Why 'Better Mental Health Treatment' Won't Prevent Future Sandy Hooks



One year after the Sandy Hook massacre, Fox News reports, "the White House has little to show for its aggressive campaign to pass new gun control legislation" and is instead "shifting its focus to mental health as a way to prevent future shooting sprees." Politically, that seems like a pretty smart move. According to the latest Reason-Rupe Public Opinion Survey, 63 percent of Americans think "tighter restrictions on buying and owning guns would not be effective in preventing criminals from obtaining guns." And of various "factors that some say might have helped prevent last year's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School," a plurality of 27 percent favored "better mental health treatment," an option that was especially popular among independents and Republicans. Leading defenders of Second Amendment rights have been trying to change the subject from gun control to mental health since shortly after the massacre, and it looks like they have succeeded pretty well. The problem is that controlling crazy people makes no more sense than controlling guns as a response to Sandy Hook. 

What would "better mental health treatment" have meant for Adam Lanza, and how might it have stopped him from murdering 20 children and seven adults (including his mother)? According to the official report issued last month by State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky, Lanza "had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others," but it is not clear whether those problems "contributed in any way" to his crime. His mother attributed his shyness, isolation, and rigidness to Asperger syndrome, a condition that has never been associated with an elevated risk of violence. And while it is never hard to find details in the lives of mass killers that in retrospect look like red flags (such as an interest in morbid topics, firearms, or violent video games), almost no one who displays these purported warning signs becomes a violent criminal, let alone commits mass murder.

"Those mental health professionals who saw [Lanza] did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior," Sedensky's report says. "Investigators…have not discovered any evidence that the shooter voiced or gave any indication to others that he intended to commit such a crime." In high school, Lanza "was not known to be a violent kid at all and never spoke of violence….Despite a fascination with mass shootings and firearms, he displayed no aggressive or threatening tendencies."

The idea that mental health professionals can accurately predict which seemingly harmless people will turn violent has no basis in fact. "Over thirty years of commentary, judicial opinion, and scientific review argue that predictions of danger lack scientific rigor," notes University of Georgia law professor Alexander Scherr in a 2003 Hastings Law Journal article. "The sharpest critique finds that mental health professionals perform no better than chance at predicting violence, and perhaps perform even worse."

If everyone who behaves like Lanza did prior to his horrifying crime is to be stripped of his Second Amendment rights and/or forced to undergo psychiatric treatment, a lot of innocent people who pose no threat to others will lose their freedom. Should everyone diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (or, to use the newer terminology, everyone placed on the "autism spectrum") be deemed a threat to public safety, based on this sample of one? A year ago, National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Way LaPierre demanded "an active national database of the mentally ill," which taken literally would include information on something like half the population. Even then, future mass murderers would not necessarily be on LaPierre's list, since they typically do not receive psychiatric diagnoses until after they commit their crimes.

The reasoning behind "better mental health treatment" as a way to prevent mass shootings starts with the tautological premise that only crazy people commit such crimes and proceeds to the conclusion that letting them go untreated is reckless. But people prone to mass murder are not likely to welcome treatment, which means they must be forced. And so must many other people who will never hurt anyone, since we cannot identify mass murderers ahead of time. Such massive coercion can be rationalized as "help," but that is not the way its targets will perceive it.