As a shaken President Obama put it in his address Thursday night, the reaction to yesterday’s mass murder at Umpqua Community College has taken a sickeningly familiar course: “Somehow this has become routine,” he said. “The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.” He argued, as he has with increasing forcefulness over the course of his presidency, that gun control needs to be a big part of the solution. “The United States of America is the one advanced nation on Earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense gun-safety laws — even in the face of repeated mass killings.”
It would be nice to think we could sidestep the gun-control issues given the vehemence of the anti-gun-control lobby. That was the story I hoped to write today: Knowing what we know about the impossibility of passing any significant gun-control legislation, at least given the current incarnation of Congress and the current strength of the National Rifle Association, what else can we do about mass shootings? How can we better predict them, in a behavioral sense?
I reached out via email to Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist who specializes in researching attacks like yesterday’s. He responded bluntly: “When I heard the news of the Oregon shootings, I thought, I’m done talking to reporters about the causes of violence.” Instead, he said he’d prepared a one-size-fits-all statement for the media that concluded, “If you tell me that there’s nothing we can do about guns, I’d say then we’re done. We’ve conceded that we are willing to tolerate periodic slaughters of the innocent. There’s nothing more to say.’”
The problem, as he explained in a follow-up phone call, is that any attempt to predict who is most likely to commit a mass shooting — and therefore prevent it — runs up against the fact that these events are extremely rare, and as a result have only the broadest, least useful risk factors associated with them. (Mass shootings are generally defined as shootings in which four people or more die in a public place, and Appelbaum explained that stranger mass shootings like the one that occurred yesterday have somewhat different behavioral pathways as compared to multiple murders of, say, family members or co-workers, which are far more common events that don’t seize national attention quite as strongly as seemingly random ones.)
The risk factors that are linked to these events — basically, being an angry young man — are so widespread in the population, he explained, and so weakly predictive of an individual actually committing a mass shooting as to be practically useless. “The answer is yes, at least of the most highly publicized, most fear-inducing cases of stranger shootings, by and large they are angry young men,” said Appelbaum. “But that doesn’t get you very far, because there are a lot of angry young men who are angry for all kinds of reasons, and unless one wants to lock them all up or put them all under 24-hour surveillance, it’s really impossible to build on a description that general to come up with effective preventative approaches.”
Once you move past that incredibly broad category, he explained, “you’re really into murky territory where you’re identifying categories that some people fall into and others don’t,” he said. Take mental illness: While more and better-funded treatment for mental illness is obviously a good thing, Appelbaum said it just doesn’t have much of a direct connection to mass shootings. Sometimes mass shooters have a history of mental illness, but “[l]ots of people who commit mass killings are not mentally ill in any classical way,” Appelbaum said, noting that he wished Obama hadn’t mentioned mental illness in his address last night.
Appelbaum also said he didn’t take cultural explanations for mass shootings all that seriously. “There have been commentators who have written for years about the peculiar violence-prone aspects of American culture, which they trace back to the frontier or even earlier.” These ideas “are interesting in a descriptive sense, but I don’t think they tell us much about what we should be doing about the problem. Because changing the influence of 400 years of American culture is even harder than doing something about reducing the number of guns in circulation.”
As Appelbaum sees it, despite the endless, whirling conversations about the causes of mass shootings, there’s just no serious approach to the issues that doesn’t involve gun control. He mentioned that, despite widespread beliefs otherwise, there actually aren’t major differences between the overall rates of violence in the U.S. as compared to the rest of the developed world. Where the U.S. differs is in the number of homicides, and to Appelbaum that is largely attributable to the free flow of powerful guns. Every country has its angry young men; every country has various cultural forces that likely exacerbate violent people’s grievances; not every country makes it easy for anyone to get a gun. Some countries, like Australia, reacted forcefully to mass shootings by restricting the availability of powerful weaponry, and Appelbaum thinks the data is clear that these approaches work (Margaret Hartmann dug into the debate behind the Australian and British reactions to mass shootings Thursday).
Appelbaum made it clear he didn’t see gun control as an instant panacea. “I don’t think anyone could say honestly that if we tighten up on the availability of guns and the ease of purchasing them, and reduce the number of weapons that are largely produced to kill large numbers of people, that the problem will go away completely,” he said. “I don’t think it will go away completely … there will be some people who will be able to get their hands on guns and be able to do horrible things with them. On the other hand, the harder we make it, logic and the Australian experience certainly suggest, the fewer such episodes there will be. So perfect safety is, I’m afraid, unobtainable in this world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start making the situation better by just making it harder and having fewer guns in circulation.”
The depressing thing about Appelbaum’s argument is that the underlying idea — we’ll likely never be able to predict who will commit a mass shooting — isn’t new to experts. He sent me to a Psychiatric Services article by a colleague, Dr. Jeffrey W. Swanson of Duke University, in which Swanson made the same points. “Profiles of mass killers suggest that they tend to be troubled young men,” he wrote in 2011. “This does not tell us which one of the very large population of troubled young men in the world will become the next mass killer; the vast majority of them will not.”
Appelbaum and Swanson and other researchers, then, are forced to repeatedly re-debunk an idea that, in their minds, already has been shown to not make much sense — an idea that reporters and others grapple with only because a much simpler, more clear-cut solution has been deemed impossible for political reasons. It’s no surprise they’re frustrated.