What If There's Nothing We Can Do About Mass Murders?


When unpleasant things happen, such as the Newtown shooting, people understandably call for "something" to be done, and politicians are happy to oblige — usually with legislative "somethings" that have been sitting on the shelves for years, waiting to be dusted off. But one of the sad facts of life is that some problems aren't fixable. There really are things that we just have to live with. In an interview with The Daily Beast's Megan McArdle, criminologist James Alan Fox raises the possibility that mass murders may be one such problem.

According to Fox, part of the problem with mass murders is that they are so rare. That makes them unpredictable, becuase they rise out of circumstances that almost never lead to people doing such things. There is a profile of the typical mass killer in the United States, but only in the broadest possible form.

I'm often asked if there is a profile of the mass murderer. Well, there is. Typically a white male who has a history of frustration and failure, who is socially isolated and lacking support systems, who externalizes blame onto others, who suffers some loss or disappointment perceived to be catastrophic, and has access to a powerful enough weapon (usually, but not necessarily a gun).

The follow-up question I usually get is whether we can therefore identify mass murderers in advance, and the answer is a resounding "no."

Although there is a profile, thousands of citizens fit the profile yet will never hurt anyone, much less kill a crowd of people.

Mass murders, despite the impossible-to-miss headlines, are also not on the rise. Mother Jones may say otherwise, but only by tweaking the data in unscientific ways. Says Fox, "If one examines the full range of cases–all shootings with at least four victims killed, the numbers have been trendless."

But whether they trend up, down, or remain continuous, mass killings are horrendous. So what is to be done? Will the mental health interventions favored by conservatives do any good?

[E]xpanding mental health services would be a good thing, even though it would have little effect on mass murder, because these guys typically see the problem in someone else, certainly not themselves.

Not only do mass killers not perceive themselves as having problems, he says, they generally don't have track records of mental health issues that stand out from the crowd.

What about further restrictions on gun ownership, as touted by many liberals?

[C]ertain sensible gun policy changes would take a bit out of ordinary crime, but at most a nibble out of mass murder.

That's because, he continues, "[t]hese are very determined and deliberate people who will almost always persevere no matter what impediments we place in their way."

What about media coverage? Does that encourage copycats?

To some small degree. Copycatting does exist, of course. And the nature of the coverage matters. There is a big and important distinction between shedding light on a crime and a spotlight on the criminal.

But when asked for examples of copycats, he includes some shooters who preceded the 24-hour news cycle that is often blamed for encouraging new killers. They seemed to seek out and emulate people who stood out as celebrities in their own mind, even before the saturated media coverage of today.

And don't forget that mass murders have held steady at a very low rate through the changes in news coverage.

Fox does say, "We may never know if our preventive efforts make a difference, but that shouldn't stop us from trying." But he also cautions:

However, when people say we need to do X, Y, or Z to ensure that something like Sandy Hook will never happen again, well, they should prepare to be bitterly disappointed.

While Fox is an advocate of what he refers to as "sensible gun policy changes," which seem to boil down to universal background checks and restrictions on the number of guns purchased at a time, he has written repeatedly that it's unlikely to have any effect on the sort of event we saw at Newtown. Last summer, he wrote that neither gun controls nor concealed carry permits would be effective weapons against mass murderers (though I'll add that I reserve the right to keep the means of defending my family and myself, in hopes of making a difference).

Mass killers are determined, deliberate and dead-set on murder. They plan methodically to execute their victims, finding the means no matter what laws or other impediments the state attempts to place in their way. To them, the will to kill cannot be denied.

Unpredictable? Hard to profile? Plan methodically? Let's not forget that the worst school killing in this country, to-date, remains the Bath school disaster of 1927. It was planned for a year by the school board treasurer, and committed primarily with explosives.

Some problems really can't be fixed. Mass murders seem to be one.