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Monday, April 6, 2009

The recent shootings

It has seemed that one couldn't look at the news recently without hearing of another mass murder. The shooting deaths of ten in Alabama. The shooting of four police officers in Oakland California. The shooting of seven in an upscale home in Santa Clara, California. The murder of three police officers in Pittsburgh. The shooting of eight at a nursing home in North Carolina. The killing of thirteen people in Binghamton, NY. The father who shot his five children in a trailer park in Washington state.

The only common themes in the killings were two very common ones: guns were involved, and the killers were men. All major ethnic groups managed to get in on the action, so those of us who notice such correlations will find no pattern there. (Although after Virginia Tech last year and Binghamton and Santa Clara this year, Asians do seem to be catching up in the rankings.) The shooters came from different areas of the country, not just the Bible Belt/gun belt. And they ranged in age from 23 to 51.

There have been predictions that the worsening economy would result in an increase in crime, but this spate of shootings doesn't seen to have been brought on by the recent downturn. Most had more traditional causes: either they were domestic disputes run amok, or individual lives simply gone off the tracks.

Jealousy is certainly a powerful motivator. The North Carolina killer was a man gunning for his estranged wife who worked at the nursing home. The father who shot his five children in Washington was taking revenge on his wife, who had just announced that she was leaving him for another man. Whenever I read of a murder-suicide involving a husband and wife (there seemed to be a spate of such involving police officers in the New York area around ten years ago) I just assume that the husband probably caught the wife cheating. (Husbands certainly cheat too, but wives tend to be less murderous about it.)

Insanity and guns are never a healthy mix either. The Binghamton shooter, judging by the suicide note he left, was probably schizophrenic. (He felt the police had tried to involve him in 32 separate traffic accidents and were watching him while he slept.)

All of the shootings provide ammunition for gun control advocates. Most of the killers had at least two guns as well as spare ammunition when they went on their rampages. If you're hellbent on killing someone, you can do it even without a gun: just sneak up from behind and slit his throat. But it's awfully hard to commit mass murder without a gun (or bomb). Think of the Virginia Tech shooter last year: how many would he have been able to kill with just a knife before being subdued? One? Two? The same goes for most of last month's killers. And some of the guns used recently the past month were legally owned, some of them recently acquired.

But the NRA has a point, too: if guns are outlawed, then only outlaws will carry. Anybody willing to commit murder, that most illegal of acts, is certainly not going to be swayed by gun control laws. I know if I had armed robbery in mind, I'd hesitate less to invade a home if I knew its residents were unarmed. And there is evidence that murders (as opposed to self-defense killings) go down when gun ownership is legal.

I guess I favor private ownership, but with longer waiting periods before purchase (to cool off hotheads looking for revenge), with stricter controls on who gets to buy them. And given the correlation between youthfulness and murder rates, I wouldn't mind a minimum age of thirty for gun purchasers.

But other than that, it's hard to take away much from last month's killings, other than, how tragic. There just wasn't enough in the way of patterns.

Despite the back to back news coverage, there didn't seem to be any copycat aspect to these crimes, as there seemed to be when there was a spate of schoolyard shootings a few years back.

One pattern I have noticed among both serial killers and mass murderers in the past is that a lot of them have tried to join a police force at some point in their lives but were rejected. I'm not sure what to take away from this. Should we feel reassured that the police departments were able to screen these individuals? Or should we question the psychology of people who are attracted to law enforcement work in the first place -- and wonder how many maladjusted types have slipped through the cracks. (The Alabama killer was rejected only because he couldn't pass the physical.)

In a country of almost three hundred million, there are bound to be a lot of misfits with guns. Our nation is certainly better off without them. It's just too bad that the ones who erupted in paroxysms of rage this past month took so many innocents with them.

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