Last week’s school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut is another in what is becoming a string of tragic mass shootings in the U.S. In an attempt to understand and perhaps prevent these horrific incidents from happening again people are immediately moved to seek reasons for the mayhem – but there are no simple answers and unfortunately, attention spans are sometimes far too short..
In 1979 an unlikely song sat at the top of the pop music charts in the U.K. for four weeks and became a rallying point across the world. Written by Bob Geldof and performed by his band the Boomtown Rats, the song “I Don’t Like Mondays” memorialized the January, 1979 shooting spree at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California in which two adults were killed and eight children and one police officer were injured. When the shooter, 16 year old Brenda Ann Spencer, was captured and asked why she went on the shooting spree she responded “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” And that was all there is.
Many talking heads are gracing the media airwaves with ideas and theories about what may have caused the most recent tragedy in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I am going to briefly summarize what we know about individuals who commit such acts of what appears to be random violence. First, most of these situations are well planned. The shooters take their time to think about what they will do and how they plan on achieving their goal. The concept of randomness does not apply in these situations.
We also know, after having seen far too many mass murders of innocents, that the shooter usually has a background of one or more predisposing factors. These include having few family resources, limited or conflicted parental supervision, social skills difficulties and a history of school performance problems The more of these predisposing factors a person has experienced the more likely it is that they will act out.
A history of a mental illness diagnosis is often found in the individual who becomes a mass murderer though the diagnosis may be an incomplete or erroneous one. This is most likely because these individuals have usually not had any form of consistent therapy or treatment. If an individual has a dual diagnosis, that is they have more then one diagnosed psychological disorder, they are more likely to be violent. People with a dual diagnosis are difficult to treat and the mental health system in the U.S is inadequate in getting help for many of these individuals.
Shooters sometimes escape into brutal fantasies, often with the aid of violent images, video games or bloody movies. Many people watch and play with these types of media and do not act violently toward others but individuals with a background that includes the symptoms and personal histories that I have listed above are much more prone to engaging in violence in the real world outside of the media fantasies.
And then there is the hot button issue of gun control. People who have weapons who are not trained in their proper use and do not have to prove that they are competent to handle weapons and can get even more weapons without any form of basic evaluation or qualification are the ones most likely to use them to harm others.
The Boomtown Rats sang, in the last verse of “I Don’t Like Mondays” – “And the (Police) Captain tackles with the problems and the how’s and why’s, And he can see no reason cos’ there are no reasons”.
To prevent future episodes of these types of tragedies requires a concerted effort to identify and care for individuals with emotional, behavioral and psychological needs; to limit the degree of violence our children are exposed to; and to restrict gun sales to only competent and well trained individuals. Even then we may never be able to prevent all such tragedies.