I generally try to avoid jumping on media bandwagons when picking topics to explore, here, but I’ve seen one too many glib quotes from people who want to explain the world as having one big problem that just so happens to coincide with their worldview. I get as choked up as anyone else reading about the Sandy Hook shooting, but there’s some hard facts that demand recognition.
This is going to happen again. And again. And again. No matter what.
The only factors we can control are the frequency and the severity. I’m entirely on board with much stronger gun control – but we’re kidding ourselves if we think it was a lack of legislation that allowed this event to happen. Broad legislation is not effective in dealing with lone individuals that aren’t a part of any organization or group. It’s the same with drugs; prosecuting users is a waste of time, and that’s why the focus of law enforcement agencies is on producers and distributors. The goal is to reduce availability and increase the cost of acquisition to the point that it’s no longer desirable or feasible, particularly at larger scales.
We don’t live in a world where it’s possible to eliminate access to anything. If a guy wants to buy an assault rifle or some heroin, there are myriad ways to do it, whether it’s through making the right friends, going outside of the country, or through the internet. We haven’t even reached the true age of darknets – but I’ve already heard a number of tales from different people that systems like the Silk Road are quite real and very efficient. The guy in this case didn’t even use clandestine means to acquire his weapons, but there’s no reason to doubt that he would have gone to great lengths to get what he wanted to achieve his goals. This isn’t even touching on 3D printing of guns and ammunition.
Yes, there is an argument to be made that such ease of access reduces the required threshold of effort – but I guarantee you that an individual like Lanza is not married to guns as the only means of violence. The easiest and most relevant example here is Andrew Kehoe, who exclusively used bombs. The Columbine shooters also made bombs – they just didn’t use them. If we’re talking about an individual that’s willing to kill children, we’re talking about an individual that is not reasonable and almost certainly not mentally stable. That’s why this is going to happen again.
The Samuel L. Jackson quote that’s been going around is nothing short of absurd. Society didn’t fail to teach Lanza the value of life – no one has to be taught that mass murder is wrong because our own sense of empathy will almost always kick in and tell us we’re thinking something pretty screwed up. That’s because empathy is innate, but there are people who come with more of it and people who come with less of it – or even none of it. Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and one of the key features of the autistic spectrum is an inability to empathize with other human beings. If you want to know how another human being could point an assault rifle at a 6 year-old and pull the trigger, the answer is the same as how you can go to a shooting range and shoot wooden pallets. People without the ability to empathize do not see humans as being particularly different from anything else in the environment, which is why a lack of eye contact in infancy is a strong predictor of autism.
It frustrates me to no end when people throw up their hands and say “How could this happen?” as if this were the first time, as if this time were fundamentally different from the previous incidents. We’ve been dealing with entirely unwarranted massacres of innocent adults and children for all of human history, and explaining this as being some indicator of a change in values within American society is nothing but a red herring to try and advance an agenda. Similarly, as much as I agree with the need for stronger gun control legislation, I don’t think it’s the most relevant precipitating factor here.
Until we, as a global society, develop reliable and efficient methods for recognizing critical differences in mental function, somewhere around .1% of our population is going to present a high degree of risk to the rest of us. Morality doesn’t change the nature of psychosis, and stronger legislation is unlikely to stop a single psychotic individual from subverting the law. More reliable diagnosis and more effective treatment for psychological disorders is the best prevention we can hope for.