’  shoot schoolchildren?