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Making sense of madness

On Friday, America was confronted with one of its worst ever mass shootings when 20 children and six adults were shot dead by Adam Lanza who opened fire at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, about 65 miles northeast of New York, in Connecticut.

The US killings reflect no more than the grim harvest of what its gun culture has sown
- Andrew Willis

The scale of the tragedy and the age of the victims shocked a country that has seen many mass shootings and prompted immediate calls for tougher gun controls.

Despite his seeming indifference to gun control in the recent presidential election campaign, President Obama was moved to say: “We can’t tolerate this anymore, these tragedies must end.”

Perhaps at last this outrage will give rise to a reasonable public policy debate about the proper place of weaponry in US society and its regulation.

The starting point has to be that the Second Amendment is a red herring.

It reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

This legal nicety, beloved of the National Rifle Association (NRA), had everything to do with a combination of: deterring undemocratic government, repelling invasion, suppressing insurrection, facilitating a natural right of self-defence, participating in law enforcement and enabling the people to organise a militia system – as things stood in internal US politics circa 1791.

It properly reflects the protection of individual liberties in Patriot-times but it has less, if anything, to do with civic society some 220 years later – other than through its huge and ongoing totemic value. What may have been seen to be fit for purpose two centuries ago has failed to stand the test of time and the increased sophistication in socio-political thinking.

The Second Amendment today is no more than a convenient buttress for those who need a justification with seeming pedigree to license their unfettered enthusiasm for guns, gun culture and their killing potential. It is not the hallmark of liberty; it is a profound but hugely demeaning use of ‘liberty’ as a way of indulging in a quite simply uncivilised orgy of weaponry.

Paradoxically, the supposed liberty to kill is at the same time the denial of someone else’s liberty to live. Even in the saddest of times, the wise commentator will reflect that the US killings reflect no more than the grim harvest of what its gun culture has sown.

There are four inter-related factors associated with the shootings that need to be considered as part of a sensible review of gun control policy.

First, there are matters relating to the sheer availability of guns, which is the one constant in the recurring massacres in America whether in schools, universities, cinemas or shopping malls.

There are an estimated 300 million legally held weapons and there are (many) more held without permits.

Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, whose gun collection was raided by her son Adam for Friday’s massacre at Sandy Hook school, was part of the “prepper” movement, which urges readiness for social chaos by hoarding supplies and training with weapons. She was a gun-proud “survivalist” preparing for economic collapse.

Three weapons were used inside the school: a Glock and a Sig Sauer, both pistols, and a Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle, with a shotgun found in the back of Ms Lanza’s car.

The key questions here are whether the number and type of weapons held were proportionate to any real threat; and whether the permit to hold them was sufficiently protective against abuse, including protections against third-party access.

Secondly, there are indications that Adam Lanza was at least a social isolate, somewhat strange and withdrawn, and possibly suffering from a schizophrenic-type mental health problem. His brother, Ryan, told police he thought his brother had a personality disorder.

This raises questions about mental health care, how it is spotted and what treatments are available.

In April 2007 the shooter at Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho, had mental health problems that led to questions as to why he had been allowed to remain on campus. He killed 32 classmates and wounded 17.

Thirdly, there is the role of internet-based computer games.

When investigators found his computer at the house, the hard drive had been smashed, presumably by Lanza; and he is said to have been a fan of computer games featuring warfare and killing. Did he cross some line from the fiction of these games into some awful and twisted, self-realised reality on the fateful day?

There are questions about how a social isolate, possibly with a mental health problem, ‘learns’ the way in which to use weapons and does so in a way that transcends the normal protocols that inhibit copying fictional violence.

The role of the internet and the impact of solitary and ungoverned exposure to fictionalised worlds of extreme violence is a dimension that needs to be explored.

Finally, there are unanswered questions about the killing of the mother and the shootings at the school.

It is not clear how the killing of the mother relates to the killings in the school, and what was the relationship between them. It raises questions about the perpetrator’s psycho-social ‘reality’ and his self-perceived motivations.

If the NRA preoccupation with the supposed virtues of ‘bearing arms’ are left to one side, a more sober analysis of these four themes may helpfully point to a way forward that honours the Sandy Hook victims by making the US a safer not a more lethal society.

Andrew Willis is a visiting professor, Department of Criminology, University of Malta.

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