Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Gun control

David Seaton's News Links
It would appear to me that the Virginia Tech shootings were a perfect example of where more stringent handgun controls could have avoided the tragedy.

From what I am reading, Cho Seung-Hui appears to have been very much a borderline type who had made it to the age of 23 with a grade average which allowed him to be a university senior and without giving any more signs of being a psychopath than some "troubled" class compositions. He did not collect guns. He did not carry out his rampage with semi-automatic weapons or a hunting rifle, but with two ordinary, garden variety, handguns, recently acquired.

I would argue that if it was not so absurdly easy to acquire handguns, which are only for using against people, this tragedy might never happened and
Cho Seung-Hui might have either ended up knifing somebody, committing suicide with pills or growing up and having a family as most "troubled" adolescents finally do. DS

Update: The following is the best article I've found on the subject so far:

James Alan Fox: Why they kill - Los Angeles Times

JAMES ALAN FOX is a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University and the author of many books, including "The Will to Kill" (2006) and "Extreme Killing" (2005).

MASS MURDER certainly wasn't invented with the 1966 Texas Tower shootings. For as long as there has been history, there has been murder — including horrific mass murder. Certainly in the first half of the 20th century there were examples, such as the case of Howard Unruh, a mentally ill war veteran who killed 13 people in 13 minutes with a Luger pistol on the streets of Camden, N.J., in 1949.

But 1966 was a dramatic turning point. On Aug. 1, Charles Whitman, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, climbed up a 27-story tower and killed 14 people, wounding 31 others, before being shot dead by the police.

After the Whitman killings, the incidents started to climb. Mass murders (and, especially, mass shootings) became increasingly common — George Hennard in Killeen, Texas; Patrick Edward Purdy in Stockton; James Huberty in San Ysidro; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., to name just a few — and the body counts began to grow as well. Seven of the eight largest mass shootings in modern U.S. history have occurred in the last 25 years.

The murder of at least 32 people at Virginia Tech on Monday may have been the worst, but it was only one of about 20 mass shootings that occur each year in the United States (a subset of the two dozen or so mass murders). A mass murder is defined as an event in which four or more people are killed in the same episode. Serial killings, by contrast, occur over an extended time.

What accounts for the increase? Is it possible that man (and yes, 95% of all mass murderers are men, who tend to be far more comfortable and better trained in using firearms) has simply grown more evil and bloodthirsty since 1966 than during the previous millenniums of human existence?

Of course not. But several changes have taken place that have made such incidents more common.

One, of course, is the change in the potency of weaponry. Before 1966, the best weapons available to most would-be killers were pistols, rifles, maybe a shotgun. That is no longer the case; today, semiautomatics are all too easily accessible.

But there also have been societal changes that have increased the incidence of mass killing. In studying mass murderers over 25 years, my colleague, Jack Levin, and I have identified five factors that exist in virtually all cases.

First, perpetrators have a long history of frustration and failure and a diminished ability to cope with life's disappointments.

Second, they externalize blame, frequently complaining that others didn't give them a chance. Sometimes they argue that their ethnic or racial group or gender isn't getting the breaks that others are. (An example of this is Marc Lepine, who killed 14 female engineering students at the Ecole Polytechnique of the University of Montreal, apparently because he felt that women were taking too many seats at the university.)

Third, these killers generally lack emotional support from friends or family. You've read the "he always seemed to be something of a loner" quote? It has a grounding in reality.

Fourth, they generally suffer a precipitating event they view as catastrophic. This is most often some sort of major disappointment: the loss of a job or the breakup of a relationship. In massacres at colleges and universities, it's often about getting a grade the shooter feels he didn't deserve. In 1991, a graduate student at the University of Iowa killed five people because he thought his physics dissertation should have won a prestigious $1,000 award.

Fifth, they need access to a weapon powerful enough to satisfy their need for revenge.

So what has changed? For one thing, the United States has become much more dog-eat-dog, more competitive in recent years. We admire those who achieve at any cost, and it seems that we have less compassion for those who fail. (Just look at how eager we are to vote people off the island or to reject them in singing competitions.) This certainly increases frustration on the part of losers.

Then there's the eclipse of traditional community: higher rates of divorce, the decline of church-going and the fact that more people live in urban areas, where they may not even know their neighbors. If mass murderers are isolated people who lack support, these trends only exacerbate the situation.

Many mass murderers, for example, are people who have picked up roots and moved. James Huberty, who used a 9-mm semiautomatic Uzi to kill 21 people during a 77-minute massacre at a McDonald's in San Ysidro in 1984, had moved to California from Ohio after losing his job. When he lost another job in California, he had no friends or extended family to fall back on. They were all in Ohio.

These days, we know an awful lot about why these events occur. We're beginning to understand the motivations behind events that, to many people, seem senseless. But that doesn't mean we can prevent them. We're not going to build fortresses out of our college campuses, nor should we.

It should give us some degree of consolation to know that these events are exceedingly rare. But they still occur, and they are among the sad and tragic prices we pay for the kind of open, modern, democratic society we live in.


Anonymous said...

The framers of the Constitution were not fools, and they knew that muskets and the like could be used to massacre innocents. They also knew that muskets and the like allowed the general populace, normal people and the few inevitable nuts, to effectively protect themselves against tyrannical governments. Benjamin Rush was a psychiatrist after all.

They wrote the right to keep and bear arms into the Constitution for good reasons. The price has been occasional massacres; the gains have been that the United States has never known genocidal tyranny on the scale that Germany, Russia, Cambodia and others have known. Indeed, Lincoln had to suspend the Constitution in Maryland to get his war.

It's never pleasant to have to weigh humans lives, but the evidence could not be clearer that they made the right choice.

If something is wrong, it's with a society that almost basks in its adulation of the rich and famous and its neglect of those on its margins.

Those who urge the curtailing of the Second Amendment after this tragedy have as much sense as surgeons who urge the amputation of limbs as a treatment for athlete's foot.

David Seaton's Newslinks said...

The framers of the Constitution were not fools, and they knew that muskets and the like could be used to massacre innocents.

The framers of the Constitution also were probably aware that to reload, prime, aim and fire a muzzle loading flintlock 32 times would probably take long enough for everybody to be miles away before a shooter could get through a half dozen victims.

Thomas Jefferson would probably have had as much trouble visualizing a Glock pistol as imagining Starbucks or Oprah Winfrey. Times have changed.

If you are really worried about tyranny in the USA join a labor union.

kelly said...

Here is also a take on why schools are so often the crime scene (from Lionel Shriver, Guardian):

"I do not believe that the choice of schools or colleges for the pursuit of grievance or, often, for the staging of what I call "extroverted suicide", is arbitrary. For most of us, school and university are the seats of profound and formative emotional experiences, and the psychological power of these locales does not necessarily abate with age. Only last month I had reason to walk down the hallway of an elementary school in the US, and the lockers, lino and acrid chalk-dust smell sent my head spinning with memories, not all of which were pleasant. I felt claustrophobic, smothered, actively grateful to be spared the tyrannies of Mrs Townsend's home room, and relieved to get out. In fact, I couldn't believe I was allowed out of the door without a pass.

For a lucky few, school and college are where we first distinguish ourselves. But for the majority, they are the site of first humiliation, subjugation and injury. They are almost always our first introduction to brutal social hierarchies, as they may also sponsor our first romantic devastation. What better stage on which to act out primitive retribution? "

full article at:,,2059749,00.html