Can We Prevent More Newtowns?


Speaking at a memorial in Newtown

Will any serious policy changes result from Friday’s massacre of 20 children and 6 staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct.?

If past history is any guide, the sad answer is probably not.

Many experts who track the many issues involved conclude that American culture and laws are such that ultimately, such incidents cannot be prevented entirely.

There will be serious discussions in the weeks ahead on issues such as school safety, mental health services, and gun policy, and improvements can be made in all three.

Still, the long history of mass killings in the United States indicate that the nation has not seen the end of them.

One of the smartest analyses appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday.

The newspaper said it is an open question whether anything can be done in a democracy to stop someone who is bent on killing many people.

“With this happening so often in the U.S., people have just gotten accustomed to it,” Richard Ofshe, a University of California Berkeley sociology professor told the Chronicle.

“That doesn’t mean they like it, are accepting of it or are happy about it. But it’s like car crashes now. It’s going to happen. This doesn’t make us more callous – it just makes for a more callous world.”

No Evidence of Trend

Despite the heavy death toll in Connecticut, there is no evidence that mass killings in the U.S. are rising, criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University told the Chronicle.

The number of cases fluctuates from year to year but is not trending in either direction, despite the fact that there were several this year, not only Newtown but also the Aurora, Co., theater killing in July and an Oregon shopping mall shooting spree just this week.

The Chronicle also talked to Jack Levin, another Northeastern criminologist, who said that despite the fact that episodes like the Connecticut school case are followed by calls for changing laws, “Realistically, there isn’t much we can do to prevent these kinds of random massacres.”

The inconclusive debate we can expect about “gun control” was in evidence on television talk shows over the weekend.

The fact is that there are hundreds of millions of guns in the U.S. now, and public opinion has been trending against more laws to restrict their availability. In the first days after Newtown, there was little evidence that shooter Adam Lanza would have been stopped from his murderous rampage by any law.

The likely course of a debate on guns could be seen on CNN Sunday.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) provided a laundry list of gun control ideas: “We can get laws to ban automatic weapons. No hunter needs an automatic weapon to shoot at birds or a deer or whatever. We can ban high capacity ammunition clips that have no use except by the military or for mass murder.

“We can pass legislation to limit gun trafficking so no one — so a gun shop can’t sell more than a specified number of guns at a time, one or two at a time. And we can pass — we can ban the gun show exception which, at a gun show, unlike at a gun store, you can sell anything.

“You can sell an automatic rifle. You can sell high capacity clips to anyone without a background check.”

Guns and self-defense

Responding was economist John Lott, author of the book “More Guns, Less Crime,” which argues for the wider availability for guns for self-defense,

He told CNN that around the world, “both before and after a gun ban has gone into effect, every single place has seen an increase in murders after the ban has been put into place [ ] and there’s a simple reason for that, and that is when you ban guns, it’s basically the most law-abiding citizens who turn in their guns not the criminals.

“And rather than making it more difficult for criminals to commit crime, you actually make it easier.”

Lott also noted that although advocates like Nadler talk about banning automatic weapons, automatic weapons have not been used in any of the recent massacres in the U.S., including in Newtown.

The U.S. system of checking prospective handgun buyers can be improved, and one result of the Newtown killings might be more focus on that.

That prospect has been stymied by politics, however.

Both the New York Times and Washington Post reported this past weekend that after the shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Az.) in January 2011, the Obama administration commissioned an internal report from the Justice Department on possible improvements in the federal system of gun regulation (contents of the document have not been disclosed at this writing).

But the White House .shelved the effort, apparently to avoid discussion of the issue during this year’s presidential election campaign.

It’s not clear so far whether outrage over the Connecticut school killings will prompt the White House to discuss possible measures, although President Obama said after Friday’s massacre that meaningful action” should be taken. But he didn’t say it should be gun control.

What is clear is that the National Rifle Association and like-minded groups will fight any proposals that might restrict the role of law-abiding people to obtain firearms.

Attention to mental health issues

A more promising avenue of policy change than gun laws might be more attention to people with severe mental problems. This is tricky because most people with mental illnesses are not prone to violence, and many people’s mental irregularities are not obvious.

Most people who have committed mass violence in recent U.S. history had shown some signs of their twisted ideas before acting, but interventions seemingly have been rare.

The Oregonian in Portland, where a man in his early 20s started firing a gun in a shopping mall a few days before Newtown, killing two people seemingly at random and then himself, interviewed Ajit Jetmalani, a child psychiatrist at Oregon Health & Science University, who said that the explanations for the young shooters’ actions lie deep within their individual stories.

Often there are “layer upon layer” of underlying issues, he says.

Referring to some of the incidents, Jetmalani told the newspaper about the shooters, “In a sense, they’re enacting their own compiled sense of what an aggressor does. It’s sort of an heroic and powerful figure who seeks revenge — and has a right to do so.”

Only a fragmentary picture has yet emerged of Adam Lanza, the Connecticut shooter.

It is known that his mother was a gun lover–the weapons Lanza used Friday were hers–and that young Lanza was an outcast in school.

The descriptions of him by fellow students, however, could apply to scores of people who are not going to commit mass killings or anything close to it, so it would be ill-advised to force all of them into psychiatric treatment.

More attention to gaps in the current system might help prevent future Newtowns.

Most of them have been mentioned on this website.

For example, The Crime Report cited in August a report from NPR that a federal database with the names of mentally ill people barred from buying guns still lacks millions of records it needs to be effective.

To be sure, it is not clear that Adam Lanza would have fallen into that category because there is no public evidence so far that he was officially committed to an institution for mental illness.

On the third major issue mentioned here, school safety, it appears that Sandy Hook Elementary School observed the recommended protocols, short of making a school for youngsters into an armed camp.

School violence on last Friday’s scale remains so rare that there seems little need, as at least one commentator suggested, to arm every teacher. Still, many schools around the U.S. today boosted security, even though there was no reason to believe that schools generally were less safe after Newtown. It was to make people feel better. As a Tampa, Fl., police officer told the Tampa Bay Times, “Anything we can do to help them feel more safe and secure, that’s where were going to be”

Preventing violent acts by the Adam Lanzas of the world–and most of them probably have in fact been staved off through one means or another–may prove impossible in a nation like the United States where citizens who have clean public records have freedom of movement and the ability to acquire dangerous weapons.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington DC-based contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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