The tragedy one week ago in Isla Vista, California, has sparked vehement debates about gun laws, mental illness treatment, and misogyny in America. They are all worthwhile – even crucial – discussions. But the reality is that although all three of these issues were threads woven into Elliot Rodger’s decision to commit mass murder, it’s doubtful that solving all of them would’ve prevented his crimes.
In an op-ed in The New York Times Tuesday, Richard A. Friedman wrote:
“As a psychiatrist, I welcome calls from our politicians to improve our mental health care system. But even the best mental health care is unlikely to prevent these tragedies. If we can’t reliably identify people who are at risk of committing violent acts, then how can we possibly prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who are likely to kill? Mr. Rodger had no problem legally buying guns because he had neither been institutionalized nor involuntarily hospitalized, both of which are generally factors that would have prevented him from purchasing firearms.”
It’s heartbreaking but also predictable that people want to do something after tragedies like this, to feel like they’re helping to make sure it never happens again. The type of person who becomes a mass shooter, however -- although he’s likely to have a personality disorder -- isn’t likely to have the type of severe mental illness that would prompt psychologists to believe he is a danger to himself or to others.
Ari N. Schulman wrote in a November Wall Street Journal story:
“Among the more pervasive myths about massacre killers is that they simply snap. In fact, Dr. Mullen and others have found that rampage shooters usually plan their actions meticulously, even ritualistically, for months in advance. Like serial killers, massacre killers usually don't have impulsive personalities; they tend to be obsessive and highly organized. Survivors typically report that the shooters appear to be not enraged but cold and calculating.
Contrary to the common assumption, writes author Michael D. Kelleher in his 1997 book ‘Flash Point,’ mass killers are ‘rarely insane, in either the legal or ethical senses of the term,’ and they don't typically have the ‘debilitating delusions and insidious psychotic fantasies of the paranoid schizophrenic.’ Dr. Knoll affirms that ‘the literature does not reflect a strong link with serious mental illness.’"
Schulman’s description of the typical mass shooter could easily describe Rodger, although the WSJ story was published months before most of us had ever heard Rodger’s name:
“Massacre killers are typically marked by what are considered personality disorders: grandiosity, resentment, self-righteousness, a sense of entitlement. They become, says Dr. Knoll, 'collectors of injustice' who nurture their wounded narcissism.’ To preserve their egos, they exaggerate past humiliations and externalize their anger, blaming others for their frustrations. They develop violent fantasies of heroic revenge against an uncaring world.
Whereas serial killers are driven by long-standing sadistic and sexual pleasure in inflicting pain, massacre killers usually have no prior history of violence. Instead, writes Eric W. Hickey, dean of the California School of Forensic Studies, in his 2009 book ‘Serial Murderers and Their Victims,’ massacre killers commit a single and final act in which violence becomes a ‘medium’ to make a 'final statement' in or about life.’ Fantasy, public expression and messaging are central to what motivates and defines massacre killings.”
No one likes to think about this, but in fact, most mentally ill people are not dangerous, and most dangerous people are not always mentally ill. And despite that gun laws in California, where Rodger purchased his firearms, are some of the most restrictive in the U.S., many people are arguing that more intensive background checks might have prevented Rodger’s murder spree.
Most admit, however, that both of the mental-health care reform measures proposed, one by Rep. Tim Murphy and another by Rep. Ron Barber, are unlikely to have prevented Rodger from going through with his deadly plans. Murphy’s bill would address people with severe mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, when they are in “crisis mode,” he explains in an interview with CNN.
As Friedman pointed out, “Even when they have received psychiatric evaluation and treatment, as in the case of Mr. Rodger and Adam Lanza, who killed 20 children and seven adults, including his mother, in Connecticut in 2012, we have to acknowledge that our current ability to predict who is likely to be violent is no better than chance."
"What most people don’t know is that drug and alcohol abuse are far more powerful risk factors for violence than other psychiatric illnesses. Individuals who abuse drugs or alcohol but have no other psychiatric disorder are almost seven times more likely than those without substance abuse to act violently.”
There has also been about as much speculation that our culture of misogyny played as big a role in Rodger’s decision to commit mass murder as his psychiatric issues did.
In addition to reports about his past mental health care and speculation about whether he had Asperger’s or autism, is that misogyny prompted Rodger, a self-proclaimed lonely virgin, to murder women for revenge for not wanting to sleep with him. Although creating a dialogue about how to prevent violence against women is a worthy and necessary endeavor, misogyny was a product and not a cause of Rodger’s problems.
As disgusting and pervasive as misogyny is, Rodger’s rage against women had much more complicated origins than the “bro” culture that tells men they should be able to have any woman they might want. It’s infuriating that many men feel entitled to female attention and that their rage against women is very easily fueled by the culture around them. But Rodger’s loneliness and isolation reportedly began when he was still a child, when he felt rejected by his mother and abandoned after his parents’ divorced. Resentment toward women was easily fueled by culture but not created by movies he saw or loathsome pick-up artist message boards he participated in.
So what should we do?
Encourage the media to stop glamorizing mass shooters, splashing their pictures across front pages, publishing their manifestos, devoting endless space to dissecting their motives, as Schulman argues? Do we stop endlessly asking “why,” as he suggests, because speculating about their motives could be construed as justification for some inspired future shooter?
These types of “reins on the media” suggestions are often scoffed at and dismissed as impossible to do or unhelpful, but that’s the approach they use with suicides, don’t they? Unless of course the person who kills him or herself is well known and/or dating Mick Jagger. We don’t hear much about suicides in the news ordinarily, nor do we see recipes for bomb making in newspapers or on websites either.
Journalists can cover cases without completely saturating society with the lurid details of the crime(s). Do we uphold Schulman’s example of the suicide epidemic in Austria in the '80s as what is possible, or do we dismiss it?
What else? Deny anyone who has received treatment for drug or alcohol abuse access to a firearm? Pass politically motivated gun laws that might be later challenged on grounds of constitutionality? Personally, I don’t think anyone should be able to buy a gun, but that’s not the country we live in. And I think that the level of rigorous attention to the complex set of mental-health evaluation standards that would be necessary to intelligently determine who is a true danger and should be prevented from buying a gun, just isn’t possible. Certainly, most people wouldn’t be willing to pay for such a system, if he or she is honest.
On a less esoteric level, considering that many experts point out that mass or “rampage shooters” methodically plan their “days of reckoning” months if not years in advance, most of them can probably figure out how to get their hands on an illegal firearm in that much time.
I’m not trying to be discouraging, and I don’t want people to feel helpless. I felt sick and anguished for grief-stricken Richard Martinez, the father of shooting victim Christopher Michaels-Martinez who is denouncing the NRA, just as much as anyone else. But pretending that oversimplified solutions will make us safer deflects attention from the real and much more difficult work that needs to be done. And demanding speedy action from lawmakers increases the risk that reform measures will become more political than substantial.
We do need to teach kids -- one might call it "emotional literacy" -- that if someone doesn't return your affections, you do not have the right to punish him or her for it. We do need to drastically lower rates of gun violence in this country and we need to make it much, MUCH easier for everyone to get the mental health care they need. But we also need to brace ourselves for the next Elliot Rodgers, because sadly, he’s out there. And no prevention measures currently on the table are going to stop him.