It Takes a Hard Look to Make Sense of a Senseless Act
By Gun Shows Today Staff.
In the wake of Virginia Tech’s second on-campus shooting in a few years, the GST staff thought this tragedy worthy of serious contemplation. To date, the April 16, 2007, Virginia Tech shooting spree, during which 32 people were murdered by a lone gunman, before the gunman killed himself, marks the greatest loss of life by a shooting at a U.S. college or university.
Now again . . . . Who, or what, is responsible? At fault? To blame?
As a point of departure, keep in mind humans have attempted to answer these types of questions since the dawn of time: We want, need, and attempt to place value on what appears otherwise a seemingly pointless loss of life (by a public servant in this case). If we do, it eases our pain. And it honors the dead.
Some may look to religion for answers. With shootings in particular, others become more determined always to be armed, or alternatively, fight tooth and nail against the individual right to keep and bear arms. No matter the case, at the fundamental level, we all want to do something, recognizing those who do not understand the past are destined to repeat it.
In this blog post, GST provides a context to try to learn from the Virginia Tech shooting; it does so by setting forth a compelling mix of potential root causes, contraindicated facts, and other considerations. Even if these just raise questions, they reinforce the profound responsibilities associated with firearms: their ability to protect life–or wipe it away– in the blink of an eye.
Clearly, not all gun-related homicides are committed by mentally ill people. Heat of passion murder makes this point. However, understanding that some do involve a mental health dimension may provide a real breakthrough in this discussion: whether ready access to firearms causes crime or the problem runs much deeper and is complicated and involves mental illness. If so, this may be a call for more funding to address mental health and depressurize, to a degree, the gun/anti-gun debate.
The problem this debate masks, or excludes all together, is mental health as a variable. In fact, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 5% of all U.S. adults are mentally ill. This is not the same a being down or feeling unwell, a status we all experience from time to time. Instead, it is defined as “serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
In the wake of any shooting, it is hard for people in a given society (in the United States, for example, post-Virginia Tech) to have a rational, non-emotional discussion about the topic. This makes it easy for the debate to be limited to guns. Guns are inanimate objects, and as such, they are easy marks to take the blame. At GST, we submit this is simplistic thinking.
As food for thought and comparison that is not so painful, consider this: In Norway, you are 100’s of times less likely to be murdered than, here, at home, in America, despite fairly liberal firearms laws in both countries. However, in July, 2011, Anders Breivik went on a shooting spree in Norway, killing 77. Norwegians too asked “why.” On November 29, 2011, a board of forensic psychiatrists concluded in a 236-page report that Breivik was “insane” when he went on the killing spree.
How does mental health factor into the “why” of senseless murder in the United States and across the globe? It is undetermined, but we should be asking the question.
A Violent America.
An important query to get to the “why” we murder each other, and with what frequency, begins with a simple baseline question: What are the real facts and statistics about murder rates? In the wake of events like Virginia Tech, beamed around the globe in real-time, it is easy to view the entire world as a dangerous place. In some respects, it is.
For example, our neighbor to the south, Mexico, is racked by drug-related murders. In some boarder cities, the murder rate is fairly measured by who lives, not who dies. Thousands upon thousands of Mexicans have been murdered in 2011 alone. The U.S. is a very safe place to live compared to Mexico.
However, the U.S. is a fairly dangerous place measured against other developed countries, such as western Europe and Japan. In the hypothetical, you could spread firearms throughout Japan and it would be unlikely to influence the very low murder rate. Why this is the case is beyond this blog post, but a nevertheless a critical question if guns are really the culprit at hand.
So to the U.S. Without making comparisons to other places, what is your risk of being murdered? Anecdotal evidence appears to indicate that murder and other violent crime is out of control. But is it? The answer is a resounding “no”. Says who?
The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports tracks crime in very detailed and thorough ways. Since the 1970s, with slight fluctuations in the 1980s, violent crime, homicide in particular, has been in the decline or stable. In 2010, there were 4.8 murders per 100,000 people, a 4.8 percent decrease from 2009.
Relatively speaking, we are living in a safe time in the United States. Why we think otherwise is probably a series of complex studies by itself. Like mental health issues, we have to objectively understand murders to be able to value a tragedy like Virginia Tech. This blog is intended to help you identify the questions you should be asking to get to a “why.”
How then can you explain Virginia Tech having two (2) homicide episodes, without any cognizable tie between them; most colleges and universities will never have a murderous rampage? Is this something unique to the institution or place? Or are the FBI’s statistics skewed? The answer is likely “no.” The answer likely lies in an unfamiliar place: Mathematical probabilities.
Does this seem fanciful? As noted, in 2010, your chance of being murdered in the U.S. was 4.8:100,000. Your rough chances of being struck by lightning in any one year in the U.S. is 1:700,000. Certainly, a keen eye should be focused on Virginia Tech, since these statistics infer two such murderous periods are statistically unlikely. This is life and death, and should not to be minimized.
However, probabilities can skew perception. The reality is random bad things happen sometimes in the same place or to the same person and there may be no connection. Think not? What do you know about Roy C. Sullivan. Have you ever heard his name? He is a U.S. Park Ranger who holds the unenviable record of being struck by lightning (and living to tell the tale) 7 times between 1942 and 1983.
Ultimately, at GST, we want you to draw your own conclusion(s) about the “whys” of shooting and murders. Does mental illness, the overall US crime rate, or probabilities factor into how we view, value, and try to prevent events like Virginia Tech in the future. They should.
At GST, we do not know why bad things happen to good people with firearms or otherwise. But they do. We too hope you see a polarized gun or anti-gun position (like a “yes” or “no” answer) is rarely a sufficient model to understand any complex problem, including the Virginia Tech tragedy. If you are thinking about these points, agree or disagree, this blog post has met goal.
- Heller v. District of Columbia (2008).
- National Institute of Mental Health, “Prevalence of Serious Mental Illness Amount U.S. Adults by Age, Sex, and Race in 2008.“
- FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, “Crime in the United States 2010.”