Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lessons from Newtown: Where Do We Go From Here?

Christmas in Connecticut
Dear God, not again. Not little kids. Not eleven days before Christmas.
Mere moments had passed after I heard the terrible news of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut before the words of the Evangelist in Matthew 2:18 came to mind:
            “A voice was heard in Ramah,
                        weeping and loud lamentation,
            Rachel weeping for her children;
                        she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
“…they… are… no… more…” Like millions of other Americans images flashed through my mind of young innocents near and dear to me. In my case, it was the faces of my grandsons that I saw. “This could have been Mitchell… it could have been Benjamin.” I felt a cold lump in my stomach. Tears, unbidden, welled up in my eyes. God help us.
Now the entire nation joins the heartbroken people of Newtown in trying to make sense of an inherently senseless act. It is a futile exercise. How can you find reason in madness? For madness, regardless of any legal definition, is the only word that adequately describes the actions of Adam Lanza on Friday, December 14, 2012. In the space of a few minutes Adam Lanza went from obscurity to infamy by violating four fundamental taboos of the human race: he murdered his own mother, he murdered half a dozen other women who were all strangers to him, he murdered scores of very young and innocent children, and then he murdered himself. If you are a healthy, well-adjusted, normal human being—regardless of your race, ethnicity, nationality, educational level or any other classification you care to choose—you will find it impossible to truly understand, much less empathize with whatever could lead a person to commit such vile acts. We can try. You might be able to concoct some theoretical circumstances that might lead you, in an act of final desperation to take your life. You might conceive of some horrific state of affairs—perhaps a lifetime of particularly cruel abuse—that would lead a young man to kill his own mother. But the indiscriminate killing of strangers is much harder to rationalize. How do you ever justify spraying gunfire into the bodies of young women who had never done you any harm, who were in fact strangers to you, and who in several instances died sacrificing themselves while trying to protect the children in their care?
Yet as incomprehensible as that action is, the greatest evil committed by Adam Lanza—the act that will forever sear his name into our corporate memory as one of the great monsters of American history—was his slaughter of very young and innocent children. Six and seven year old boys and girls. Children so young that they still wrote letters to Santa Claus. Children whose faces still bore that clear-eyed look of innocence that is forever lost by the time we turn ten—a look that no adult face has borne since the sin of the first Adam. Children whose greatest “sins” to date consisted of failing to clean their plates or leaving their toys on the stairs. Children so little and young and innocent that they had not yet reached the age of accountability that theologians speak of, that age when God begins to hold us morally accountable for our actions. They were defenseless and dependent and trusting. And somehow as a society we let them down.
So we now rightly engaged in asking ourselves how we can keep the next Adam Lanza from unleashing hell on the innocent among us. For if the history of the last twenty or thirty years has taught us nothing else, surely it has taught us that another killer waits in the wings. What, if anything, can we do to prevent another senseless slaughter?
To find answers we must first accurately define the problem. Facts, as I am fond of saying, are our friends. Perceptions are not always accurate. What does the hard data tell us? So the first question we need to ask and honestly answer is whether or not the widespread perception that violence in our society in general and in our schools in particular is growing is, indeed, accurate. And the surprising answer over the course of the last twenty years is “No”.
Declining Violent Crime
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, violent crime rates in the U.S. since the early ‘90s are down across the board in every major category. In the 50 year period from 1960 through 2010 violent crime in America rose from a low in 1961 until it peaked in 1991 and 1992. Since then it has been dropping consistently. In the early ‘60s the murder rate was 4.6 per 100,000. It peaked at 10.2 in 1980 and then peaked again at 9.8 in 1991. But by 2010 it had dropped to 4.8, down 51% in 19 years and the lowest level since 1963. This was not a fluke. The drop has been steady and has been matched or exceeded by similar drops in other violent crime categories such as forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. With the exception of the murder rate, none of the other categories have approached the low levels of the early ‘60s but the drops have been significant and show no sign of slowing.
What about school violence?
Again, we find a 20 year decline. Violent crime in schools has decreased significantly since the early 1990s. Dr. Dewey Cornell is a clinical psychologist and professor of education at the University of Virginia. He has been studying school violence for decades. Mass shootings such as what happened at Newtown inevitably reinforce a perception that schools are dangerous places. “But that’s just not true,” says Cornell. Cornell’s research shows that not only have schools become safer, but kids are far more secure on school campuses than anywhere else they normally go. This year there are almost 55 million children (K-12) in public and privates schools. 23 have been killed by guns in school. That’s 1 in 2.4 million—about the same odds that your child will be struck and killed by lightening.
Violence has always existed in schools in America. But for most of American history gun violence in schools was rare and has tended to involve situations where a student, teacher, or parent was seeking to settle a score with one or two other people. Additional injuries or deaths were usually inadvertent. Indiscriminate mass murder in a school was almost unheard of prior to the infamous Clock Tower shootings at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966. One notable exception was on May 18, 1927 in Bath, Michigan, just north of Lansing. School treasurer Andrew Kehoe, after killing his wife and destroying his house and farm, blew up the Bath Consolidated School by detonating dynamite in the basement of the school, killing 38 people, mostly children. He then pulled up to the school in his Ford car and set off a bomb, killing himself and four others. The final death toll was 45. This remains the deadliest act of mass murder at a school in United States history. Yet only one gunshot was fired, the one used to detonate the dynamite in the car.
The worst school shooting incident in world history was not in the U.S. but in Beslan, Russia on August 1, 2004 when 386 people were killed in a politically motivated attack. School attacks in Israel, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada resulting in large death tolls were also, in most cases, politically motivated.
It was 33 years after the Clock Tower shootings before the U.S. saw another school shooting that resulted in a double-digit death toll. On April 20, 1999 the nation was horrified by the Columbine massacre which left 15 people dead, all but one high school students, in Littleton, Colorado.
On March 21, 2005 in Red Lake, Minnesota 16-year-old Jeff Weise went on a shooting spree that left 10 dead.
Two years later on April 16, 2007 we saw the horror of the Virginia Tech massacre with 32 dead—the worst shooting-related death toll on a school campus in American history.
And then there was Newtown.
Increasing Rampage Violence
These incidents and similar ones away from school campuses such as the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others at a political event in Tucson, represent a type of mass murder that some have termed “rampage violence”. These high-profile events capture the national consciousness and cause some to doubt the crime statistics cited above. How can violent crime be declining, they ask, when such shooting sprees are becoming more common? These events almost always trigger heated debates over gun control laws, shifts in the culture, and the role of violent media, particularly video games. The shootings in Newtown are a case in point.
As one researcher put it, “Incidents of mass murder have gained considerable media attention, but are not well understood in behavioral sciences. Current definitions are weak, and may include politically or ideologically motivated phenomenon. Our current understanding of the phenomenon indicates these incidents are not peculiar to only western cultures, and appear to be increasing.”
As another writer put it, “These types of events can lead to despair about their inevitability and unpredictability. To understand and prevent rampage violence, we need to acknowledge that current discipline-based violence research is not well suited to this specific challenge.”
One psychiatrist writing on the subject calls these mass killers pseudocommandos. “The pseudocommando is a type of mass murderer who kills in public during the daytime, plans his offense well in advance, and comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons. He has no escape planned and expects to be killed during the incident. Research suggests that the pseudocommando is driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, flowing from beliefs about being persecuted or grossly mistreated. He views himself as carrying out a highly personal agenda of payback.”
One of the challenges of doing meaningful study of these rampage shootings is actually their rarity. The sample is so small that any generalized conclusions are of doubtful value. For instance, the fact that some of these killers wore black and identified in some way with the Goth subculture may give us clues about their motivations but nothing that can lead us to confident conclusions, any more than if they all turned out to be left-handed or all had red hair. Statistical analysis is meaningful only if the sample is large enough to eliminate chance and coincidence. If there had been 200 such mass killings and we found that 85% of the killers were Goths, or the products of broken homes, or were clinically depressed, or were addicted to violent video games, then that would be meaningful.
So while a meaningful profile of rampage killers may elude us at present, what we can say based on the very definition of rampage killing is that their goal is to kill—to kill lots of people and to kill them quickly. Their weapon of choice is a gun, a gun the fires lots of bullets fast.
While violent crime in the United States is down, homicides still claim about 15,000 lives a year. More than half of all murders in a given year are committed with guns. As a 2011 United Nations report notes, America has a “relatively high homicide rate compared to other countries with a similar socio-economic level,” but per-capita homicide rates in the Caribbean, Central America and Africa are often much higher.
And so the debate about gun control resurfaces every time a rampage shooting takes place. Is there anything that we can do as a society to keep guns out of the hands of school children and to minimize the probability of incidents such as the nightmare of Newtown?
The quick answer, unfortunately, is probably not much.
Gun Control
Connecticut has some of the toughest gun regulations in the U.S. It is ranked fifth among the states by one pro gun control organization. Three days before the Newtown slaughter Adam Lanza was refused purchase of a gun at a local Gander Mountain store because he refused to submit to a background check. So he stole his mother’s guns and proceeded with his plans.
It is estimated that there are 310 million non-military guns are in circulation in the United States. Any attempt to take even a single category of firearms out of circulation presents almost insurmountable obstacles.
First, there is the constitutional barrier. Recent court rulings have strengthened the arguments of gun enthusiasts for a broad definition of the right to bear arms. So gun control with real teeth such as can be found in the UK or in many European countries would require a constitutional amendment. Given the deeply divisive politics around this issue and the incredible political clout of lobbyist groups such as the National Rifle Association, an attempt to pass a constitutional amendment is almost predestined to failure. In the extremely unlikely event that an amendment passed congress it would arrive D.O.A. in most statehouses.
Were an amendment actually passed, it would then face the challenge of implementation. Most of the guns in circulation are unregistered and there is no practical way of knowing who owns what. Guns are sold from person to person on a cash basis every day with no records whatsoever. Any ban would cause the black market in gun sales to boom. Angry gun owners suspicious of government motives—citizens who are now law-abiding individuals—would engage in criminal activity to circumvent the new gun laws. A buy-back of privately owned guns such as took place in Australia some years ago in the wake of a mass killing would be prohibitively expensive given the size of the task in the U.S. and would be resisted by many. And any effort to seize guns from individuals by force would be guaranteed to lead to bloody standoffs between law enforcement officers and hard-core gun owners. Membership in right-wing militia groups would skyrocket. It would be Prohibition all over again—only a lot bloodier.
The hard truth is that banning guns will do little to stop gun violence. Just look at Chicago.
As Esther Cepeda pointed out in a column yesterday, “Illinois is the only state in the nation that doesn't have some form of concealed carry law, and Chicago itself effectively outlaws any kind of gun possession. Yet at midyear, gun violence was mostly to blame for this startling statistic: More Chicago residents had been killed in the city than the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan - 144 soldiers compared to 228 victims in the Windy City.”
A Few Small Steps
I’m not a psychiatrist, a politician, or an authority on constitutional law. I own a couple old guns: a 12 gauge shotgun and a .22 caliber rifle; both pump actions and neither of which has even been loaded, much less fired, in decades. They probably have cobwebs in their barrels. I have a personal bias towards individual liberty and against intrusive governmental regulations. But I will venture here to say that some small steps must be taken to try to prevent future Newtown massacres and to reduce overall gun violence of the more pedestrian varieties. My suggested steps may be more symbolic than substantive, but perhaps they would help to begin to shift the nature and tone of the debate toward a more helpful direction. Surely there are a few things that people of good will on all sides of the debate can agree on.
1.      We must do a better job of securing firearms to keep them out of the hands of children. Every so often we hear of yet another case of an elementary-age child bringing a parent’s loaded weapon to school, sometimes with tragic consequences. There is simply no excuse for such criminal negligence. And it ought to be just that—CRIMINAL. While not every gun owner can afford to buy an expensive gun safe, anyone who can afford a gun can afford some chain and a padlock to prevent their easy removal from the premises. A cheap lock box for storing ammunition can prevent a child from loading that gun. Some trigger locks are available for under $10.  Such simple steps will all but eliminate the problem of young children getting their hands on deadly weapons that they are not ready to handle safely. Failure to secure a firearm ought to be a first class misdemeanor. In a home with minor children it ought to be a felony.
2.      Many of the most favored weapons of mass killers are useless to sportsmen. You couldn’t legally use them against game. High capacity, short barreled, rapid fire rifles were designed for only one purpose: to kill multiple human beings at close range with great speed. They may be wonderful weapons for use by soldiers in close urban combat situations. Unfortunately they are equally well designed for use by homicidal maniacs in a school, an office, or a shopping mall. If you need a weapon for home defense, few things can beat a good old fashioned 12-gauge shotgun. The so-called assault rifle is overkill for such home use. So unless you are a member of the armed forces, serve on a police SWAT team, or are a mass murderer, a drug dealer, or militia member planning armed insurrection against the United States, you have no need to own one. And I believe that assault rifles should be classified along with other weapons of war, like grenade launchers, mortars, and tanks. The average citizen has no more business owning an AK-47 than they have mounting a 50-caliber Browning machine gun in the back of their Ford F-150 pickup for use in opening up congested traffic lanes on their drive to work.
3.      Any cop can tell you that most gun violence is directly tied to the illegal drug trade. Monday, December 17 marked the 98th anniversary of the 1914 signing of the Harrison Narcotics Act which imposed the first legal controls on the sale of opiates and cocaine. This was government’s opening salvo—the fed’s declaration of war on drugs—a war that we have consistently been losing ever since. If we are really serious about limiting gun and gang violence it is time that we fundamentally reconsider our approach to the drug problem.
4.      What is the root cause of the kind of unfocused hatred that leads to these mass killings? While no one today can give a definitive answer to that question, it needs to be answered if possible. There is no shortage of opinions being offered but few are supported by more than a personal hunch or worse, a political agenda that is in search of headlines to further it. To me a good starting point might be to ask why rampage violence seems to be increasing when all other violence is waning. It seems to me if the root problem was, for instance, the prevalence of violence in movies and games, then it ought to be reflected by an across-the-board increase in violence, at least among teens and young adults. Yet that is not the case. As a pastor it would be easy for me to point the finger of blame on unregenerate human hearts. And of course, that is the fundamental cause of all the ills that plague us. But such an answer is too all-encompassing to be of much practical value. It’s about like saying that coastal flooding is caused by too much water without considering the consequences of building homes in an area subject to periodic flooding. I think the time is now for a serious, multi-disciplined, intense study of the problem; a study that cuts across party lines and looks at the problem holistically; a study with a reasonable deadline and with an expectation for action items to follow.
5.      I don’t pretend to have thought through all aspects of the problem confronting us. One obvious omission is the whole challenge of dealing with emotionally and/or mentally unbalanced individuals, a problem I don’t feel competent to even comment on. What I am not prepared to support is turning our schools into armed camps. I don’t want my grandchildren to be forced to attend schools designed like super-max prisons—windowless dungeons where they must breathe filtered air, secured behind metal detectors and razor wire with teachers roaming the hallways with Uzis clipped to their bullet-proof vests. If that is the future of education I will lobby for illiteracy.

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