I have been an advocate for violence prevention including mass homicides and mass shootings for many years now. It has involved swimming upstream against politicians and the public in general who seem to believe that violence prevention is not possible. A large part of that attitude is secondary to politics involved with the Second Amendment and a strong lobby from firearm advocates. My position has been that you can study the problem scientifically and come up with solutions independent of the firearms issue based on the experience of psychiatrists who routinely treat people who are potentially violent and aggressive.
I was very interested to see the editorial in this week's Nature advocating the scientific study of mass homicides and firearm violence. They make the interesting observation that one media story referred to one of the recent perpetrators as being supported by the United States National Institutes of Health and somehow implicating that agency in the shooting spree and that:
"In this climate, discussions of the multiple murders sounded all too often like descriptions of the random and inevitable carnage caused by a tornado or earthquake".
Even more interesting is the fact that the National Rifle Association began a successful campaign to squash any scientific efforts to study the problem in 1996 when it shut down a gun violence research effort by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The authors go on to list two New England Journal of Medicine studies from that group that showed a 2.7 fold greater risk of homicide in people living in homes where there was a firearm and a 4.8 fold greater risk of suicide. Even worse:
"Congress has included in annual spending laws the stipulation that none of the CDC's injury prevention funds "may be used to advocate or promote gun control"."
This year the ban was extended to all agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services including the NIH. There is nothing like a gag order on science based on political ideology.
The authors conclude by saying that rational decisions on firearms cannot occur in a "scientific vacuum". That is certainly accurate from both a psychiatric perspective and the firearms licensing and registration perspective. Based on their responses to the most recent incidents it should be clear that politicians are not thoughtful about this problem and they certainly have no solutions. We are well past time to study this problem scientifically and start to design approaches to make mass shootings a problem of the past rather than a frequently recurring problem.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Who calls the shots? Nature. 2012 Aug 9;488(7410):129. doi: 10.1038/488129a. PubMed PMID: 22874927.