When President Obama announced his new gun control initiative today, he recycled a traditional liberal wish list of band-aid solutions to the problem of gun violence. Most of the proposals, such as a ban on so-called “assault weapons” and “high capacity magazines,” have been tried and have failed to curb violence in numerous locations.
Solutions are made more difficult by the fact that the killers in many of the rampages are killed either by their own hand or by police making it difficult to ascribe motives, but in many cases common elements can be determined. In most of the shootings, the killer had been diagnosed with some form of mental illness or can plausibly be considered to have an undiagnosed mental illness. Other factors, such as video games, movies, or broken families are also common.
In the case of the Sandy Hook school shootings at Newtown, Ct., the Hartford Courant and NBC’s WPTV reported that Adam Lanza was a frequent player of violent first-person shooter video games. Police report that Lanza destroyed his computer before his rampage, so the exact extent of his video gaming may never be known. Lanza was known to have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism and had not seen his father since 2010.
Peter Bell, executive vice president of programs and services at Autism Speaks told PBS that some Asperger’s patients do have trouble controlling aggressive thoughts and behavior, but that there is no evidence linking the condition to violence. Nevertheless, Randi Rentz, a teacher specializing in Asperger’s, notes that some of her students exhibit hostility. There is also the possibility that other undiagnosed forms of mental illness were present along with the Asperger’s.
A few days before the Newtown shooting, Jacob Tyler Roberts killed two people and wounded a third at the Clackamas Mall in Portland, Ore. before being interrupted by a man with a legally owned gun and concealed carry permit. Roberts’ mother died at childbirth and he had never met his father. According to CNN, he lived with an aunt up to age fourteen when he moved out to live on his own. According to CBS, Roberts was also a video gamer.
Although Roberts had not been diagnosed with mental illness, his Facebook page contained the slogan “follow your dreams” stamped with “canceled” according to CNN. He also joked that he was an alcoholic. An ex-girlfriend told ABC News that Roberts had planned to move to Hawaii just prior to the shooting, but got drunk and missed the flight. It is possible that Roberts suffered from undiagnosed depression and alcoholism.
James Holmes, who went on a rampage in a movie theater showing “the Dark Knight” in Colorado in July 2012, apparently came from an intact family, but had seen three mental health professionals at the University of Colorado according to CBS News. Any diagnosis is unknown due to a gag order imposed by the judge in the case, but Holmes reportedly mailed a package to one of the school’s psychiatrists. Because of the gag order, not much information is available about Holmes’ mental state, but Fox News has reported that he was a frequent player of video games including “World of Warcraft,” a role-playing game. One friend told the Telegraph that Holmes preferred “Guitar Hero” to shooter games.
The Week reported that a local gun range owner flagged Holmes after he attempted to join the range. The man called Holmes’ answering machine “bizarre or freakish” and told employees to refer Holmes to him before letting him do anything there. In the months before the killing spree, Holmes’ grades had fallen and he had dropped out of graduate school. Apparently, one of the psychiatrists at the college had become concerned that Holmes might be a potential threat, but he dropped out before her concerns could be addressed according to a report from the local ABC affiliate.
Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others in Tucson in January 2011, was both mentally ill and a video gamer. Several sources, including the Wall St. Journal, report Loughner’s obsession with games. Loughner had a long history of mental illness according to Time. He had made threatening and nonsensical comments to fellow students and teachers at his college. His tests and writings included bizarre and sometimes violent phrases. At times he seemed paranoid and unable to function socially. He was also a frequent user of marijuana which may have made his condition worse. He apparently was rejected for military service due to a failed drug test. He also had stalked several women and, at one point, was involuntarily committed to a mental institution.
A Wall St. Journal investigation of Loughner’s posts in online video game forums showed a number of disturbing posts. He pondered whether one should “hit a Handy Cap Child/Adult” [sic] and theorized that women enjoyed being raped. He also lamented his inability to find a job. According to the report, Loughner played role-playing video games such as “Starcraft,” “Diablo,” and “Earth: 2025.”
Cho Seung-Hui, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, had been diagnosed with mental health problems at an early age according to a well documented report on the massacre by the State of Virginia. In elementary school, he was diagnosed with emotional issues that led to communication problems. In middle school, he was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, lack of verbal skills and immaturity. In 1999, after the Columbine murders, Cho wrote a paper for his English class that indicated that he wanted to carry out a mass murder as well. He was diagnosed with selective mutism in social situations and depression. At this point, he was given a prescription for antidepressants, after which his condition improved.
Cho had an above average IQ and, with special accommodations in high school, his grades were high enough that he was accepted at Virginia Tech. In eleventh grade, he had improved enough that he was able to stop the counseling sessions and never resumed them after he graduated and began attending college.
As a college sophomore, Cho’s grades began to drop. He changed his major to English, a subject that he struggled with. He became disruptive in class and his creative writing assignments reflected dark and violent themes. He was accused of stalking a female student and had stabbed the carpet with a knife at a party. A friend reported that Cho had threatened to kill himself and Cho admitted to having depression and anxiety, although he denied having suicidal thoughts according to ABC News. Cho talked to three counselors, but failed to come to counseling appointments and pursue treatment. Throughout his school career, Cho was known for not speaking or speaking in barely audible tones.
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the Columbine killers, reportedly had different motives and illnesses. According to an assessment published in Slate, Klebold may have suffered from depression while Harris was likely a psychopath. Based on his journal, a panel of psychologists, psychiatrists, and FBI agents point to Harris’ contempt for others and his total lack of empathy and conscience as evidence of his psychopathic tendencies. Dr. Peter Langman, formerly a clinical director at Kids Peace Hospital and author of “Why Kids Kill,” agrees. His analysis of the writings of Klebold and Harris agrees that Harris was a psychopath while Klebold apparently suffered from a variety of psychoses including depression, paranoia, delusions and disorganized thinking. The two teens famously enjoyed violent video games as well.
There seems to be broad support for a system of screening students for mental illness. Dr. Harold Koplewicz wrote in the Huffington Post that 75 percent of psychiatric disorders appear by age 24 and that early intervention greatly improves the prognosis. Dr. Bill Knaus of the Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy network points out that many mentally ill people are not aware of their illness and therefore will not voluntarily seek help. A particularly dangerous time seems to be when people stop taking their medication, especially if they do so abruptly and without supervision.
A sensible solution to the problem of then mentally ill committing massacres would seem to be reforming laws to allow state and local governments more flexibility in involuntarily committing people who might be a danger to themselves and others. This should include follow up visits to confirm that they remain on their medication and that their condition remains stable. This may also require that privacy laws be amended so that information can be shared between agencies. Such an approach has been used in Colorado where Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, reformed the state’s involuntary treatment laws in the wake of James Holmes’ killing spree.
If he were serious about reducing violence, President Obama could also pressure his supporters in Hollywood to reduce the glorification of violence in movies and video games. As Lt. Col. Dave Grossman describes on killology.com, violent images and games can condition children to kill in much the same manner that armies condition soldiers to be able to pull the trigger. Although popular culture does not turn all children into remorseless killers, the combination of cultural cues and mental illness may combine to push some people over the edge.
Likewise, President Obama could use his bully pulpit to seek reform of federal entitlement programs and tax law to strengthen families. Children from single parent families and broken homes are far more likely to turn to crime and violence than children who come from stable families. Single parent families are also far more likely to live in poverty and require government assistance as well.
There is a legitimate role for the government to play in keeping firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill, a role that is more appropriate for state and local authorities than the federal government. Unfortunately, President Obama seems more intent on taking Rahm Emanuel’s crisis management advice to seize the moment to push for more of the same old liberal agenda.