FRIDAY, Dec. 21 (HealthDay News) -- The Newtown, Conn., carnage,
the latest and most horrifying among a recent rash of mass
shootings in America, is raising pointed questions about why this
country is experiencing such lethal mayhem.
While the answers are complex, experts point to a number of
mental health and societal reasons that could be underpinning the
But they are also quick to point out the legal availability of
In the past two years alone, killing sprees have claimed dozens
of lives and left many injured and disabled:
- Six people died and 13 were injured in front of a Tucson,
Ariz., grocery store in January 2011 when a lone gunman, wielding a
legally obtained handgun, sprayed the crowd with bullets and, in an
assassination attempt, shot former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords
in the head, nearly taking her life.
- Five students at Chardon High School in Ohio sustained gunshot
wounds this February and three of them died at the hands of the
accused 17-year-old gunman who allegedly chose his victims at
random. The murder weapon was a handgun reportedly stolen from the
- A gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in
July, killing 12 and injuring dozens more. The alleged 24-year-old
shooter had legally obtained four weapons, including a
semi-automatic assault rifle used during the attack.
- A gunman killed six and wounded four in August at a Sikh temple
in Oak Creek, Wis., before a police officer shot and killed the
40-year-old suspect at the scene. The shooter legally purchased the
semi-automatic handgun and ammunition used in the attack.
The latest tragedy, the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 young
schoolchildren and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in
Connecticut by a young man who then killed himself, has stunned the
nation, inciting a call to action.
Policymakers have been quick to muster support for new
initiatives to prevent future tragedies.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced plans to revisit
the nation's gun and mental health laws, tapping Vice President
Joseph Biden to lead an effort to bring "concrete proposals" to the
table for quick action in January. In part, the president supports
reinstating the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition
cartridges. These prohibitions expired in 2004 with the sunset of
the 10-year-old Federal Assault Weapons Ban.
As policymakers grapple for answers, experts point to personal
and societal problems that could be underpinning these deadly
"It's not one factor," explained Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C. "I think it's almost impossible to predict who would do a thing like this, in advance," he added.
The Newtown shootings now rank as the second deadliest school
shooting in the United States, after the 2007 Virginia Tech
massacre, which claimed 32 lives. Sandy Hook's death toll eclipses
the carnage that shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold inflicted
upon 13 classmates in the infamous 1999 Columbine High School
People who study violent behavior point to the widespread
availability of guns in America -- particularly assault weapons
like the ones used in Newtown, which are designed to discharge
multiple rounds of ammunition -- as a factor in crimes involving
"There just happens to be very lethal methods available out there," said Thomas Bowers, associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg.
Gun enthusiasts, however, argue that even the best gun control
laws can't stop a person from committing a heinous act. Connecticut
laws restricting the sale, ownership and use of guns are considered
among the most stringent in the nation.
"None of these bans was efficacious in keeping Adam Lanza [the Newtown school shooter] from killing 20 children," said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel to the Gun Owners of America in Springfield, Va.
Police said Lanza used guns -- a semi-automatic rifle and two
handguns -- that belonged to his mother, who was found shot to
death in their home.
The National Rifle Association, the nation's leading gun lobby,
broke its silence on the Newtown tragedy on Friday, calling for
armed guards to protect schools as the best way to shield children
from gun violence.
The problem isn't just guns, experts say
Guns are only part of the equation, said Christopher Ferguson,
chair of the department of psychology and communication at Texas
A&M University in Laredo. There's also a need to improve the
nation's mental health system so that individuals at risk get the
help they need, he said.
While no firm profile of school shooters has emerged, Ferguson
pointed to some common characteristics, including a long history of
anti-social traits, mental health problems such as depression or
psychosis, and the perception that others are to blame for their
problems, that "society didn't give me a chance."
A 2007 report commissioned by the U.S. Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration found many gaps in the mental
health system, "including a critical shortage of all child and
adolescent providers," Dr. Howard Liu, medical director of the
Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska at the University of
Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, told
In the report, the federal government projected a need for
12,624 child and adolescent psychiatrists by 2020, vastly exceeding
the projected supply of 8,312. The shortage of trained mental
health providers is particularly acute in rural and low-income
Could the way Americans live and raise children today also play
a role in triggering violent behavior?
Many people speculate that violent video games predispose kids
to aggressive and dangerous behavior. Ferguson's research indicates
that that's not true. In a laboratory setting, short-term exposure
to violent videos neither increased nor decreased aggression, while
long-term exposure was associated with reduced hostile feelings and
depression following a stressful task, one study found.
What's more, Ferguson said, "video games are not a commonality
among school shooters."
Dale Yeager, a criminal behavioral analyst and CEO of SERAPH, a
Berwyn, Pa.-based legal, liability and security consulting firm,
believes that dysfunction in families -- from broken marriages to a
"pop psychology" culture that coddles kids instead of teaching
right from wrong -- is at the root of the problem.
"What happens is mommy or daddy, or both, are not taking care of their issues and that filters down to the children," he said.
'We are still a relatively safe country'
Yet, despite the public outcry spurred by the Newtown killings,
the United States is not becoming an increasingly homicidal nation.
The reality is the U.S. murder rate, at least through last year,
has been on a downward slope. The Federal Bureau of Investigation
reports a steady decline in total homicides, from 14,990 in 2006 to
12,664 in 2011.
"We are still a relatively safe country and certainly by historical standards, even with these mass killings, our homicide rates are lower now than they were in the '80s. So we do need to keep this in perspective," said James Hawdon, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
Still, guns figure prominently in the nation's murder rate:
Sixty eight percent of homicides involve some type of firearm, a
percentage that has held steady from 2006 to 2011, according to FBI
And the firearm death rate in the United States is nearly 6.5
times higher than Canada's rate of just 0.5 per 100,000 people, the
United Nations reports.
"Our peer countries regulate the guns . . . and they tend to have far lower homicide rates than we do," said Duke's Swanson.
Australia in 1996 enacted a gun buyback program in response to a
massacre in Tasmania that left 35 dead. The result: Gun-related
homicides declined from 0.57 per 100,000 people in 1996 to 0.1 per
100,000 people in 2009, according to GunPolicy.org.
In Japan, known for its restrictive gun-control laws, the total
number of guns held by civilians is estimated to be 710,000, or 0.6
firearms per 100 people, according to data compiled by
GunPolicy.org. In the United States, it's 270 million total guns,
or 88.8 firearms per 100 people.
But school-based shootings are not a uniquely American
Even with Europe's tougher gun laws, Finland, France, Germany
and Norway have all experienced atrocities in the past decade. Mass
school-based shootings at two German schools in 2002 and 2009
claimed a total of 31 victims.
As people try to make sense of the latest tragic events,
Virginia Tech's Hawdon offers this advice: "Really the way that we
can best control crime and best reduce violence is by looking out
for each other, by having a community where people know each other,
people are involved in each other's lives to the point where they
can say, 'You seem to be having difficulties right now' and 'Can I
There's more on mental health at the
U.S. National Library of Medicine.