It was encouraging to see so many young people exercising their fledgling political wings with rallies around the world this spring, but we should be cautioned that all that passion without equal stores of understanding and judgment can easily go nowhere.
Addressing mass murder by addressing only guns and their attachments is akin to addressing suicide by addressing only guns as suicide’s instrument. Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City slaughter without a gun (168 killed, 680 injured) was much worse than any other mass civilian slaughter, yet we don’t regulate or ban fertilizers or truck rentals. Truck- and other-explosive suicide and other bombings are an order of magnitude more serious than gun mass killings, yet our brains latch immediately onto the weapon rather than the motive or the mental illness.
When we self-kill via suicide we rightly look to the underlying psychology of it, but when we kill others we wrongly look to its instrumentality: guns. Curious, yes? Self-killings will never be eliminated, and their causes are legion. Same with other-killings. So why do we latch reflexively instantly onto guns as we delve into the question of “what to do.”
It’s the easiest and quickest thing to bring to attention, to be sure. But that’s the problem. Seems we would be more fruitful if we would slow down and ask the more difficult question “why?” as we do in suicides, rather than “with what?”
For example: Suicide prevention efforts have spawned a high volume cottage industry of suicide prediction and prevention questionnaires of remarkably questionable validity and reliability. Recent research has shown that a positive predictive score on a suicide prediction questionnaire has zero correlation to a subsequent suicidal act.
Conversely, a committed suicide has zero correlation to any negatively scored prediction questionnaire evaluated previously. In other words, a positive questionnaire score does not predict likelihood of a person’s suicide any more reliably than a negative score predicts unlikelihood of suicide.
Same with predicting violence, an effort crammed with research on violence prediction concluding that the effort to predict any specific someone’s violent act is a fool’s errand. The recent infusion of funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study gun violence misconceives the problem and misguides the question.
The research needs to focus on the "why?" of mass murders, not on the "with what?" Efforts to regulate guns miss the why. Despite the mass rallies of students demanding that something be done about gun regulation, relatively less is said about the underlying issue of doing something about mental illness — which is so clearly seen in every mass killer’s psych autopsy.
And yes, different countries have different gun and other violence rates. To understand why, we have to study beyond the questions of gun ownership and regulation and dig into questions related to our national temperament and personality. Let’s remember that America’s gun ownership rate is 39 percent, while Switzerland’s approaches 100 percent — with no shootings since 2001.
Can we even remotely specifically predict the who-what-when-where-whys of mass murders? Would that we could. Psychological science, despite the science fiction series “Bull,” is nowhere near that level of exactness. Maybe that’s why the series, with some facetious gallows irony, is called “Bull.”
So let’s give the kids a high-five and a hearty shout-out for youthful enthusiasm and organizational chops. But rallies and parades and marches provide mostly posters and slogans, not carefully studied and carefully reasoned answers. Let’s now give — and keep giving — the CDC sufficient funding to dig — and keep digging — into what can be done about mass killings, independent of the question of guns.
The psychological underlie of shooters is perfectly clear. Let’s gently come alongside those whose early developmental social and psychological profiles match mass killers and try to guide them away from violence and toward more peaceful pastures of growth and expression.
Brik McDill, PhD., is a retired psychologist. The opinions expressed are his own.