What can be done to prevent horrendous acts?

By Edward Stern J.D.
March 1st, 2013

On Dec. 14, 2012, a 20-year-old male shot and killed his mother in their home and then killed 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school

The perpetrator reportedly broke into a locked school by shooting his way through a glass door, carrying a Bushmaster XM-16 rifle, a 10mm Glock 20SF handgun and a 9mm SIG Sauer handgun. A shotgun, allegedly owned by his mother, was also found in his car.

He allegedly killed his mother with a .22 Marlin rifle which was left at her home and there was also a .45 Henry repeating rifle and a .30 Enfield rifle found in that house. All the weapons have been identified as owned by the deceased mother.

As a result of this horrendous act, there’s been much discussion regarding why events similar to this assault on society happen and if there is anything that society should do to prevent such crimes in the future.

Other events of this type that received a lot of publicity include the University of Texas tower shootings in 1966; the McDonald’s event in San Ysidro, Calif. in 1984; the post office incident in Edmond, Okla. in 1986; the Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas in 1991; Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. in 1999; Virginia Tech, Blacksburg Va. in 2007; Geneva County, Ala. in 2009; Binghamton, N.Y. in 2009; Fort Hood, Texas in 2009; mall in Tucson, Ariz. 2011; and movie theatre in Aurora, Colo. in 2012.

In 2012, there were 16 similar shootings resulting in 88 deaths. What are the similarities in these events? Most of the perpetrators are male, age 30 or younger and most killed themselves although some were killed by police. All of the perpetrators in the above list used rifles and/or pistols loaded with bullets.

As with all crimes and suicides, three elements take place: the inclination to commit the act, the means to accomplish the act and the opportunity to attempt the act.

In order to stop the commission of such an event, only one of these three elements needs to be eliminated. The ideas that have been put forth by the media and politicians and others are attempts to eliminate one of the three elements.

Suggestions for gun control are plentiful. The idea is that if a gun or rifle is not available (the “means”) then the event could not occur. This suggestion would have to deal with the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that presently would limit many gun control efforts. If there is a need for a background check, what would be checked? Prior criminal records would seem reasonable but should all mental or emotional issues result in the exclusion of gun ownership?

A curious side effect of the gun control issue has been a spike in gun sales. Those who are concerned that guns may not be available in the future are presently buying more guns. Also many of these weapons in the past events are taken from others who had the weapons legally. It is probably a good thing to ban assault rifles and large capacity magazines and to have tighter controls on who can purchase weapons and perhaps some laws regarding how weapons are secured, licensed and insured when not being used. One argument against these ideas is that only those owners with legally held guns will follow these rules.

Another suggestion is to have more police available at schools and other public locations or to arm more teachers or private citizens. This argument appears to be based on taking away the “opportunity” or to deter those who have the “inclination.” This option would likely put weapons into places where society does not really want weapons, which is why there are no rifles or guns in prisons except if there is a riot.

The final point is of great interest to psychologists. How does one eliminate or control the “inclination?” There is a belief that many of the perpetrators of these acts could have been identified prior to the event. Specifically, the events in Blacksburg, Va., Aurora, Colo., Tucson, Ariz., and Newtown, Conn., seem to fulfill this description, at least in hindsight. Many of the other incidents do not seem to raise this to the level of an obvious point, even when the motive for the acts becomes known. And if such “inclination” were known, what would be the course of action?

The first idea is to not permit those with a record of violent behavior to purchase a weapon. This step will not stop access to all weapons, but will make it more difficult to acquire ownership of them.

Another idea is to use the mental health system to identify and, perhaps, control those who are identified. Presently, most states have the ability to involuntarily commit people into a mental facility if they are a threat to themselves or to others. Sometimes, this commitment is difficult to accomplish. Threats are not always clear or overt, and not everyone who threatens an event actually commits one.

Clear, overt threats are already covered by Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California. Taking away someone’s freedom for indefinite periods of time may be harsh in too many instances.

Some states have passed laws regarding “outpatient” treatment [see http://mentalillnesspolicy.org/studies/state-standards-involuntary-treatment.html]. Conn. and Mass. do not presently have such an intermediate step. N.H. and Vt have statutes that allow both inpatient and outpatient care. And R.I., without a specific statute, appears to have a judicial practice that includes alternative care.

This approach might identify some perpetrators earlier and provide a process of servicing more people with general mental health care. As an outpatient, those identified could be monitored and certain protocols followed more closely without filling institutions with all those who might possibly at some time in the future cause harm.

The Tarasoff concept could be expanded to include disclosure of otherwise confidential relationship information when there is the fear of possible future harm. Would we make others, in addition to psychologists, be mandatory reporters in these circumstances? Would New York’s “likely to engage” in violent behavior become the standard? Would a court finally decide who is subject to this new approach?

No solution will stop all future harm, but society should proceed to limit as many possibilities for future harm while still being mindful of the rights and freedom of everyone in our society.

Edward M. Stern, J.D., has a private law practice in Newtonville, Mass., Stern serves as assistant dean for pre-law advising at Boston University and is a visiting lecturer for the University of Massachusetts/Boston Department of Sociology.

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