Dec 18 2012

Some Thoughts on Sandy Hook

I received an automated message on Sunday that there will be enhanced security at my daughter’s elementary school. The doors to the school are already locked, requiring someone in the front office to buzz visitors in. The school will now no longer grant admittance to any unannounced visitor, even a parent. Any visitor must call or write ahead of time with the time and purpose of their visit.

This is fine, and probably a reasonable security policy for a school, but it would not have stopped the shooter from carrying out the horrific killings that took place four days ago in Newtown, CT. The killer apparently shot his way into the school.

It’s difficult to process the events that occurred in Sandy Hook Elementary School. A 20 year old gunman entered the school with an assault rifle, large capacity clips, with hundreds of total rounds, and two additional pistols. He went to the principal’s office and killed everyone there, then proceeded to classrooms to kill as many children as he could. (Correction – the news report now is that the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, went to investigate the gun shots and was killed while rushing the shooter.) In the end he killed 20 children, all aged 6-7, and 6 adults. This was after shooting and killing his own mother at home. The gunman’s last victim was himself, committing suicide when his spree was done (it’s possible he killed himself when he heard the sound of approaching sirens).

I understand the emotions of such an event. I am a parent, and one of my daughters is still in elementary school. This scenario is every parent’s unthinkable nightmare. We send our kids off to school and trust they will be safe.

This one is also physically close to home. My parents and two of my brothers live in Sandy Hook. A close friend of Evan’s (an SGU co-host), someone I also know, was a first responder, has kids in the school, and his wife was at the school during the shootings. (Here is an interview where they tell their story.) It doesn’t make the events any more horrific, but it feels closer. This happened right next door.

The temptation when such events occur is to immediately start speculating, and in some cases drawing conclusions, about what and who is to blame. Everyone wants to put their own ideological spin on what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. The common themes have been – gun control, mental illness, video-game violence, and even the media (giving attention to the shooter, making it more attractive for the next would-be shooter).

All of these issues certainly deserve attention, I just don’t think we should be jumping to any conclusions. We do not yet have enough information (at least it hasn’t been made public) about the situation. The current information is that the gunman took the guns from his mother, who owned them legally for target shooting. This raises many issues, but let’s sort through them thoughtfully.

There seems to be some low-hanging fruit when it comes to gun control, even without this latest incident. I do think that the burden of argument is on gun proponents to justify why a private citizen, using guns for target practice, hunting, any sport or even personal security, needs to have a large-capacity clip that can hold more than 30 rounds, or an assault rifle designed for military applications. I am all for responsible gun ownership, but there are some reasonable measures to consider.

There is a question, however, of the net effect of gun regulation measures. The data is messy with many variables that are not well accounted for. There is data that informs the discussion, it’s just not definitive. For example, following the 1996 assault rifle ban in Australia there was an increase in the rate of decline of gun-related homicides. On the other hand, a study of various gun regulations across the 50 states in the US showed no statistically significant difference in homicides (there was a trend, but not statistically significant). There are enough studies for people to cherry pick the data that supports their position. I don’t want to make this an article on the complex question of gun control – I just want to make the point that it is reasonable to address this issue, the discussion should be evidence-based, we currently need more and better evidence, meanwhile we can make some rational decisions based on the evidence we have.

We do not  yet know anything official about the shooter’s mental state. Did he have a formal diagnosis, any recent psychiatric care or assessment, any triggers that might have caused this rampage? Were there warning signs that should have been recognized? How predictive are they, and what options are there for dealing with potential violence of this type?

I have seen some discussion of whether or not anyone who could stare down a room of 7 year-olds and then riddle them with bullets could be considered sane. This is an interesting question, and of course depends on the definition of sanity (which is a spectrum, not a bright line). I don’t think we should throw around any diagnoses based upon the little and imperfect information trickling through the media. Clearly, however, the shooter was in a very extreme mental place that is difficult for most people to imagine.

With this issue also there is data to inform the discussion. There is an association between homicide and mental disorders. According to one study 15% of all homicides are committed by someone with a diagnosis of mental disorder. Among homicide offenders, 6% have schizophrenia, 10% have a personality disorder, and 38% have alcohol abuse/dependence. The combination of paranoid schizophrenia and alcohol abuse is a significant predictor of the risk of homicide, but the highest is the association of antisocial personality disorder and alcohol abuse.

While there is an association, we have to remember the other side – 85% of homicides are committed by people without a diagnosable mental disorder, and most people with a mental disorder do not commit violent crimes.

In any case, we do need to evaluate (incidental to this latest episode) if there are sufficient resources for those with mental illness. The community-based system we currently have is chronically underfunded, leaving many people who need help without it.

The video-game issue seems like the biggest red-herring to me. This is pure speculation, not based on any information about the shooter. Here again we have a research literature to look to. A recent review concludes:

“Overall, the evidence supports hypotheses that violent video game play is related to aggressive affect, physiological arousal, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive behaviours.”

However, the literature does not establish cause and effect. It may be that people with aggressive tendencies are drawn to violent video games.

All of the above research relates to violence and homicide in general, not to school shootings or dramatic spree killings like what happened in Sandy Hook. Such events are thankfully rare (although not rare enough). There are therefore more variables than data points, and there is simply no way to generate reliable data about what causes such extreme events.

We can inform discussion of how to respond to Sandy Hook and other similar events with the research data we have, while trying to fill gaps in that data. But we will have to make policy decisions in the absence of adequate data (at least for the foreseeable future) to draw firm conclusions about what causes such events, how they can be predicted, and how to prevent them. In a free society there is simply no way to completely prevent such acts of violence, but we certainly should search for every feasible way to minimize them.

77 responses so far

77 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Sandy Hook”

  1. s273113 says:

    Thank you Dr. Novella for a concise reply to the issues. It is easy to latch on to emotional fallacies at times like this. I will share this article in hopes that SOME might read it.

  2. bbrown says:

    15% of homicides are committed by someone with a mental illness. That’s fine, but not entirely relevant to the question of whether this guy was probably insane. What percentage of those who commit mass homicide and then suicide are mentally ill would be a more relevant statistic. I’d bet that it’s pretty close to 100% because the planning and sustained derangement isn’t a heat of passion sort of thing.

  3. BobbyG says:

    I am walking around under a black cloud of enervating sadness in the wake of this unspeakable horror.

  4. EO says:

    I second s273113’s thoughts.

    I truly appreciate the thoughtful response to this horrible tragedy. Its hard to be thoughtful and rational when your emotions boil over at the thought of something, but that is I feel the time we need to call upon our rational selves the most.

  5. Kawarthajon says:

    I would like to see the media coverage of these events change dramatically. It only seems to immortalize the offenders and provide them with much desired attention. I would like to see the coverage be more like the coverage of suicides – they don’t print anything about it. While this won’t prevent such events from happening, it will help.

    With respect to the issue of gun control, political commentator, Gynne Dyer, has an interesting perspective:

    ” Here’s an interesting statistic: the second-highest rate of gun ownership in the world is in Yemen, a largely tribal, extremely poor country. The highest is in the United States, where there are almost as many guns as people: around 300 million guns for 311 million people.

    But here’s another interesting statistic: in the past 25 years, the proportion of Americans who own guns has fallen from about one in three to only one in five. However, the United States, unlike Yemen, is a rich country, and the average American gun-owner has four or five firearms. Moreover, he or she is utterly determined to keep them no matter what happens.

    What has just happened in Sandy Hook, Connecticut is the seventh massacre this year in which four or more people were killed by a lone gunman. The fact that this time twenty of the victims were little girls and boys six or seven years old has caused a wave of revulsion in the United States, but it is not likely to lead to new laws on gun controls. It’s not even clear that new laws would help.

    Half the firearms in the entire world are in the United States. The rate of murders by gunfire in the United States is almost twenty times higher than the average rate in 22 other populous, high-income countries where the frequency of other crimes is about the same. There is clearly a connection between these two facts, but it is not necessarily simple cause-and-effect.

    Here’s one reason to suspect that it’s not that simple: the American rate for murders of all kinds – shooting, strangling, stabbing, poisoning, pushing people under buses, etc. – is seven times higher than it is in those other 22 rich countries. It can’t just be guns.

    And here’s another clue: the rate of firearms homicides in Canada, another mainly English-speaking country in North America with a similar political heritage, is about half the American rate – and in England itself it is only one-thirtieth as much. What else is in play here?

    Steven Pinker, whose book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is about the long-term decline in violence of every kind in the world, is well aware that murder rates have not fallen in the United States in the past century. (Most people don’t believe that violence is in decline anywhere, let alone almost everywhere. That’s why he wrote the book.) And Pinker suggests an explanation for the American exception.

    In medieval Europe, where everybody from warlords to peasants was on his own when it came to defending his property, his rights and his “honour”, the murder rates were astronomically high: 110 people per 100,000 in 14th-century Oxford, for example. It was at least as high in colonial New England in the early 17th century.

    By the mid-20th century, the murder rate in England had fallen more than a hundredfold: in London, it was less than one person per 100,000 per year. In most Western European countries it was about the same. Whereas the US murder rate is still up around seven people per 100,000 per year. Why?

    Pinker quotes historian Pieter Spierenburg’s provocative suggestion that “democracy came too early” to America. In European countries, the population was gradually disarmed by the centralised state as it put an end to feudal anarchy. Only much later, after people had already learned to trust the law to defend their property and protect them from violence, did democracy come to these countries.

    This is also what has happened in most other parts of the world, although in many cases it was the colonial power that disarmed the people and instituted the rule of law. But in the United States, where the democratic revolution came over two centuries ago, the people took over the state before they had been disarmed – and kept their weapons. They also kept their old attitudes.

    Indeed, large parts of the United States, particularly in the southeast and southwest, still have an “honour” culture in which it is accepted that a private individual may choose to defend his rights and his interests by violence rather than seeking justice through the law. The homicide rate in New England is less than three people per 100,000 per year; in Louisiana it is more than fourteen.

    None of this explains the specific phenomenon of gun massacres by deranged individuals, who are presumably present at the same rate in every country. It’s just that in the United States, it’s easier for individuals like that to get access to rapid-fire weapons. And, of course, the intense media coverage of every massacre gives many other crazies an incentive to do the same, only more of it.

    But only one in three hundred murders in the United States happens in that kind of massacre. Most are simply due to quarrels between individuals, often members of the same family. Private acts of violence to obtain “justice”, with or without guns, are deeply entrenched in American culture, and the murder rate would stay extraordinarily high even if there were no guns.

    Since there are guns everywhere, of course, the murder rate is even higher. But since the popular attitudes to violence have not changed, that is not going to change either.”

  6. tmac57 says:

    I’ve been trying to find some reliable statistics in the last few days to inform my opinion about the gun debate,and I am finding it frustrating to get reliable and unbiased data.
    What does seem clear,is that from a violence standpoint,and especially gun violence,the U.S. is an outlier (not the only one,but by far the largest) among the economically developed nations.We also are the clear outlier in sheer numbers per capita of guns,with numbers ranging from about 200 million to 310 million,or nearly one per person.
    Gun control advocates see this as a direct cause and effect situation,where gun supporters have their own data that show no one for one relationship,and also feel strongly that they need weapons to defend their lives and property in a country that has such a rate of violence.
    I sincerely hope that as a nation we can have a needed debate and conversation about what realistically can and should be done to prevent senseless acts of violence of all types,but informed by sound data without the tendency to bias the outcome for political or ideological reasons.

  7. bbrown – I found a review looking at homicide-suicide and mental illness (

    They found:
    “Overall, depression was the most frequent disorder reported (about 39% of the cases in the 20 studies that assessed depressive disorders), followed by substance abuse (about 20% in 10 studies) and psychosis (about 17% in 11 studies).”

  8. SARA says:

    “There is an association between homicide and mental disorders. According to one study 15% of all homicides are committed by someone with a diagnosis of mental disorder. ”

    I think it would be more apt (in this case anyway) to review the stats for mass murders. I imagine the correlation is a great deal larger. Most people can imagine a moment of extreme pressure or anger causing a murder that is later regretted.

    But a shooting spree is a different beast. The extremity of the action seems to indicate a long term extremity of mind to me.

  9. RickK says:

    Good summary.

    I do think it is worth prioritizing the factors here.

    Horrific as this event was, the 20 little lives represent a small fraction of the American children killed by guns each year. If I am reading the CDC data correctly, over 1200 kids 17 and younger were killed by firearms in each of the last few years. A large percentage of those were suicides by children able to put their hands on loaded guns. So while we talk about the mental health of the Newtown shooter, I do think gun control is a higher priority topic than mass shooter motivations when it comes to making kids safer.

    Cards on the table: I’m anti-gun. Our family doesn’t own guns, and morally I cannot justify the widespread sale and ownership of machines designed specifically to destroy people. Handguns, automatic rifles and semi-automatic rifles with more than 5-round clips (assault rifles) are not purchased for hunting – they’re purchased to be pointed and discharged at people. To me, their ownership is incompatible with a peaceful, stable, safe-for-children society. I’d be quite happy if all handguns and assault rifles were banned from manufacture, import, sale and ownership within the borders of the U.S. And I’d happily pay extra tax money for a mandatory buyback-and-destroy program – anything to reduce the number of people-killing tools in our community.

    But Steve’s right that our patchwork of gun controls has very limited success, particularly since much of the general population is not on board. Only dramatic changes (the kind that put many manufacturers out of business) will really make a difference. However, just as 1500 deaths in kids 15 or younger won’t motivate Americans to slow down and stop drinking when they drive, neither will the loss of 1200 kids per year motivate Americans to give up their guns.

    Sadly, my prediction is there will be much sound and fury after this event, some useless tweaks to current laws, but nothing will be done that fundamentally reduces the number of guns in circulation. And therefore nothing will be done that fundamentally reduces the risks of bullets hitting my children.

  10. tmac57 says:

    RickK-Sadly,I have to agree that your prediction will most likely be the outcome.

  11. As a gun owner, I’m disappointed by a lot of the comments flying around the blogosphere this week. And as a skeptic, I’m completely fascinated by them. Guns are one of those subjects that very few people can think unemotionally about, just like religion and politics. Conversations about them yield “teachable moments” in skepticism left and right. And, surprisingly, I see a lot of skeptic blogs repeating the gun-related talking points they hear in the media without giving them much thought — something they should know better than.

    So, some things to think about:

    1) It’s a magazine, not a clip. Rookie terminology error.

    2) What is an “assault weapon” exactly? No one really seems to know. They hear the media use the word so they assume it means something specific, but as far as I can tell it’s used as a synonym for “big gun” or “scary looking gun” or “gun used by the military.” This is something we should probably be precise about, because lots of big or scary looking guns are surprisingly bad choices for any sort of assault, and plenty of guns used by the military or police were available to hobbyists long before they were officially adopted. If we’re going to tell people what kinds of guns they can’t have, we should know ourselves what the features of those guns are and why we consider them particularly dangerous. And whether a rigorous, statistical look at the history of those features backs up our intuition that they’re dangerous.

    3) What do smaller magazines accomplish, exactly? Ammo weight is really the limiting factor when carrying it — bullets are really, really heavy for their size. If you were to plan an assault, you would simply load up as many magazines as you can carry before your pockets threaten to rip. Swapping magazines can be done in under five seconds. It’s a minor inconvenience, really — mostly to the wallet rather than the shooter’s performance. Why are people so fixated on magazine size? There are much more effective regulations to explore.

    4) Automatic weapons. Automatic weapons are largely illegal anyway, but if they weren’t they’d be a really terrible choice for an assault. The automatic mode isn’t really meant for hitting people. It’s meant for laying down scary cover fire in the field that just flies wild. Outside of video games it’s very hard to control a gun and aim at anything in automatic mode. It also eats through ammo very quickly, and like I said, ammo is heavy. If you’re being attacked by someone and most of his shots are hitting the ceiling because he can’t keep the muzzle down, well, those are bullets that aren’t killing you and his stockpile is quickly depleting. I’m more afraid of the killer who’s smart enough to use semi-automatic. I’m fine with the fact that automatic weapons are largely illegal and this is not an argument in support of them; this is just an explanation of what automatic weapons really are and how their bark is often worse than their bite.

    Given recent events it’s probably to much to ask for, but I’m hoping to nudge the skeptical parts of your brains into a curiosity about guns and how much of what’s commonly said about guns is true, false, or exaggerated. It’s a nuanced subject just like any other.

  12. ptazmodeus says:

    You also need to remember that guns and gun ownership is part of American culture. I was raised in an area that still hunts, and while I don’t hunt, I grew up around guns. I learned how to use them, and more importantly, how not to use them.

    My wife and I own several guns, some of which have larger magazines, or could possibly be categorized as “assault weapons” because they look scary. However, we bought these with no intention of ever shooting them at another human being. We do, however, regularly go the range and put plenty of holes in round paper targets. It is simply a pastime that we enjoy, reminds of us childhood activities, and is physical.

  13. pendens – thanks for the info. I’m familiar with the term “magazine” but have often heard “clip” used as slang (I guess it’s not used by real gun fans).

    I see your point about magazine size, but having smaller magazine size limits would slow down a shooter. How much longer do you think it would take to get off 30 rounds without a magazine change or with 4 magazine changes (assuming 6 round limit per magazine)? This shooting spree lasted 10 minutes – you don’t think that would have made a difference?

    Also, it may take just 5-6 seconds for a skilled shooter to change a magazine, but that’s 5-6 seconds in which someone can tackle them (as was apparently tried in this case). That’s also more opportunities for something to go wrong with the gun. And not all shooters are going to be highly skilled, especially in an intense situation (not on the firing range).

    I was not using “assault rifle” loosely. He was using a Bushmaster .223. This category of rifle is semi-automatic (or fully automatic) with a range of bullet size and power to optimize killing efficiency – powerful enough to be a rifle and do serious damage, but small enough to limit recoil so that the speed of shooting is maximized. There is a reason why the assault rifle is the weapon of choice for all modern military.

    I agree with your basic point that discussions of the role of gun control should be informed an evidence-based. I believe that was my primary point above.

  14. leonet says:

    @ pendens proditor:

    I respect your desire to keep the debate rational, but I would urge you to consider whether your also engaged in motivated reasoning; none of your points are solid arguments. They are red herrings raised by enthusiasts who imply that minor, often irrelevant errors by gun control advocates imply that they’re “ignorant” about guns and thus don’t understand the issue:

    1) “Clip” is a common colloquialism describing the ammunition available in a gun. It’s frankly insulting when “gun enthusiasts” roll their eyes and intimate that someone raising a real argument is a “rookie” because they use the word “clip”.

    2) Although precise specifications may not define every assault weapon, there are clearly general characteristics that describe them. They’re usually semiautomatic versions of military designs, fire high velocity rounds and have ergonomics that make them easy to use in precisely the situation that occurred in the massacre; close quarters shooting in and around buildings. Just because there isn’t one definition that covers every case doesn’t mean that a concept isn’t meaningful. (see the definitions of the words “species” and “planet”)

    3-4) I would like to hear an example of a mainstream gun-control argument based on “exaggerated” or “scary” false beliefs about guns. In fact, I would venture to say that a segment of gun enthusiasts entertain more false and exaggerated beliefs about the usefulness of their guns in defending against a hypothetical government tyranny.

    Although there are many confounding factors (poverty etc) and outliers (massacres in Finland etc), I honestly think that the consilience of evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that lax gun laws contribute to part of the high homicide rate, likely to the tune of hundreds of deaths per year.

  15. HarryBlack says:

    I dont mind echoing what has been said before that this incident shocked and saddened me and my heart goes out to anyone who has suffered as a result of something like this.
    Following this story from a European perspective has been strange. Social media is alight with calls for the banning of firearms in the US, how many more incidents until the Americans learn etc etc. And I dont think this is fair or helpful (Not least because they would get pretty annoyed very quickly if Americans started to tell them in an aggressive manner what is wrong with their countries!)
    I agree that definitions need to be thought through far more carefully and serious education sought on firearms if you want to engage in a push to legislate and I could write much about possible measures that could be effective if enforcable but there is little point. They can all be undone with home ammo kits or a gunsmith.
    The big problem is that whenever you expand control over who can own a gun to include anyone who can vote then it seems pointless. If this administration takes away a few million guns I can pretty much see what the opposition will run on 4 years later. I dont think its political cowardice. Its just politically pointless.
    Incidentally, the current law in Ireland (which surprises many Irish people) is that a person can own pretty much any handgun they want as long as they have a burglar alarm, a gun safe and crucially- The approval of a Superintendent. The individual must convince a member of his local police force who has a vested career interest in seeing lower homicide rates that he is fit to own such a weapon and that it will be used for sport only. For this reason almost all offenses commited here with firearms involve ilegal weapons or less well regulated double barrel shotguns.

  16. Woody says:

    “In any case, we do need to evaluate (incidental to this latest episode) if there are sufficient resources for those with mental illness.”

    There are not.

    If it is confirmed that the shooter had an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, hopefully one good thing that may come of this tragedy will be the recognition that at least a subset of autistic individuals will need support beyond childhood and adolescence. Whether that would have made a difference for the shooter is impossible to know, but it seems that he “fell through the cracks”. Unfortunately I suspect the main fallout from this incident will be that the autistic community will be further ostracized.

  17. Philosofrenzy says:

    @ leonet

    What evidence do you have that leads to the conclusion that lax gun laws lead to high homicide rates? There is no correlation between gun ownership and homicide rates–only between gun ownership and *gun homicide rates*–hardly a fair metric to use in considering the issue. The lack of correlation isn’t even controversial; it’s publicly available data. I encourage you to do as I did and take the data found here:

    And attempt to correlate it with gun ownership per capita, for instance.

    You will find there is a slight *inverse* correlation (which is probably explained by the extreme poverty in places with highest homicide rates, not by guns preventing homicides, obviously). Many liberals fail to be adequately skeptical of the received wisdom that lax gun laws cause high homicide rates. The evidence for this is not at all clear. Correlation does not prove causation–but barring special pleading, it’s normally considered a prerequisite.

  18. slipknottin says:

    Just a couple replies to folks.

    Difference between a clip and a magazine, a clip is used to reload a magazine. You don’t shoot from a clip. I don’t really care about the word use, but in case anyone was wondering.

    Changing magazines on any assault rifle is inherently designed to be as fast as possible, you could reload the weapon the shooter used in under 2 seconds.

    As far as forcing someone to reload more often to give others a chance to rush the shooter? Good idea in theory, unless the shooter has a sidearm, which in this case the shooter did. Rush the shooter while he reloads, it takes him half a second to pull out the sidearm, and there goes that plan.

    Assault weapons use fairly small rounds but at high velocity, which makes them actually a relatively poor choice for close range shooting. The bullets pass so quickly through the body that they don’t have time to spin and cause major internal damage, which is likely part of the reason the shooter shot each victim multiple times.

    And defining an assault rifle is actually very difficult to do, which is why the last assault rifle ban had such a long and muddied definition.

  19. BobbyG says:

    @# leoneton 18 Dec 2012 at 3:53 pm

    “1) “Clip” is a common colloquialism describing the ammunition available in a gun. It’s frankly insulting when “gun enthusiasts” roll their eyes and intimate that someone raising a real argument is a “rookie” because they use the word “clip”.”

    Indeed. Love that response.

    And, let’s see, in addition to the usual ad hominem ploys, we see the usual litany of fallacies:

    – Perfectionism fallacy — “people will still get gunned down (or stabbed, bludgeoned, etc). Criminals (well, you know)…”

    – Line Drawing fallacy — “how do you define ‘assault weapon’?” (“Which blow to Rodney King’s head crossed the line into ‘excessive force’?”

    – Appeal to tradition — “Our venerable American gun lore heritage. Spare me the ‘Japan’ thing.”

    – Straw man — the ONLY things keeping Dictatorship at Bay are our 2nd Amendment popguns (see

    – False dichotomy — “you Anti-Gun Zealots just want to confiscate ALL weapons…”

    – Misplaced burden of proof. You can cite respectable data (“evidence”) ’til the cows come home, and 2nd Amendment hardliners will simply dismiss it via analysis paralysis nit-picking.

    – (Not sure where/if this fits) “We are law-abiding ‘recreational firearms enthusiasts’ who simply LOVE to riddle gunrange targets and aluminum cans (and Bambi).

    And on… it’s a long list. (Including, from the Fulminating Fringe of Phelpistan, “God is Ragingly Pissed at creeping acceptance of Gays, — in particular Gay Marriage”)

    A friend of mine observed online this weekend,

    “It’s not the gun, it’s the gunman. Take away the gun, and you’ve got a dude getting his ass kicked.”

    Dunno. I am heartsick over this. Don’t try to tell me we cannot mitigate this egregious circumstance.

  20. svetbek says:

    Steve, what are you telling your kids? How to explain to the kids that this is terrible but very unlikely to happen to them? I am not above making false comparisons to soothe my anxious little ones (there is various manner of overreaction going on in their school) so I told them that a school shooting is no more likely than being eaten by a shark or being struck by lightning.

  21. raylider says:

    Is there a problem in the first place? How do we assess that? Obviously this is a tragedy, but in a country of 300 million, how can you prevent someone who is crazy and irrational? Won’t there always be some minimal ‘background’ of crazy people committing heinous acts? It seems to me that these tragic events are really rare, which is why they’re such big news. Isn’t it still safer for the child to be in school than in the car on the way to school.
    What we rarely see on the news is when guns are used as protection to thwart criminals and would-be mass killers. What about all those times that an armed civilian has prevented a mass shooting, robbery, rape, murder? I’d like to see the data on that. Does anyone collect data on prevented or ‘would-be’ homicides, rapes, mass-shootings?

    What about the fact that these shootings usually happen in gun free zones? Wasn’t the aurora theater shooter at the only gun-free movie theater in the area? In the case of Sandy Hook, what if there was one designated armed person to protect the school in such an event – a gym teacher or security guard or something. What if the principal had access to an emergency gun in this case?

    And would banning guns have ANY effect – obviously it wouldn’t take the guns off the streets. Drugs and marijuana are illegal, and yet teenagers have nearly unrestricted access to the stuff. But even if there were no guns – wouldn’t the mass killer just get explosives, or drive a car through a crowd, hijack a school bus, etc?

    And what about the most important reason for the 2nd Amendment? “To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.” It may seem improbable now, but the 2nd amendment isn’t there for when the times are good. Weren’t many of the genocides/totalitarian regimes of the 20th century preceded by mass confiscation of weapons? Is there a way to guarantee the stability of our country or are we taking it for granted?

    The whole hunting thing is a straw man.

    Kind of off-topic, but to put things in perspective: where is our outrage over this:

    and this:

    Hopefully, they used science to justify these acts.

  22. kadeebe says:

    Assault rifles represent such a small percentage of homicides in the US so, while I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t do anything about it, I do think we should be sure not to be sure to not lose sight of what’s important.

    I also find it absurd to argue that a person who has to take 5 seconds to reload a weapon will kill significantly less people than if he could fire 30 rounds uninterrupted when he is on a 10 minute spree. First of all, 5 seconds is pretty slow if you know what you’re doing and is probably as slow as you can hope the gunman to be reloading. Second, these people almost always seem to have side arms so I doubt that they are going to get charged and subdued before pulling their pistols. There probably aren’t that many people who are looking to charge headlong into an armed gunman anyway. I just don’t feel that limiting clip size will have the effect you are looking for (I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, just that I don’t feel it would do what you want it to do). Finally, this person could have accomplished the same results with a hunting rifle, a handgun, or a shotgun. picking out assault rifles like they are special will get you nothing if you are concerned with limiting incidents such as the one in Connecticut especially considering they are used in such a small amount of homicides.

    I agree pendens’ fourth point about automatic weapons as well. If anything the semi-auto guns are going to make the gunman aim.

    It’s important to be well informed about gun violence and the fact of the matter is that people are getting killed with handguns way more than any other type of gun. The US has a high crime rate. That is a fact. But it seems like our biggest problem is that we are a large country filled with people who want to hurt other people. I don’t know how to fix it but it’s clear that handguns are a thing which will have to be pried from America’s cold dead fingers so we have to find a way to treat the source of the problem. Of course you could always move to England.

  23. RickK says:

    This discussion has clarified my thinking.

    1). Most of the Americans who die by being shot by civilian-owned guns are victims of crimes and suicides.
    2). Widespread ownership of devices specifically designed to efficiently kill people is incompatible with a peaceful society that values its children.
    3). Removable magazines that allow rapid reloading are only useful for hunting people, not for hunting animals.
    4). Hunting people should be discouraged.
    5). We should ban all handguns and all removable magazine rifles.
    6). This will in no way affect our ability to defend ourselves against a government armed with attack helicopters, rocket-propelled grenades, tanks and control of our bank accounts.

    Thanks. A useful conversation.

  24. RickK says:

    “Americans will never give up their guns”

    “American drivers will never wear seatbelts”

    “Women don’t deserve the right to vote”

    “A black president?! Are you kidding!?”

    Times change. Societies mature. One of my favorite books this year was “The Better Angels of Our Nature”.

    It’s not a matter of if we’ll grow out of our Wild West gun culture, it’s just a matter of when, and of how many senseless deaths we must endure before it happens.

  25. ptazmodeus says:

    I understand your thinking, but how do you propose to remove the 300 million guns already in circulation in the US?

  26. Our kids heard about the massacre at school. We talked to them about it, and emphasized how unlikely the event was. The “struck by lightening” analogy is good, I also used the “getting hit on the head by a coconut” analogy.

    They learned that bad things do sometimes happen, but they are safe.

  27. Regarding magazine size – the argument that some are making is that limiting size is not very effective because such weapons are designed to rapidly reload a new magazine, and they can always have a backup pistol.

    Let me ask you one question – in a fire fight, would your rather have a gun with a 30 round magazine or a 6 round magazine?

    Also – it misses the point that it could be effective to both limit magazine size and ban military-style assault rifles that are designed to rapidly fire and reload. Legal guns can be optimized for hunting and target shooting, but be incompatible with discharging hundreds of rounds in a few minutes.

    This seems like a reasonable common-sense compromise that both respects the second amendment and responsible legitimate use of weapons, with the public safety.

    I do not think it is a reasonable standard to have to prove that limiting magazine size will, by itself, be effective in reducing some metric (like homicides) in order to justify such regulation.

  28. slipknottin says:

    Well I suppose that is another question, would restricting things like assault rifles, magazine size, etc have made enough of a difference in this case?

    Just for argument sake, let’s say using his handguns he killed only half the amount of people.

    Would dropping it from 26 to 13 have been a great success for gun regulation?

    Aren’t nearly all homicides a single individual? How many homicides a year would be prevented with magazine size restrictions? A handful?

    And really, IMO, forcing someone to reload more often isn’t much of a deterrent really. Especially for anyone who does any sort of training. Go to the gun range and you reload constantly. I’m not sure annoying them with reloading will change much

  29. I think cutting the number of victims killed in mass killings is an adequate outcome to justify such regulation.

    Again – what is the legitimate civilian use for high capacity magazines or assault rifles? The burden of justification is on those who think that citizens should have the right to own such weapons.

    I also think we should explore other technologies and regulations to allow people to have some weapons for legitimate use while keeping them safe, out of the wrong hands, and limiting their potential abuse for mass killing.

  30. slipknottin says:

    I’m not arguing for high cap mags. I’m just not sure it would contribute much of anything to preventing homicides. But we need the stats there to see either way. May be much better off trying to prevent these events in another way.

    I’m not anti gun control. I just want to make sure the choices are effective in doing what they are supposed to do. Instead of just taking guns from people who have never and would never murder others

  31. DevoutCatalyst says:

    How often are machineguns used in commission of these crimes? Not very often if at all is my guess. Machineguns are much more tightly regulated and expensive. Likewise, you can add a suppressor to your gun, a “silencer” as Hollywood would have you believe. How often are these used in the commission of a crime? Not very often is again my guess and at least in part because of the tight scrutiny that is attached with owning these things, but also because of the severe penalties if you’re caught out of compliance with the law.

    I’m not a gun owner, but I listen to gun podcasts and I read the gun magazines and watch hickok45 on YouTube frequently enough. I am not incurious. Seems to me the gun hobby is legit and people enjoy the high capacity weapons; hickok45 is a gentle schoolteacher whose face lights up with automatic fire. That’s the gun hobby. Now the gun lobby wants to talk. Since the NRA says they are willing to talk, why not take them up on it?

    I have no answer pertaining to guns save to explore tighter regulation as with the examples above. Those regs exact costs but still permit things normally thought of as unobtainable.

    The mother in this sad tragedy seems to me was a bit of a nut job, paranoid, and also irresponsible. She didn’t think to lock up her weapons. I don’t know how in the hell you’re going to regulate that.

  32. ccbowers says:

    “Would dropping it from 26 to 13 have been a great success for gun regulation?”

    Yes, it would.

  33. RickK says:

    “how do you propose to remove the 300 million guns already in circulation in the US?”

    I don’t have definitive answers, but as I said earlier I’d happily contribute more tax dollars to a “buyback and destroy” program.

    I’d also ask the UK how they managed their program to eliminate handguns.

    I’d use as many personal stories of children and families destroyed by guns – homicide, suicide, and accident.

    And for the more rationally-minded I’d flog the statistics of how often guns are discharged by a criminal, discharged in a domestic dispute, discharged in a suicide or discharged by accident compared to how often they are discharged in personal or home defense.

    Basically, I’d use every bit of the cultural-shifting psychology and methodology outlined in Daniel Gardner’s “The Science of Fear” that has been used to promote gun ownership in the first place. They seem to work pretty well.

    My main point (besides my obvious anti-gun stance) is that compared to some of the other problems America has fixed or is facing in the future (climate change, anyone?), reducing the availability of people-killing machines among the general population seems quite manageable. It will take a couple generations to change attitudes and enculturate a revulsion of privately-owned firearms. But isn’t it worth the effort?

    A dramatic reduction in the number of guns in the general population is one of those accomplishments that we could share with our kids with pride.

  34. ccbowers says:

    (continuing from last premature posting)…as rare as this type of thing is, it will not be the last time someone will attempt a mass killing. I agree that this isn’t just about gun control, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take the opportunity to reevaluate this issue.

  35. RickK says:

    DevoutCatalyst said: “Seems to me the gun hobby is legit and people enjoy the high capacity weapons; hickok45 is a gentle schoolteacher whose face lights up with automatic fire.”

    That’s an easy problem to solve and opens up business opportunities as well.

    Firing ranges can provide guns and ammo of all types for people to blaze away all day long.

    “But what about the guns at the range – couldn’t they get in the wrong hands?”

    Sure, it can happen. But my guess is it would happen less frequently if we had gun registration and monitoring laws like Israel. As I understand it, having your registered gun stolen under any circumstances lands you in jail.

    “But what about illegally imported or unregistered guns?”

    Always the problem, hence the need for culture change as well. But we don’t have to make things perfect to make things a whole lot better.

  36. raylider says:

    “The burden of justification is on those who think that citizens should have the right to own such weapons.”

    How so? Is it not the other way around? If you start with the default of thinking: people are not allowed to do anything, and are only allowed what we as a society allow them, then may be you’re right. But I thought people are born free with rights, and so the burden of proof is on those who want to take the rights away.

  37. Philosofrenzy says:


    “As I understand it, having your registered gun stolen under any circumstances lands you in jail.”

    You’d be happy with a circumstance where being the victim of a crime *is a crime*?


    I’m curious why you think the burden of proof is on those who think people should have the right to own high capacity magazines, etc. Why is the default position that they should be restricted, without the need to provide evidence that such restrictions would be effective? I understand that this evidence would be nearly impossible to provide, but that’s not the point. Any law that restricts freedoms but brings no benefit to public well-being is a bad law, and is worth opposing, in principle.

    There are many countries that allow both assault weapons and high capacity magazines which do not suffer from school shootings and massacres, so I think there’s at least some burden of proof to be met on the side of limiting magazine capacities as a solution to the problem.

    The only ‘legitimate’ reason for a civilian to own one is that it’s a more enjoyable experience to use–definitely not worth the price of innocent deaths. But the same thing could be said of fast cars. Why is it legal to own cars that are capable of driving more than twice the highway speed limit? What is the legitimate civilian use for this? Reducing speed limits across the board, and preventing anyone from exceeding them, would almost certainly save far more lives per year than banning 30-round magazines. But would you think legislation would be a default position, with the burden of proof being on the shoulders of those who would oppose it?

  38. AndrewTyson says:

    Thank you for being a voice of reason on this issue. It is such an emotional issue due to its nature. Many people respond with a hard knee-jerk reaction based on their preexisting ideologies. Lets have this discussion. Lets have all of them. Lets have it based on the studies and evidence. Lets fund the groups that are getting us the information we need to make the right decisions.

    This discussion is often too emotionally charged. Often even the skeptics fall prey emotional rhetoric in this domain.

  39. RickK says:

    Philosofrenzy asked: “You’d be happy with a circumstance where being the victim of a crime *is a crime*?”

    Ah, you’re asking someone who works in an international bank. Are you familiar with acronyms like AML and KYC? Are you aware of the penalties of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act?

    If a terrorist uses false identification and a huge network of seemingly innocuous accounts to do business with our bank, it is OUR fault for not catching him.

    Another example: would you hold our government responsible if the Iranians managed to steal a pound of our plutonium?

    If a child illegally tresspasses on your property and drowns in your pool is your fault.

    There are many MANY examples where exercising insufficient control against a crime is considered a crime.

    Allowing someone to lay their hands on your well-oiled, perfectly maintained people-killing tool (which you might call a Beretta 9 mm) should be your fault, no?

    So the answer to your question is yes. I strongly support the criminalization of allowing someone (your under-age child, a neighborhood kid, a burglar) to gain access to your firearms.

    The goal here is to treat handguns and high-capacity rifles as what they truly are – dramatically dangerous machines designed specifically to kill people. They are not toys for a weekend romp at the range. They’re not trophies for the casual collector to impress his friends. They’re not tools for scaring your daughter’s new boyfriend. They are tools that in the hands of private citizens more often than not kill the wrong people. And the whole country should treat them as such.

  40. Philosofrenzy says:

    @ RickK

    Your core point is that firearms are dangerous, and that their storage needs to be regulated. This makes perfect sense to me; but you use a wide range of examples that range from sensible to absurd, without showing any recognition of this spectrum and the nuance it recommends. People shouldn’t be expected to keep trespassers from drowning in their pools any more than they should be expected to prevent car thieves from getting into car accidents in their cars; if American law currently holds them accountable in this way, that’s the system failing in a big way. In the case of the banks, experts have to determine what measures are reasonably possible to detect and avoid helping terrorists to fund their operations, but there has to be a point beyond which it’s not reasonable to hold someone accountable for the success of countermeasure-avoidance.

    But guns are a different story—falling somewhere on the spectrum between the pool and the plutonium–because there are people looking to steal guns (where there are *not* people looking for pools to drown in), and so gun owners should be expected to account for this danger. So it is sensible to ask what measures can reasonably be required to keep them from being accessible to people other than the legal owners. But you initially suggested that it should be a crime to have your firearm stolen “under any circumstances.” This is what I took issue with. Without prohibitively expensive measures, it’s not possible to prevent sufficiently motivated people from getting at what they want. Would that it were.

    As I see it, if a firearm is stolen, despite being locked up, it’s absurd to hold the owner responsible for any crime that is committed with that firearm, just as it would be to hold a car owner responsible if his locked car was stolen and used in a hit-and-run.

  41. RickK says:

    I didn’t say the gun owner was responsible for crimes committed with the gun. I said the gun owner has committed a crime when his gun falls into somebody else’s hands.

    But of course my position has been clear – to discourage the presence of guns in our society. So as I said before, I’m in favor of criminalizating the unintentional loss of a gun. Period. If you have a carry permit and a mugger clubs you from behind and takes your gun, your actions have increased the risk in the community and you should be guilty. If you don’t want to be potentially guilty, don’t own the gun.

    And I’m hard pressed to think of measures sufficient to protect a gun from a moderately determined thief that wouldn’t also render that gun nearly useless in home or personal defense.

    Oh, and you are liable for a kid drowning in your pool under tort law – a pool is an “attractive nuisance”. If a kid (or anyone who does not appreciate the risks) gets through your defenses and is injured in your pool, you can be held liable for their injuries or wrongful death.

  42. Philoso – Should we allow citizens to own rocket propelled grenades until their is evidence that they cause harm? Fast cars is a somewhat apt analogy, if you extend it to drag racers. Should we allow drag racers on the highways and just assume the posted speed limit is sufficient deterrent for speeding?

    It’s all gray – I am not saying there are any bright lines.

    I am also not saying (which should be clear by now) that high-capacity magazines are causing anything – that they are causing homicides or mass killings. That’s a straw man. But since we do have a problem with mass killings, the combination of that with the availability of military capacity weapons and high capacity magazines is bad. The fact alone that such weapons have been used in multiple incidents resulting in large numbers of dead is sufficient, in my opinion, to shift the burden back to gun proponents.

    Also – I agree that there can be shooting ranges with high security requirements that allow people to shoot their weapons – just not take them home.

    There are many things we should do to limit homicides, limit mass killings, and when they do occur limit their lethality. There is no either-or – that’s a false choice.

  43. slipknottin says:

    To ccbowers. It would have been a great success only if you look at it backwards.

    If Lanza broke in and killed 13 people wouldn’t it have been a horrible crime? Would people look at it and say “well if he had an assault rifle he could have killed many more”?

    Not likely. Instead it only moves forward.

  44. Philosofrenzy says:

    Thank you for clearing that up, Steve. You’ve made a good case, as I knew you would.

    I agree with your extension of the analogy as a way of demonstrating that it can be reasonable to outlaw something before there is evidence it will cause harm (while waiting for your reply, I thought of the even more outrageous example of chemical or nuclear weapons: we wouldn’t need an example of one being ‘misused,’ before making it illegal to own). I am curious if you would support banning sports cars, though, given that it would likely save more lives per year than an assault rifle ban.

    It also makes more sense how you distinguish “X causes Y” from “altering X might mitigate Y.” You’re right that, looking at the problem this way, it becomes obvious that it’s not necessarily enlightening to look at whether the same firearms and magazine capacities can exist without incident in another context.

    I do not think it’s an either/or–and I don’t think what I wrote suggested that I do. I’ve been arguing, on the contrary, that we should focus firearm legislation that is likely to have an effect. I think licensing (with interviews of friends and family) like we have in Canada, coupled with strict storage laws, do a lot of work at preventing harm, for example, and I would strongly encourage such measures being taken in the US. Not all gun laws are created equal. I also think more focus needs to be put on handguns in the US, which are far and away the leading cause of firearm-related deaths.

    I think bans should be a last resort, though, once restrictions and licensing fail.

  45. BobbyG says:

    # raylideron 19 Dec 2012 at 11:30 am

    “But I thought people are born free with rights”

    Your “rights” exist to the extent that your surrounding society will defer to and defend them — notwithstanding noble declarations regarding “truths” to be held “self-evident.”

    At the outset in particular, to say that a newborn human is “free” is specious on its face, on multiple counts that ought to be obvious.

    When it gets down to the inescapable, irreducible societal trade-offs, count me on the side of the of the continuing rights of 20 grade school six and seven year olds to lives of freedom from violence. If that means in part inconveniencing some “gun enthusiasts,” so be it.

  46. Safety vs freedom is always a trade off, and we make societal and individual choices. In the US for a while the national speed limit was 55 MPH. Proponents argued that the speed limit saved lives, and so was a moral obligation. But reducing to 45 would save more lives, as would 35. At some point, however, the inconvenience of a universally slow speed limit would be too great to bear. In fact, eventually the 55 MPH speed limit was eliminated (now states determine their own limits without federal limits).

    Driving is part convenience, part necessity of our modern society. There would be harm from not having driving, from excessively limiting it, or from draconian speed limits. So we collectively accept a number of deaths each year for that convenience, while trying to minimize it with seat belt, air bag, speed limit, and other safety regulations. We require licensing of drivers. We are debating about re-testing older drivers, but their voting power is too great.

    I agree that we should have rational evidence-based regulations that are based on evidence and reason. Where evidence is lacking, we have to resort to logic and common sense, and make efforts to get the evidence that will help the most. I am not in favor of knee-jerk regulations about “scary” guns. I want regulations that re likely to save lives without being unnecessarily restrictive.

  47. PapaK says:

    Steve: This is a good piece and a valuable discussion. It’s about the most constructive I’ve seen anywhere.

    That said, I can’t see how the changes made by your kid’s school is “a reasonable security policy.” There seems to be no known benefit from such a change. On the other hand, such a policy acts to remove parents even further from the school community. Many parents at my kid’s school drop by for lunch, when work allows them to do so. In my case, I can do it when I have a late cancel by a patient. The policy that says no parent can show up “unannounced” would preclude that. If the policy says that all I have to do is call before I arrive, then the policy seems completely pointless.

    Crime data seems to indicate that kids are safer than ever, yet the movement to place them in ever more fervently locked bubbles seems to continue without much of a scientific “peer review.”

  48. Philosofrenzy says:

    “We require licensing of drivers. We are debating about re-testing older drivers, but their voting power is too great.”

    There should be recurring referendums–every 10 years–but you can’t vote if you’ve voted in previous ones. Eventually it would pass. XD

    Thanks, again, for your thoughtful replies, Steve.

  49. tmac57 says:

    So far,this forum represents the most rational debate about this subject that I have seen,despite the opinions that I do not agree with.
    At least the comments have tried to stay within the bounds of reason,rather than a series of gut reactions and slogans such as…well, I started to list some,but go to your Facebook page and I’m sure you’ll see them.

  50. Guav says:

    “While there is an association, we have to remember the other side – 85% of homicides are committed by people without a diagnosable mental disorder, and most people with a mental disorder do not commit violent crimes.”

    As long as we’re examining the topic fee of emotion and openly discussing unpleasant realities, we would be remiss in not addressing the 800 pound gorilla in the room: Namely, that 50% of homicide victims in this country are African-American. Most of them are young males, and African-American males make up only about 6% of the population. Between 1976 and 1999, 94% of black murder victims were killed by other African-Americans*, 75% of which with handguns, mostly illegally owned or stolen.

    This suggests that the homicide by firearm problem is concentrated in a small, identifiable group—the overall African-American demographic, and especially in young men; homicide is an epidemic in the “young black male” demographic**. If it were a communicable disease, we’d be wearing ribbons and spending money on drug research. Instead we’re banning “assault weapons” and trying to pass licensing and registration laws that this very demographic is going to ignore.

    Instead of pursuing wholesale gun control laws that affect everybody, we ought to be pursuing policies that directly address that problem, because gun control doesn’t. If mere firearm availability was the main driving force behind homicides in this country, there would not be such a racial disparity.

    Here is an example of something that actually works:

    “Kennedy views [gun] bans, like the one Miller is pushing for, as a symptom of the problem, not a cure. “For people desperately searching for a solution, it seems like it makes sense,” says Kennedy. “What they don’t understand is that there are better tools that don’t require law to implement, and are practically cookbook and off-the-shelf.”

    In Cincinnati, gun-related homicides spiked in 2006 to 89 … Kennedy’s research team unpacked what he calls typical trends: They identified 69 distinct street groups, comprising about 1,000 people. Of the 89 homicides, these 1,000 people – less than half a per cent of the city’s population – were connected to more than 75 per cent of them.

    Identifying the problem makes the solution relatively simple, Kennedy says. “If we change the behavior of these people, we solve the problem.”

    Also, nearly two-thirds of African-American homicides were drug related. Ending the ineffective and counterproductive War On Drugs and working toward the decriminalization and legalization of drugs would do more to halve our homicide rate than decades of gun control measures which have already been tried, and failed.

    * Most homicide is intra-racial. During that same time period, 86% of whites were killed by other whites.

    ** To be clear, I am not saying that African-American males are genetically predisposed to commit homicide, but that a variety of social, economic and cultural factors combine to create the situation we’re left with: 50% of all homicides are committed by a demographic that is only 6% of the population—and this same demographic makes up 50% of the victims of homicide. That is the sad reality.

  51. Shelley says:

    “The video-game issue seems like the biggest red-herring to me. This is pure speculation, not based on any information about the shooter. Here again we have a research literature to look to. A recent review concludes:

    “Overall, the evidence supports hypotheses that violent video game play is related to aggressive affect, physiological arousal, aggressive cognitions, and aggressive behaviours.”

    However, the literature does not establish cause and effect. It may be that people with aggressive tendencies are drawn to violent video games.”

    Hmmmmm . . . Not so sure about this one, Steve. Not that I am suggesting that video games ’caused’ this problem, but rather that there is *experimental* research that suggests a causal relationship. While it may be true that violent individuals are more attracted to violent video games, experiments (random assignment to groups and so on) demonstrate that video games decrease empathy and increase aggressiveness.

    I am not suggesting that we have all the answers. Like many other discussions, this is complicated, but I think it is inaccurate to suggest that there is no reason to suspect that violent video games are not causally related to increased aggression.

    Please see:

    I rather suspect that there are a combination of factors involved: personality disorders/mental health issues, ease of access to powerful firearms, general desensitization to violence and so on. The problems are highly complex. The answers equally complicated.

  52. Lee C says:

    Great Post, It is really good to hear someone actually say that we shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions.

  53. Papak – That is a reasonable point. There is more to consider here, however, than shooters entering the school (as I said, this measure would have not worked). Probably the biggest security issue is divorced parents without custody kidnapping their own kids. Calling ahead at least gives the school a chance to check the caller to see if they have the right to pick up the kid.

    I am not saying this is the best policy, just that it’s not unreasonable. I do think it’s mostly psychological in the face of the recent tragedy.

  54. Shelley – I know there are studies that suggest there may be an effect. I just don’t think they are robust enough to draw any conclusions. They are not long term enough, and they are still in the laboratory. They are not sufficient to conclude that video game violence increases societal violence, and that’s what I meant.

  55. Guav – that again is a false choice. It is not either or. In fact, these are really separate problems we are talking about (even though they both involve gun-related homicides). Even if we eliminated urban gang, drug trade related gun homicides, we would still have a problem that needs to be addressed.

    I agree we need to address the big problems. But this is not just about the numbers. The mass shooting of innocent young children has a different psychological effect than gang-on-gang violence.

    We need to keep our children safe AND we need to address the gang problem, and the drug problem in this country.

  56. Guav says:

    Oh, absolutely. Nothing I talked about what would any measurable effect on “Mentally imbalanced individual goes off the deep end and opens fire on a school or mall.” But as you correctly acknowledged, these cases are high profile and horrifying, but hardly all that common (relatively speaking) in a country with 30,000+ deaths by firearm a year.

    Mass shootings are no more common than they have been in past decades; Incidents of mass murder from 2000-2010 were almost half of what they were in the 1990’s, and they were highest in the 1920’s. This is certainly not to minimize the very real deaths, but many people seem to be under the impression that there’s a huge increase in these shootings lately, and there is not. The chances of being killed in a mass shooting are about what they are for being struck by lightning.

    Also, over half of those 30,000 annual gun deaths I mentioned are suicides, and obviously targeting gangs and drugs is not going to impact those numbers, especially since firearm suicide is predominantly an older white male phenomenon.

    That’s why I think prescriptions of “gun control” for these three separate maladies are so misguided. They clearly have very different causes, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to them.

    I would also like to comment on how fantastic this conversation is—all of the comments are reasonable, respectful and intelligent. I don’t think I’ve ever read or participated in any discussion about firearms online that didn’t have people being rude and calling each other names within the first 10 replies.

  57. Shelley says:

    “Shelley – I know there are studies that suggest there may be an effect. I just don’t think they are robust enough to draw any conclusions. They are not long term enough, and they are still in the laboratory. They are not sufficient to conclude that video game violence increases societal violence, and that’s what I meant.”

    Steve, I think that the findings are consistent across several areas of psychology, including cognitive psychology, social script theory, developmental theory, and so on. While may not be sufficient to conclude that video game violence increases “societal violence,” models of human aggression are consistently clear that “after exposure to media violence, there is an increase in aggressive behavior tendencies because of several factors. 1. Aggressive thoughts increase, which in turn increase the likelihood that a mild or ambiguous provocation will be interpreted in a hostile fashion. 2. Aggressive affect increases. 3. General arousal (e.g., heart rate) increases, which tends to increase the dominant behavioral tendency. 4. Direct imitation of recently observed aggressive behaviors sometimes occurs.

    Repeated media violence exposure increases aggression across the lifespan because of several related factors. 1. It creates more positive attitudes, beliefs, and expectations regarding use of aggressive solutions. 2. It creates aggressive behavioral scripts and makes them more cognitively accessible. 3. It decreases the accessibility of nonviolent scripts. 4. It decreases the normal negative emotional reactions to conflict, aggression, and violence.” (See my link to this quote in my previous post.)

    Does it increase societal violence? Who knows? I’m not sure exactly how one would ethically do a longitudinal study on this (you can’t exactly randomly assign kids to violent and non violent games for a lifetime). But at an individual level, there is remarkable consistency.

    Obviously I’m not advocating for a video game or movie ban (I own and play several myself), but it isn’t a red herring. Rather, on an individual basis, it is likely a contributing factor, particularly where there is significant psychological instability.

    I see kids in my practice – some who should never be allowed near a violent video game: Kids who are aggressive, violent, defiant, and angry. Will they grow up to be mass murderers? I have no idea. But I’d rather not feed the aggression, though some parents do it. (I’ve seen parents threatened by kids when they take away their violent games.) Frankly, I think people need to be aware of this so that they can make reasoned decisions about children’s access at the outset. Violence in video games/movies should be part of the discussion.

  58. Guav says:

    Also, I’m sure you’ve all probably seen this by now, but it’s very powerful and troubling:

  59. Shelley – that is all reasonable. What I was objecting to was the conclusion that violent video games increase the likelihood of these kinds of events occurring. I don’t think we can reasonable extrapolate that from the evidence.

    I agree that there are short-term effects on aggression, which makes sense. I guess I’m talking about the difference between mood and personality. Playing a violent video game may increase someone’s short term aggressive mood, but I don’t think we can conclude from the evidence that it makes them a generally more aggressive or violent person, or that it increases the probability of significant violence, such a homicide.

  60. locutusbrg says:

    I am coming a little late to the discussion. I have a kindergarten student in school and I live less than 50 miles from that school. It is literally and figuratively a little to close to home for me. I have been purposely avoiding it because it is deeply disturbing. I see my child’s face every time I see a picture. I will surrender that I am biased, probably severely. There are 88.8 guns for every 100 persons in the US I can see no reasonable reason to need that many guns for anything but a war. I am not proposing outlawing personal firearms. We do need to make them more expensive to own and use. I have 1 car. I love cars I am a car enthusiast. However I can only reasonably afford one car. I think that it is reasonable to limit the types and numbers of guns that someone can own. In addition it is reasonable in my opinion to make the wholesale stockpiling of ammunition more expensive. I do not think that this would have made any difference in Conn. That said, guns and explosives are the only way that one lone killer can overcome large numbers of other people quickly. We should do everything we can to make sure that it is more difficult for people like him to have easy access to assault rifles, large stockpiles of ammo and military style magazines. The measures talked about above are not 100%. You will never have 100% way to keep guns out of nutcases hands. That is irrelevant you have to try.
    On your home you may have a deadbolt lock, door lock, window locks, a alarm, or even a legal gun. They are a pain they restrict your access to your house, slow down your entry, and have safety issues. Yet despite all that trouble a dedicated individual can still get into your house take your things and leave. So if you are arguing to me that gun control would have done nothing in this case I would say you are probably right. I would ask the question do you lock your house up when you go out?

  61. BobbyG says:

    [1] Legalize pot.

    [2] Ban assault weapons.

    [3] No one will care about [2].


  62. Woody says:

    I agree that this has been one of the most rational discussions I have seen on the topic of gun control. What I find interesting is that the discussion has almost exclusively focused on that topic, without addressing the other important aspects of this tragedy that Steve brought up in his original discussion. I briefly commented on his point about the lack of mental heath care resources, but that topic doesn’t seem to generate the same interest.

    Perhaps it is because it is not a polarizing issue? Maybe we are all in agreement that there needs to be improved access to mental health care? I would like to think that.

    Assuming there is general agreement on that topic, why hasn’t it happened?

  63. tmac57 says:

    If you think that this is a cut and dried issue,then take a look at this fairly unbiased article from that shows that this is a difficult and nuanced subject:

  64. RickK says:

    tmac57, it is most definitely not “cut and dried”. Thanks for the post.

    It is quite possible that more guns decrease the odds of a home invasion. I’ll grant the NRA that point. It is quite possible that armed teachers would shoot armed maniacs faster, and would act as a deterrent wherever the teachers went with the kids. Given the data, it is quite possible that arming college students will reduce the body count in a Virginia Tech incident. It appears the data supports such conclusions. As an example, look at Kennesaw, Georgia, where home robberies and invasions dropped dramatically when the town mandated that every homeowner have a gun.

    But it is true that countries like the UK have a tiny fraction of our gun deaths – period. It is also true that more guns increase the rate of neighbor shooting neighbor. It is true that much of the elevated suicide rate in states like Alaska, Montana and Wyoming is because suicide with a gun is vastly easier, faster and more likely to succeed than with a blade or poison. And it is true that guns in the home dramatically elevate the stakes in domestic violence. As an example, look at the same Kennesaw, GA, where they’ve just buried a police officer shot while trying to break up a domestic dispute in a well-armed household.

    Finally, it is true that no reasonable amount of home-ownership of guns would make the slightest bit of difference if our government’s military forces were turned on us. When the Second Amendment was written – there was no difference between military technology and privately owned weapons. That is far from the case today. In this century, a smartphone camera and youtube are more effective at fighting tyranny than any guns we might be carrying.

    The NRA has an argument and the anti-gun people have an argument.

    If we’re unhappy with the status quo, then we have to decide what changes to make. And we should not be timid – a small change is unlikely to have a measurable result.

    So, it comes down to this: What kind of America do we want to live in? One where everybody carries a gun and is ready at a moment’s notice to kill their fellow citizens if the situation calls for it? Or the kind where we willingly surrender the ability to depersonalize killing someone, surrender our Rambo/Wild West fantasies and choose as a nation to stop the guns at the border? We’re very good at changing our society and achieving what was once thought impossible. That is one of America’s greatest strengths.

  65. DigitalLiberty says:

    I think these kinds of incidents are fundamentally different from most homicides. These are not robbers who kill the store clerk, gang members fighting over drug territory, jealous lovers, or heated arguments that get out of control.

    These, like the Bath School disaster (, are people who are ready to explode and take innocent others down with them. They are a strange mix of irrational thinking and planning.

    Since the motives and goals of these killers are different, the solutions are also likely to be different from normal crime prevention.

  66. kevinjearly says:

    Huge fan of yours, Doc, but this piece of navel gazing is exactly what we don’t need right now. How much information do we need in order to act? And how much time will that take?

    When you consider the stakes (you daughter, mine) in light of the context – several random, mass murders this month by well-armed madmen – gathering “more evidence” appears to be the sign of yet another type of madness.

    We do have evidence. We have country be country data analyzing rates of mass killings or rates of homicides in pretty graphs. What the clearly indicate is that the US – where 270 guns have a home – is clearly number 1, not only in gun ownership, but in all areas of gun related death. There are only two countries where you have the constitutional right to bear arms: here and in Yemen. Yemen! The FBI has data on homicides going back to the 1900s. The data are in.

    As Bob Sheifer pointed out the head of the NRA on his program Sunday, it is far easier for a person his age to obtain a gun than a driver’s license. The driver’s license took him three visits to three specialists (the general practitioner, the optometrist, the DMV for a test). A person only needs to show up at a gun show, fill out a form, lay down money and viola…

    So no, Doc. With all due respect, we have decades of “evidence.” While you wait for more, better, clearer evidence (with each data point representing one more dead American), the NRA is pouring millions of dollars into the coffers of its preferred customers in D.C., housewifes are stockpiling arsenals, and lunatics are buying thousands of rounds of ammunition…these aren’t needed data points, these are our brothers, sisters, friends, children. We’ve all seen enough to know how and why to act.

  67. DLC says:

    “Clip is a common colloquialism” : Only among those ignorant of firearms. the word clip derives from a device used to hold a group of rounds of ammunition together so they may be inserted en bloc. One such firearm to use clips was the M1 Garand rifle, which held 8 rounds in a clip which was then inserted into the rifle’s magazine. But look — nobody’s playing “Gotcha” here. I’m just providing information, which you can ignore if you wish.

    A couple of points here that I’ll put up besides my correction: First, fully fund and provide a director for the BATFE. Second, fully fund the national background check system, and mandate the inclusion of those judged to be mentally unstable to the point they pose a risk of harm to themselves or others. Finally, I add the suggestion — make the background check system mandatory for all firearms transactions, but place the burden on the buyer. Make the buyer certify that they have no history in their past which would preclude them from legally owning a firearm. This could be done by secure web server handled by either the FBI or the BATFE, and include one of those “instant link” splotches used in advertising that would bring up a confirmation page at the government website. Place the burden of proof on the buyer, under penalty of perjury.

  68. kevin – you misunderstand. I did not say that we should do nothing until we gather more evidence. My position is that we should do what makes the most current sense based upon existing evidence, while we gather more evidence to refine our policies. The existing evidence is more complex than your characterization – but even still, I came down in favor of banning assault rifles, large volume magazines, and closing the gun-show loop holes. I also favor a voluntary buy back program, and stricter regulations for gun safety among owners. We should also explore new technology to keep guns from being used by people who should not use them.

    Further – we need serious mental health reform. Prisons are our de facto institutions because of lack of needed resources.

  69. BillyJoe7 says:


    “So, it comes down to this: What kind of America do we want to live in? One where everybody carries a gun and is ready at a moment’s notice to kill their fellow citizens if the situation calls for it? Or the kind where we willingly surrender the ability to depersonalize killing someone, surrender our Rambo/Wild West fantasies and choose as a nation to stop the guns at the border?”

    Thanks for seeing the wood for the trees; for giving voice to the bottom line.

    In Australia, after the Port Arthur massacre, most of us voluntarily surrendered our guns. And there wasn’t even any buy back scheme. And those who wanted to keep them had to apply for a licence which included police and mental health checks and were required to keep their guns under lock and key.
    There really was no significant outcry.

    One massacre, of course, doesn’t prove anything about the negatives or positives of gun ownership, but it seems to me that we went with the sentiments expressed in your last paragraph and chose to have a society in which we were happier to live. The massacre was an excuse to get this thing done and those with any sense realised that this was the case and just pushed it through.
    Here’s hoping Americans have the same sense.

  70. Shelley says:

    “Further – we need serious mental health reform. Prisons are our de facto institutions because of lack of needed resources.”

    Yes we surely do. Resources are bad, but even where they are good, we have a findamental problem with individual rights in mental health. I work here, and I can’t tell you the number of times family members have been aware of significant health mental health issues in a loved one, but they (and the earnest workers around them) have been unable to act due to the right to refuse treatment. Schizophrenics sleeping under the overpass – and family members devastated. There has to be a middle ground between forced institutionaliaztion and the free for all where people in need are able to refuse care and end up getting lost to the penal system. Surely there is a better way!

  71. svetbek says:

    Alas, I would not hope for better data… The reason they are sparse is probably in no small part due to NRA’s efforts. Relevant government agencies are by law prohibited from releasing certain information or conducting certain research:

  72. DragonsSlippers says:


    As always you worded this very well. It was nice to hear the opinions of some one close to the situation.


  73. kevinjearly says:

    I grew up hunting in the state of Oregon. We call the magazine a “clip” here. If you call it a magazine, people think you’re being hi-falutin.’

    So insist on etymological accuracy all you want but know if you come to the great northwest, you better call it a “clip” or expose yourself as alien, yankee, urbane, or fay.

  74. bobbruer says:

    Re cause and effect for video games. Possibly something worthy of further study… but in the meantime, I know when I lie down after playing a video game, I continue to ‘see’ visual patterns characteristic of what I was playing (e.g., water flowing through pipes = water flowing through pipes, Tetris = falling squares, etc.). I would expect similar lingering imprints on mind of someone playing a video game involving guns and killing. Also, video ‘games’ appear to work for teaching piloting skills, surgical procedures, etc. With such evidence, I think prior plausibility would favor high probability for violent games begetting ‘effective’ (and possibly increased) violent behavior.

    IF SO:
    In the presence of impaired mental functioning (e.g., Schizophrenia, Delirium), I think we might well expect video games to give rise to violent outbursts like Newtown.

    IF SO:
    We should act to restrict both video games and guns. Plus increase our vigilance for the onset of major mental illness… we have the computer power to prevent an ill person falling into a world where reasonable boundaries between real and make-believe disappear.

  75. studio34 says:

    >>> the discussion should be evidence-based, we currently need more and better evidence, meanwhile we can make some rational decisions based on the evidence we have.

    Steve, you have Australia, Canada, the UK and Japan to draw some good evidence from to start. All have gun restriction laws in place and all have very low levels of gun homicide compared to the US where there are some 300 million guns in circulation. It’s a no-brainer that this is at least a MAJOR factor in the huge levels of gun violence your country deals with. The data in social science is rarely this clear. They strongly suggest that you have so much more gun violence than other countries because you have far more permissive laws than others regarding the sale and possession of guns. With 5% of the world’s population, the United States has 50% of the guns.

    Suggesting you need more evidence is like asking for more evidence that jumping out of an airplane without a parachute may be dangerous. We’re still not certain …

  76. nybgrus says:

    This is indeed a very rational and well thought out discussion. The only one I have come across and why I am opting to comment so late in the game. I read the original post, but no comments as I was on holiday, but I did just read through every comment thus far. I’ll try for a few bulleted points that jumped out at me:

    1) The reference to the 2nd Amendment as a constitutional right for every private citizen to bear arms is simply ridiculous. I learned this in my undergraduate constitutional law course and it holds true. Here is a great article on the topic. It is long, but well referenced and worth the read. The TL;DR for it is basically this: the legal proceedings to uphold the notion that the 2nd Amendment supports private gun ownership were politically motivated and extremely contorted. Also, it makes absolutely no sense for a government to build in a way for the populace to fight against an unjust government. That is like saying “You must obey the speed limit at all times except when you think it is OK not to.”

    None of this is to say that the constitution prohibits private gun ownership. Merely that the 2nd Amendment supporting it is nothing less than a ludicrous bit of motivated reasoning.

    2) Most discussions re: gun control suffer from the Nirvana fallacy. Just because gun control won’t eliminate violent crime or even gun deaths doesn’t mean it isn’t reasonable to lower gun deaths. As Dr. Novella pointed out, we trade the necessity and utility of driving for the inevitable deaths that occur (same as we trade the necessity and utility of modern medicine for the inevitable deaths that occur) while at the same time working hard to mitigate those deaths. The problem is that gun ownership has vastly less legitimate utility and need than car ownership. The analogy to race cars is a valid one – though a consideration missed (though pointed out tangentially) is the cost of ownership. Most really high end and fast sports cars are prohibitively expensive. The same cannot be said for guns. Lastly, one commenter said that the prevention of life lost is somehow not valid because the killing of 13 vs 26 would be equally tragic (in a statistical sense so to speak) and that realization of the decrease could not occur prospectively. That is pretty ridiculous. That is akin to saying we shouldn’t care about preventing terrorist attacks because we can never know if we actually prevented something that never happened.

    3) The bottom line is important. Gun ownership is simply not worth even one single life. Even one single life that was only maybe saved by not owning a gun. I really enjoy guns and shooting. I would gladly sign away my right to ever own one if I knew it would save 1 life. Even if I was told it would only have a 10% or 1% chance of saving a single life it would still be worthwhile. Nobody needs to own a gun to survive*, live a fulfilled life, or any other need. Thus the threshold for being more restrictive is necessarily and reasonably lower.

    4) Just as in cars we use other means to diminish harms, the same can and should be done with guns. The issue is multifactorial as we have established and so numerous changes could and should be implemented for a desired outcome and even indirectly acting measures are quite reasonable (lowering magazine capacity for example). I cannot think of an argument against making every aspect of using a gun to kill someone shouldn’t be made harder, regardless of what the individual effect size might actually prove to be. Both because the additive effects are more interesting and because we should err on the side of caution in these cases and be willing to be more restrictive than necessary due to the bottom line (as described above). I’d rather be wrong that decreasing magazine capacity will decrease deaths and still do it anyways, than be wrong about the association and not legislate to save a life.

    5) I agree with the proposed criminality of losing control of your gun. I also agree that if all reasonable precautions are taken the penalty should be lighter. But making the onus of responsibility on the owner seems like a very reasonable thing to do. You don’t need a gun and even if you do, you are taking ownership of a device designed to be lethal. You should bear an extra burden to ensure it is not used to illegally take life or injure someone (or something). You also don’t need a car (many people get by on public transport, walking, biking, carpooling) but if you take on the ownership of one – whether for pleasure or necessity – you are already required to take extra burden to ensure you have proper safety training and licensure. I would also argue those standards need to be raised and more stringent as well, but that is another discussion.

    Lastly, I will reference this post and comments for future conversation I have regarding this topic. This is an exemplar of how proper rational discussion should proceed even when people disagree. Thanks to everyone for reminding me there is sanity in this world.

    *For those that genuinely need a gun for subsistence hunting – which in the US is probably a small number – then the onus should be on them to demonstrate this. They already need to go somewhere to buy the gun and get a hunting license, and already need to go through hunting safety classes so the argument that this would be an undue burden on those with already diminished resources seems fallacious to me. Furthemore, those that are genuinely that impoverished are likely already hunting illegally and the laws wouldn’t change that. Inclusion of a compassion clause to allow such (I would suspect not commonly occurring) folks to demonstrate need and have a free of discounted permit issuance with no further criminal or civil penalty would then completely mitigate the issue. And lastly, none of this affects the discussion on what kinds of guns should be allowed. No subsistence hunter could possibly have need for fully automatic guns or even handguns.

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