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Despair, Mental Health, and Mass Murder

The theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado—just miles from Columbine, and coming after NIU and Virginia Tech—have gun control back in the news again. Similar incidents led to the 1994 assault-weapons ban, though it was not particularly good or effective law. Public policy is difficult, but that’s not a reason for hopelessness.

1. When details about the alleged killer in Aurora began to emerge, the first thing I thought of was not Columbine, despite its proximity, but NIU. Both were graduate students in their 20s; both were intelligent, with a record of academic success; and both, sadly enough, had academic training in and proximity to the study of mental illness and crime, respectively. The former was studying with people researching psychosis, psychopathy, depression, bipolar disorders, and schizophrenia, among other things; the latter presented papers on self-injury in correctional facilities and whether people on antipsychotics should be able to acquire firearms, and had a particular interest in prisons.

And the NIU killer, as David Vann detailed in his Esquire profile, had access to mental-health treatment:

He stops taking the Prozac, and just like when he went off it in the fall, everything gets worse. His obsessive-compulsive disorder, his checking behaviors, his anxiety. Jessica recalls him sitting secretively on the couch during this period. He keeps his laptop screen facing away from her, closes it if she gets too close. Sometimes she’s talking, and he doesn’t even realize she’s been talking. She tells him he’s acting strange, she won’t get off his case until finally he admits he’s off his meds and tells her why.

One of the immediate responses to the Aurora tragedy was calls for increased access to mental health facilities. But the alleged perpetrator was enrolled in a PhD. program—one devoted to the study of the brain—and came from a well-off, highly educated family; it’s a reasonable assumption, I think, that access, strictly speaking, was not the primary issue, as it wasn’t in the NIU case. This is not to say that access to mental-health treatment is irrational, or that it wouldn’t prevent other tragedies under different circumstances, just to remember that mental health is complex, and that even while pursuing public-policy solutions, we should temper our expectations. Expanding mental-health access to address the possibility of mass murder is like investing in infrastructure to, say, improve civic infrastructure to facilitate escape from a natural disaster—yes, it could help and likely would, but there are more immediate and practical reasons to do it.

2. I’m a bit surprised at the immediate hopelessness from prominent members of the media. Even before the bodies had been removed from the theater, The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta was quick to tell us that everything everyone else was about to do was pointless:

Warning signs are identified as the alleged shooter’s past is plumbed. We ask if violent movies are to blame for his actions. Or cuts to mental-health services. And talk about what kind of country we are, if we have culture of violence. The death toll fluctuates. International voices from countries where guns are heavily regulated shake their heads at us. People leave piles of flowers and teddy bears at the shooting site. There are candlelight vigils, and teary memorials. Everyone calls for national unity and a moment of togetherness. Eventually, the traumatized community holds a big healing ceremony. It is moving, and terribly sad, and watched by millions on TV or online. A few activists continue to make speeches. The shooter, if still alive, rapidly is brought to trial. There is another wave of public discussion about our failures, and the nature of evil. Politicians make feints at gun-law changes, which fail. And then everyone forgets and moves on. Everyone, that is, except the survivors.

“Everyone” except the people who will write books about it, and who will continue to study it. It’s worth noting here that we didn’t really get a full understanding of the Columbine shooters until five years after the incident, when the FBI went public about its deep analysis of the perpetrators. The author of that piece, Dave Cullen, produced an excellent book about it, instead of forgetting. It took him a decade. (Update: Cullen has an op-ed about how little we knew about Columbine for years—how little he knew, until he studied it while working on Columbine.)

In a widely shared piece, Roger Ebert expressed a similar feeling, if not in such a condescending tone:

Should this young man — whose nature was apparently so obvious to his mother that, when a ABC News reporter called, she said “You have the right person” — have been able to buy guns, ammunition and explosives? The gun lobby will say yes. And the endless gun control debate will begin again, and the lobbyists of the National Rifle Association will go to work, and the op-ed thinkers will have their usual thoughts, and the right wing will issue alarms, and nothing will change. And there will be another mass murder.

That James Holmes is insane, few may doubt. Our gun laws are also insane, but many refuse to make the connection.

Things don’t change, until they do. A century ago, massacres were not the work of lone madmen; they were the result of tensions between labor and management. Of the five massacres in Colorado history, two were mass shootings by one or two people acting from unknown motives or mental illness, and two (the Columbine Mine massacre and the Ludlow massacre) originated in labor battles; the fifth was the killing of Cheynne and Arapaho by a Colorado militia in 1864. The deadliest massacre in Illinois history was the Herrin massacre, yet another coal strike. These were common throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And they don’t happen anymore, because of cultural changes and indirect public policy changes. The same is true with lynchings; there were almost 5,000 between the 1860s and 1960s, as anti-lynching bills were defeated by Congress.

In 1994, things did change: the federal assault weapons ban was passed. It was not particularly good law. There were loopholes, and it expired after ten years, meaning that its prohibitions against large magazines (the kind used in the Aurora shootings, though reports indicate that the semi-automatic assault rifle jammed) never fully took effect, as grandfathered magazines continued to circulate.

How did we get there? Some of the impetus was mass shootings:

The early 1990s witnessed a scary flurry of high-profile mass murders, including Gang Lu’s 1991 shooting spree at the University of Iowa, the 1991 massacre of 23 lunchtime diners at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, and the slaughter of eight people inside a San Francisco law firm at the hands of a disgruntled former client. The anxiety and publicity over these and other shooting rampages prompted Congress to pass and President Bill Clinton to sign the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, better known as the Assault Weapons Ban. This federal law included, however, a 10-year sunset provision stipulating that the ban would expire if not extended by Congress. By 2004, the mood in the country and on Capitol Hill had shifted to the right, and efforts by a minority of elected officials to reaffirm the prohibition failed to avert expiration.

But it wasn’t just mass shootings that inspired the ban; it was also the high urban crime of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Henry Hyde, whose leadership was crucial to the passage of the ban, was convinced not by the high-profile national shootings, but by local murders:

As soon as the briefing book from Feinstein arrived at his Rayburn Building office, Hyde pushed aside the chaos on his desk, settled into reading the thick document with its seven sections and quickly came to the one made up solely of murders in Chicago, whose suburbs Hyde represents. There was Gerome Allen, a local basketball player who was shot with an AK-47 by another teenager outside a supermarket; the 7-year-old fatally wounded while walking to school with his mother; the Chicago Housing Authority police officer who was killed by an AR-15 as he walked back to his patrol car at the end of his shift. “At the end of reading this list of bloody crimes, I had to conclude these guns have no purpose but to kill a lot of people very rapidly,” said Hyde. “It wasn’t like falling off a horse on the road to Damascus. But like many things complicated and emotional, you don’t dwell on them unless forced to. Then somebody grabs you by the collar when there’s a vote coming up, the pieces fit together and you say to yourself, ‘This is wrong.’ ”

That waned, and so did the urgency of the assault-weapons ban.

Gun-rights advocates are correct to point out that banning assault weapons, large magazines, and certain automatic and semi-automatic weapons would not, on its own, prevent mass murders. The ban was in effect during Columbine, the perpetrators of which used a mix of firearms that weren’t banned and ones that were but were grandfathered in. Four people were killed with a basic pump-action shotgun, four with the semi-automatic TEC DC-9. In both Columbine and Aurora, more people would have died if the handmade explosive devices built in both cases had detonated.

But we regularly accept regulations that are meant to minimize harm, with the knowledge that they will not eliminate it. Cars and streets are regulated in the United States, though to a lesser extent than other countries. More powerful vehicles are more tightly regulated—it’s inexpensive and easy to obtain a driver’s license, more expensive and harder to get a CDL, harder still to get a pilot’s license, and those more dangerous vechicles are subject to usage regulations. I can drive a car all night if I want to; if I’m driving a tractor-trailer, I’m subject to limitations that are meant to keep me from driving tired. We regulate substances, everything from paint to booze to food, to lessen the potential for harm. The AR-15, the semiautomatic weapon used in Aurora, is legal in many countries, but typically highly regulated; in Germany, a legal hunting version can fire only three bullets before reloading.

The assault-weapons ban targeted infrequently used weapons, and somewhat more frequently used large-capacity magazines:

The few available studies suggest that attacks with semiautomatics – including AWs and other semiautomatics equipped with LCMs – result in more shots fired, more persons hit, and more wounds inflicted per victim than do attacks with other firearms. Further, a study of handgun attacks in one city found that 3% of the gunfire incidents resulted in more than 10 shots fired, and those attacks produced almost 5% of the gunshot victims.

And in that limited arena, it did have some success:

Following implementation of the ban, the share of gun crimes involving AWs declined by 17% to 72% across the localities examined for this study (Baltimore, Miami, Milwaukee, Boston, St. Louis, and Anchorage), based on data covering all or portions of the 1995-2003 post-ban period. This is consistent with patterns found in national data on guns recovered by police and reported to ATF.

But it was not a very restrictive law, and the measurable effects were modest to non-existent.

If any specific laws come in the wake of the Aurora shootings, do not be surprised if they are similarly minimal in scale; after Hyde ushered in passage of the 1994 ban, he was

handed a picture of Hitler, compared to Marshal [Phillipe] Petain and accused of betraying his oath. The experience has made him wonder whether “people can honestly change their minds and still be fellow citizens and deserve space on this planet.”

But even a modest effect can lessen harm; while it will not prevent mass shootings, it would likely lessen the number of shots fired. That may seem pathetically meager after such tragedy, but public policy advances in small steps, balanced between the protections and freedoms we agree to write into law.

Gun control is not the only front, and the only cure. Previous waves of mass violence, like labor massacres and lynchings, are a thing of the past not because the means were eliminated, but because the culture changed, thanks in some part to indirect public policy but mostly due to the continued vigilance of many people about many, many things. Did they forget specific instances of violence? Unquestionably; with nearly 5,000 lynchings over the course of a century, no one could know all of them, much less remember them (and it took a vast effort to produce that total). But the totality of them lingered—forgotten, but not gone.

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