In the beginning.

skyfairy droppings

TShirtThis is my first post on this blog. I’ve written several blogs in the past on mostly benign personal stuff. This one is a bit different. It has its origins in the aftermath of the tragic Sandy Hook School shootings. I cannot even come close to imagining the sheer terror and horror witnessed and experienced by the survivors and the slaughtered. The families and community of the slain need everyone’s support and empathy. It is not a time to blame, shame or name. That will come out in the course of time. It is a time for healing and a time for society to reflect on where it is and where it is going.

Shortly after, the shootings I read an article on line where Bryan Fisher, Director of the American Famiiy Association claimed the tragedy was an act of godliness in American schools. At first reading I dismissed as…

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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. …

We need a federal agent at every cancer hospital …

We need a federal agent at every marriage proposal …

We need a federal agent at every gun range. …

We need a federal agent at every zoo …

We need a federal agent at every public swimming pool …

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

Bring out the crazies

Sigh. Immediately following the Newtown tragedy, all varieties of media lit up with critiques about groups who might try to capitalize on the event to serve their own political motives. These critiques were initially directed at gun-control activists. But now a growing variety of crazies — some of them in positions of influence — are using Newtown as a backdrop to air their own fringe viewpoints. Among the more popular fringe ideas are coming from the prayer-in-school and anti-evolution camps, who are circulating messages like this one, titled “Darwin at fault for massacre,” that appeared in my local paper. According to the letter’s author, Geoff Vongermeten:

Not until Darwin goes away and in the view of humanity being specially created by God in his image can we ever hope to stem the tide of mass murder and war. Cain started it. Darwin legitimized it. Who’s going to stop it? The tools are not the problem. The philosophy is the problem!

While my local paper is known for attracting cave-dwelling weirdos, PZ Myers has assembled a round-up of comments that commanded substantial influence during the past week. The most common viewpoint seems to be that Newtown was divine punishment. A popular poem has been circulating which insinuates that Jesus wanted to “take back his schools,” i.e. Jesus had the Newtown children assassinated so that he could open an elementary school in heaven. These ideas are completely zany, but they are echoed by people like James Dobson who command a large national audience.

Conservative Christians seem to blame all tragic events on modernity, on science or secularism, or because of gays or other groups who they think aren’t receiving enough hate from our culture. I suppose it shouldn’t be too shocking that might see Newtown as a divine act, since the God of the Bible so often orders or permits infanticide. Even the first Christmas was marked by an act of mass infanticide. So that isn’t shocking. But what is shocking is that people of the 21st century still believe that this is a good model for a just and moral society. That’s plain nuts.

Massacre of the Innocents

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?

Let’s talk about gun control

For months the gun control topic has been forcing its way onto the radar of American political discussion. For months we have seen one tragedy after another, and the response from gun advocates has been simple, stupid diversion: “Now is not the time to have this discussion.” Why is it not the time? Supposedly we shouldn’t talk about guns while we’re upset, because we might do something we regret. Another version is that it we should delay any discussion until sufficient time has passed after a tragedy. But the tragedies are stacking up one after the other.  Today we saw the second worst mass school shooting in American history, and the victims were mostly young children. Gun lobby: SHUT UP. You are not helping. It is tune to set aside hackneyed platitudes and 18th century pseudo-philosophies, and start thinking about actual policy options that exist, that have been demonstrated in other countries, and that could work effectively to reduce the frequency and magnitude of these tragic events in the United States.

When are we allowed to engage in a meaningful dialogue about this? April 2012: Oakland Christian College shooting; that wasn’t the time. May-June: dozens of wildfires started by gunfire (including a fire that threatened my house); that wasn’t the time. July: Batman theater shooting; wasn’t the time. August: Sikh temple and Empire State Building shootings; wasn’t the time. September: Minnesota workplace rampage; wasn’t the time. October: Wisconsin mall shooting; wasn’t the time. November: California meat plant shooting; still not the time. December: this. Are we allowed to talk about gun control yet?

As a sobering comparison, there was also a mass stabbing of school children in China today. The difference: “none were seriously injured.” The gun lobby enjoys repeating their hackneyed slogan that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It should be obvious, though, that guns make killing easy, efficient, and quick — usually too fast for heroic intervention before someone is hurt or killed. The gun advocates also claim that “if someone wants to do something, they would find a way.” I don’t presume to have developed a policy strategy that will deliver 100% effectiveness, but I do think its time for these nonconstructive “do nothing” arguments to go away. It will always be possible for bad people to obtain weapons (legal or otherwise) and use them against people. This doesn’t mean we need to surrender and make it easy for them. There is no reason to believe that a person with criminal motives would necessarily succeed, were the laws different and their enforcement more effective. In all but one of the incidents I named above, the perpetrator used a legally purchased weapon, often obtained at short notice. In some cases the guns were obtained via loopholes relating to online purchases, where a transaction may be technically illegal but the law is unenforceable. The one black-market weapon was stolen locally in a burglary from its legal owner — i.e. it originated among the legally accessible supply and was not well guarded by its owner.

Surely we can do better — we can make it harder to obtain firearms, maintain scrutiny on those who own them, and impose penalties on owners who do not take reasonable steps to protect their weapons from theft. Assault rifles like the one used today are trivial to obtain. They can be purchased with a few clicks by any psycho with a credit card. There is no compelling purpose for private citizens to own these weapons. An assault rifle will not help to stop a crime. A concealed pistol will not help to stop a madman from shooting someone — the best you can do is try and stop him after he’s already started spraying bullets. If we’re being honest, the gun debate reduces to a simple choice of priorities: recreational gun use on one side, and the lives of the innocent on the other. It is impossible to believe that the number and severity of gun murders would be unaffected by tighter gun controls. If we make it more difficult to assemble an arsenal, then it is less likely that someone can prepare a mass crime without getting caught along the way. Any idiot can see this. If you still resist this conclusion, and the policy discussion it requires, then you are admitting that you don’t value the lives of victims, at least not so much as you value your own hobbies.