The Challenges Posed by a Murderous Minority

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Dec 15 2012 6:54pm

On May 20, 1998 my wife was in the newsroom where she worked in Western Oregon. The news director had just heard something on the police scanner about some sort of non-specific commotion at a local high school. It had been a slow news day, so he told her to just go down there and poke around and see if there was a story anywhere worth reporting. My wife got there and phoned back that there did seem to be some activity, but she couldn't tell what it was. There were no other news agencies at the scene. And then all hell broke loose.

My wife was at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. A short time before she arrived a student had gone into the school and began shooting his classmates. By the time he was subdued by a group of very brave students, 15 year old Kip Kinkel had killed two of his classmates and wounded 22 more. Soon afterward the bodies of his parents, killed the day before by Kinkel were found. My wife spent the day reporting for news outlets around the country live from the scene of one of the worst school shootings that had ever happened. Eleven months later at Colorado's Columbine High School the death toll would be much, much worse.

Not long after the Thurston High tragedy, I wrote an editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer about school shootings where I compared what happened at Thurston High School to a natural disaster. We in the community had all been quite affected by the incident, my wife, who witnessed the actual scene more than most. It seemed so random to us all that it might as well have been a tornado touching down and killing those kids at school that day, and that's the position I took in the editorial. It left the community stunned and full of questions. But there never were any real answers. Kip Kinkel was, in the end, a tragic anomaly. How many anomalies does it take to become something more than an anomaly?

I found myself reflecting on a point that just isn't that clear when we think about what seems to be a rash of mass shootings in the U.S. these days: how really few people we are talking about here that perpetrate these crimes. Mother Jones Magazine tallied up the mass killings since 1982 in the United States and all those incidents combined are the work of well under a hundred individual assailants. ( In a nation of between 250 and 300 million people to say that this is a miniscule percentage of people is a huge understatement. I try to remember this when I (or we as a country) are thinking of ways to reduce such violence, because our methods need to take into account how very few people it involves. How do you devise national policy changes to deal with what 0.00000033% (or less) of the population is doing?

Now, of course, these high profile mass shootings are far from the only type of gun violence the U.S. struggles with. We lose about 12,000 people annually to murders and another 18,000 or so to gun suicides. But it is these mass killings that seem to prompt the most talk of a need for solutions, and also the most conversation about what's changed in society to make such events seemingly more common. It's worth going into that a bit I think.

First of all, gun violence overall is far off it's highs in the U.S. This is something we dealt with extensively in one of our recent podcasts entitled “Aiming for Effectiveness” and available free via this link:

But mass shootings of the sort we have seen recently are increasing. Obviously they involve a tiny subset of our population, but why would they be on the rise now (as opposed to any other era)? As usual, everyone is quick to look at the same equations/solutions/targets of blame, but I think there are more questions worth asking than answers to be had in cases like this.

To me there are some fundamental unknowns that keep springing up that lead me to lines of inquiry:

1. How much of this is "normal"? Is there a "failure rate" that one can reasonably expect at all times in a large society among people who just “snap” at some point? If there is, is it a constant percentage (therefore as population rises, you can expect to see more actual incidents) and if so, is it modified by anything we can put our finger on at the societal level (the economy/job prospects, the culture/media, etc.)? There are always "crazy people" too. Always have been. Are we seeing a rise in this problem/the number of cases...or is it stable and we just have more people so we have more individuals with mental health issues based on a percentage that has remained constant over time?

2. On that "culture" question: I am convinced this is where we are different than places like Europe. People want to focus on the guns as the problem, but we have a culture in the U.S. where guns are ingrained and where they have been so for centuries. The use of them has seeped into us. It is the desire to use them that's different. To think the guns themselves are the problem we would have to believe that the Canadians, Europeans and others with lower homicide levels all would like to kill each other at our rates...they just lack the guns to make their wishes a reality. That's ridiculous. The truth is that these other societies don't have as much murderous intent as Americans. Why not?

3. To the "Why are we more murderous?" question: WE (as a whole) aren't. But a subset of us is. This subset is what's interesting/concerning. Why can 99+% of us handle any of the violent cultural or economic influences (or the prescription medication for mental health issues or any of these other variables) but a small percentage is perhaps pushed over the edge at some point...maybe with the help of influences that lower inhibitions to acting out in ways that are deadly?. And if we are dealing with a tiny subset of people, does it make sense to make society-wide changes that affect the non-problematic 99+% to possibly diminish some of the damage caused by the potentially murderous subset?

4.While these mass shooting incidents that seem to be on the rise lately are certainly "crimes", this is obviously something very different from what we normally think of as "crime". Most of the gun violence in this country (The VAST majority) is involved in the sort of crime we all normally think about. Drug dealer shoots rival drug dealer in back alley of blighted commits suicide and decides to take his estranged wife with him...burglar kills target in botched robbery attempt, etc. None of this is good, of course...but this is somewhat normal in the expectation of things (I have a book made of up photos from a scrapbook of a police officer from the 1930s to the 1950s and he shows you what sort of stuff they routinely ran into where people died...these criminal incidents we see today were common even back then. What you DON'T see in his book...because they were very rare back mass shootings where 10+ people die in a single outburst of violence. The closest parallels that I can think of are things like the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929 and whatnot. Again though...not committed by deranged/disassociated malcontents...but gang warfare. Murderous, but somewhat rational in its evil calculation. Certainly not cases where the assailants expected to kill themselves at the end of their violence. A different set of circumstances entirely from these school and mall type shootings.).

There are incidents I can find from the past that are analogous to what we see more and more these days with these recent mass shootings. The famous 1966 shootings at the University of Texas for example (where a man with a brain tumor killed 16 and wounded 30+ more before being killed by authorities). They are less rare today though. Perhaps we should look into possible reasons why something that was happening at one level of regularity a generation ago, is happening at a higher level now. One thing is for sure when you look at it that way: It can't be the availability of guns. That's been a relative constant in U.S. history. The variable must lie elsewhere. I'm very curious what might help explain this. Some that I have spoken to have brought up the idea that medication that some of these shooters might have been prescribed might have played a role in their behavior (a recent article that I re-tweeted to my twitter followers at @dccommonsense claims that 80+% of assailants in these recent mass shootings can be classified as having significant mental health problems). Considering that the warning labels on some of these drugs discuss possible suicidal impulses as side-effects, and most of these assailants kill themselves or expect to die in these attacks, perhaps this is an angle worth examining. Are there any sources breaking down how many of these shooters were on such drugs? Can any of this be quantified?

In many ways these mass shootings mirror the problem of terrorism in a modern society. How far should the society go in trying to defend people from a problem that involves so few actual perpetrators? Do you go crazy with security everywhere to protect a nation from a terrorism threat that kills few actual people (but when it does can do so in spectacular and very traumatic and fear-inducing ways?). Do you get tougher on guns when an overwhelming supra-majority of those who own and use them never have an issue related to them? How far do we go inhibiting the law-abiding and responsible to inhibit the criminal and irresponsible?

We have been wrestling with this issue for some time obviously. What I hate to see is us doing so in the same way we always have (the simple knee-jerk gun control versus 2d Amendment argument). We have a “murderous intent” problem in the U.S. and perhaps an increasing issue relating to the mental health (or possibly the mental health treatment) of some. Those issues do not provide the same easy talking points or simplistic answers at the legislative or political level that the gun angle does, but they may strike more efficiently at the heart of the problem. There's a reason we have more mass shootings than we did a generation ago. If it isn't guns (and it isn't...the current laws are tougher than in the 1960s and earlier) then what is it? And is it a growing issue for real? Or are 60 or 70 unbalanced and malformed humans shooting up public areas since the early 1980s making us think Americans are more murderous than we have always historically been?

I am not trying to pretend that these are answers. I just know that with decades of effort expended on the normal gun vs. anti-gun argument not bearing any tangible fruit whatsoever, I would love to see us approach this problem in a more novel way. Let's “three-dimensionalize” this debate and see if any new insights are forthcoming. Doing the same thing we have always done on this issue over and over and expecting different results is, after all, the very definition of crazy. And we seem to have enough of that going around as it is.

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