Politics & Policy

Our Sociopaths, Ourselves

Family photo of a young Adam Lanza
What could have stopped Adam Lanza?

The school shooting in Newtown was so horrific and heartbreaking that it is only natural to call out for whatever it takes to make sure nothing like it ever happens again. It is hard to disagree with those who are demanding stronger gun-control laws and better mental-health oversight of unstable people. But how workable are such measures — and how effective? And are we asking the right questions?

The proposed gun-control legislation sponsored by California senator Dianne Feinstein sounds reasonable. But it is not clear that it would make a difference. It would stop the sale and manufacture of some semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. But would it prevent an Adam Lanza from carrying out his deranged plan? A very large number of such devices are already in circulation. A determined killer can murder and maim dozens with an ordinary pistol or shotgun. Some will say we should implement radical gun control and prevent nearly everyone from having access to firearms. But, like it or not, law-abiding American citizens have a constitutional right to bear arms that would surely prevent mass civilian disarmament.

A more promising solution is to strengthen the nation’s mental-health services. But would counseling have been enough to stop the Columbine or Newtown killers? Sociopaths are good at beating the system. There is no known cure for their condition. In any case, Adam Lanza appears to have had some professional attention. So did one of the Columbine shooters. There have been calls to institutionalize or forcibly medicate mentally unstable people who show a propensity for violence. That can be appropriate in cases where the person poses a clear threat to himself or others. According to one news story, Lanza shot his mother because he believed she was about to place him in a psychiatric facility. How awful it is that she did not succeed. There is an urgent need to provide frightened parents with more treatment options and support. Still, forced institutionalization carries its own risks.

#ad#What about those odd, anti-social loners found in every high school? There seems to be widespread agreement that we should keep a closer watch over them. But, according to a 2002 study by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education, few school shooters fit that profile: “The largest group of attackers for whom this information was available appeared to socialize with mainstream students or were considered mainstream students themselves.” Nearly two-thirds of the killers had rarely, or never, been in trouble before at school. As a 1999 FBI study, “The School Shooter,” reminds us:

Reliably predicting any type of violence is extremely difficult. Predicting that an individual who has never acted out violently in the past will do so in the future is still more difficult. Seeking to predict acts that occur as rarely as school shootings is almost impossible. This is simple statistical logic: when the incidence of any form of violence is very low and a very large number of people have identifiable risk factors, there is no reliable way to pick out from that large group the very few who will actually commit the violent act. . . . At this time, there is no research that has identified traits and characteristics that can reliably distinguish school shooters from other students. Many students appear to have traits and characteristics similar to those observed in students who were involved in school shootings.

It is natural and human to demand solutions in the face of moral catastrophe. Still, we have to be careful that whatever we do, we don’t create a civil-liberties nightmare that ensnares millions of innocent people.

Why killers like the Columbine and Newtown shooters do what they do is as mysterious as the problem of evil in general. There will be no easy solution. But here are the hard questions no one has answered: Why now? Why us? Americans have always had easy access to guns. But, until fairly recently, no one thought to go to a school to slaughter first-graders. There have always been sociopaths among us. But we seem to have created a society where they feel empowered to act.

— Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Her new book, Freedom Feminism, will be published this spring by AEI Press. Follow her on Twitter: @CHSommers 

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