As the number of mass homicides becomes even more noticeable it is getting some attention in the psychiatric press. This months Psychiatric News has a story that looks at the issue of "explanations" for mass killings. There were a couple of new terms that I was not familiar with such as "rampage violence" or "rampage", "autogenic", or "pseudo-commando" killings. The perspective in the article was generally public health research or the perspective of forensic psychiatrists. Inconsistencies were apparent such as:
"... Much research has shown that mental illness in the absence of substance abuse does not lead to violence and that most crimes are committed by people who have not been diagnosed with mental illness."
"Even when behavior reaches a level troubling to family or neighbors, getting an affected individual into treatment is difficult, especially in a society that highly values individual liberty..."
Are they referring only to those people who are abusing substances or only those people who become violent as a result of mental illness? My experience is that both categories are important and that is illustrated within the same article that refers to a study of five "pseudo-commando" murders where common traits were noted including the fact that all of the subjects were "suspicious, resentful, narcissistic, and often paranoid".
The overall tone of the article is that we may be too focused on mass homicide because only a small number of people were killed in these incidents compared to the 30 to 40 people per day who die from homicide and that violence prediction may be a futile approach. There is also commentary on why neither the Democrats or Republicans want to comment on this issue. An uncritical statement about the "support for gun ownership" being at an all-time high is included in the same paragraph. Like most things political in the US, all you have to do is follow the money.
The same issue was covered in the September issue of Psychiatric Times. Lloyd Sederer, MD takes the position that apathy fueled the lack of a sea change in gun control following the incident when Congresswomen Gifford was shot and several people at that same event were killed. He includes an apathetic quote from Jack Kerouac and a nonviolent activist quote from Gandhi. Allen Frances, MD makes the reasonable observation that understanding the psychology of a mass killer will not prevent mass homicide, but proceeds to stretch that into the fact that this is a gun issue:
"We must accept the fact that a small cohort of deranged and disaffected potential mass murderers will always exist undetected in our midst."
"The largely unnoticed elephant in the room is how astoundingly easy it is for the killers to buy supercharged firearms and unlimited rounds of ammo. The ubiquity of powerful weaponry is what takes the US such a dangerous place to live."
He goes on to suggest that there are only two choices in this matter: accept mass murder as a way of life or adopt sane gun policies with the rest of the civilized world.
I don't think that gun laws are the best or only approach. The idea that "supercharged" firearms are the culprit here or the extension to banning assault weapons as the solution misses the obvious fact that even common widely available firearms - shotguns and handguns are highly lethal. Anyone armed with those weapons alone would be unstoppable in a mass shooting situation. Secondly, the effects of stringent firearms laws have mixed results. The mass shooting in Norway is an example of how tight firearm regulation can be circumvented. It is well known that there are a massive amount of firearms under private possession in the US, making the effect of firearm legislation even less likely. There are also the cases of heavily armed citizenry with only a fraction of the gun homicides that we have in the US. Michael Moore's comparison of the US with Canada in "Bowling for Columbine" comes to mind.
The previous posts on this blog suggest clear reasons why gun ownership is at an all-time high. The problem is that much can be done apart from the gun ownership issue and the solutions are available from psychiatrists who are used to assessing and treating people with mental illness, severe personality disorders, threatening behavior, or history of violent or aggressive behavior. The critical dimension that is not covered is the issue of prevention and the necessity of an open discussion about homicide and how to prevent it. Education about markers that are associated with mass homicide is useful, but the focus needs to be on how to help the person who starts to experience homicidal ideation before they lose control. That is also consistent with a humanistic approach to the problem. I have treated many "deranged and disaffected potential mass murderers" who went back to their families and back to work. We need a culture that is much more savvy about the origins of violence and aggression. It is too easy to say that this behavior is due to "evil" and maintain attitudes consistent with that approach. Time to develop research on the prevention of mass homicide, identify the individuals at risk, and offer effective treatment.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Aaron Levin. Experts again seek explanations for mass killings. Psychiatric News 2012 (47)17: 1,20.
Lloyd I. Sederer. The enemy is apathy. Psychiatric Times 2012 (29)9: 1-2.
Allen Frances. Mass murderers, madness, and gun control. Psychiatric Times 2012 (29)9:1-2.