Who Will Kill Next?

Since the recent mass shootings have occurred, our country has been struggling with how to handle these situations and more importantly, how to prevent them.  Legislators have proposed multiple options ranging from stricter gun control, to increased cover of mental health services, to increasing security in places such as schools.  It seems that everyone has their own ideas of how we can keep ourselves and our children safe.  So what is the answer?  Or maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is if there is an answer.  I am of the opinion that there is not “A” answer, but rather the possibility of multiple ideas that could be tested to see their effectiveness.  I think it is important that we look into how other countries have dealt with the safety of their citizens and the outcomes from other things that our government has attempted to regulate/restrict.  I believe that the biggest “problem” to this situation is that we are all anxious about our safety and we want to be able to answer questions like, “why did this happen”, “how can we prevent it”, and all of the other unknowns that can’t be answered, at least at this time.  The truth is that we will likely never know the answers to these questions.  I believe part of our anxiety is just that.  We don’t know why these individuals made the choices they did and what drove them to make such drastic decisions.  One way that most of us cope with uncertainty is by trying to “control” it.  For example, when our child crosses the street without looking both directions first, we may limit his/her ability to be near a street or without adult supervision.  When a natural disaster strikes, we spend a significant amount of time afterwards looking into the environmental conditions leading up to the disaster in order for us to feel more prepared for the next possible threat.  So how do we keep ourselves safe from violence that is inflicted upon us by another human being? 

As a psychologist with many years of training related to why people do the things they do, how our brain works, and what factors may predispose someone to a mental illness; we are frequently the ones that are presented with the question of “How do you know who may become violent?”.  The answer is not the one that people want to hear.  We simply don’t know.  When we don’t know the answer to a question such as this, our anxiety raises and we want to hypothesize who could potentially become violent.  Unfortunately, this frequently leads to us “categorizing” people and causing a high degree of false positives (or wrongly identifying people as violent who aren’t).  And for some people, this may sound like a plan because isn’t it better to over-identify this group, than potentially miss someone who could then become violent?  Maybe, however it may depend on which side of this delegation you are placed or that of one of your family members or friends.  Even if we attempted to control violence by identifying someone who may become violent, how do we do that?  We are given a list of potential variables which have a positive correlation to someone potentially becoming violent.  Some of these traits have been addressed through multiple research studies.  They can include things like having acted violent in the past, using substances, having a mental illness (specifically one that impairs someone’s reality testing), poor social skills, lack of social support, suicidal ideation, cruelty to animals withdrawn “loner”, witnessing violence (domestic violence as a child), low self-esteem, and many other possible characteristics.  I believe part of our anxiety at this time, is that none of the recent past mass murders had any prior history of violence.  This is one of our biggest “red flags” that psychologists have used for years to identify the potential harm a person may cause, and yet none of these individuals would have been “flagged” or predicted to become violent.  Many psychologists tend to use things like prior behavior as an indication for possible future behavior.  Why do we do this?  Because this has been one of the only predictors that has shown any evidence in research to help us predict future behaviors.  So what does it mean when we realize that none of these individuals would have been predicted to become violent?  The reality is, that not even people who study human behavior for years can identify who will become violent.  This is scary.  Scary, because we can’t say that this individual will become violent with any certainty.  If we were able to identify these individuals we could restrict their ability to gain access to weapons, be alone in the community, or other safety measures we may be able to impose.  But this is why our government doesn’t restrict individuals’ rights until after they have done something negligent.  Because we can’t predict who will do these things. 

If we can’t predict who may become a mass murder, how do we prevent these things from happening?  Maybe the question isn’t how, but rather can we prevent these tragedies.  My personal belief is that we can’t, at least at this time.  We need to continue our research into what factors may have played a part in these individuals taking the lives of innocent children and adults.  These incidents of violence were extremely tragic for many families and communities and we all want to find a way to prevent anything like this from occurring again.  The scary truth is that we can’t.  Without being able to identify who is likely to engage in something like this, we can’t completely control them. 

People want to be able to restrict access to weapons and to treat individuals with mental illness.  Of all of the recent proposals I have heard from our legislators, none will answer the real question of, “Who could do this?”  Isn’t that what we really want to know?  Since we can’t answer this question are we just proposing ideas that don’t have any research to support their efficacy in a way for us to try to gain a sense of safety?  Y es, we all want to feel safe at work, at school, at our places of worship, and in our lives; but I don’t believe we have really figured out how to do this and what it would look like.

 I encourage you to think about other examples of things that we have wanted to eliminate from our cultural.  For example, the United States has a serious problem with drugs.  Our children, athletes, parents, educators, police officers, ministers, priests, and so many other people are using illicit drugs.  How can that be when we have imposed so much legislation around drugs?  Increasing the punishments for possessing illicit drugs or the frequency of law enforcement cracking down on their use has not shown any significant decrease in the use of drugs within our communities.  However, research has shown that things such as educating our communities about the impacts of drugs and providing treatment (both within a peer group such as AA and professionally) has shown a decrease in the number of people who are choosing to use drugs.  How can we apply this to violence in our communities?  Maybe we could focus more on educating our children, families, communities about violence.  Maybe we could provide treatment for those who may be at risk or who demonstrate characteristics that we may be able to identify through research as possible indicators of future violence. 

I am concerned that some of our legislators want to find ways to provide our communities with a sense of safety and I encourage them to work towards making laws that are research based, rather than out of fear.  Identify which individuals may benefit from more intensive mental health treatment.  Provide funding to support research in the area of violence and violence prevention.  And maybe most importantly, educate.  Educate our children about the seriousness of violence.  Educate our teachers on how to identify students who may be struggling.  Educate our religious leaders about the negative influence of violence.  Work to strengthen families and communities.  Every society has experienced violence in one way or another.  Allow us to work together to reduce the violence our society faces, at the hands of a select few individuals, who have caused us so much pain and heartache.          

Trusted Therapy, Inc
Tonya McFarland, PsyD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
1030 Johnson Rd, Suite 280
Golden, CO  80401