Newtown and Violence – No Easy Answers

(I [Greg] am republishing a lot of ‘legacy content’ from our PLOS Neuroanthropology weblog, which has been taken down, along with many of the other founding PLOS Blogs. Some of these, I am putting up because I teach with them. If you have any requests, don’t hesitate to email me at: greg (dot) downey @ mq (dot) edu (dot) au. I suspect many of the links in this piece will be broken, but I will endeavour to try to slowly rebuild this content. Daniel originally published 7 December 2012.)

I just dropped my two young children at elementary school. They were bright and smiling, one off to practice handbells for a Christmas concert, another to chat with friends before the first bell.

Neither noticed the police car newly parked beside the school. Neither had a penny for my thoughts, of what it must have been like for those parents in Newtown, dropping off beloved children and then not having them only a few minutes later.

Now at my computer, I think of the Connecticut State Police Spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance, the man who has guided us through much of this tragedy. I remember his assurance on Friday that the police were doing everything to find out not only what happened, but why.

But why.

No Easy Answers

With violence, there are no easy answers, as I wrote about in my summer piece Inside the Minds of Mass Killers after the Aurora Batman shootings.

One narrative – that Adam Lanza was mentally ill – is already waiting in the wings, prepped as an explanation. Another – where guns are the culprit – has exploded already with full force. Lanza used a semi-automatic assault rifle with extended clips and shot his victims multiple times. He had hundreds of more rounds to continue his killing. Without that firepower, he couldn’t have killed so many so quickly before taking his own life when the police arrived.

The United States urgently needs more and better mental health care. Regulating guns like we regulate motor vehicles seems reasonable, given how many thousands die from gun shots and from car accidents every year. Neither, though, gets us much closer to why.

Mentally ill patients are not more violent than anyone else. Guns don’t shoot themselves.

We still need better answers. The horrendous violation that Lanza committed, against all social norms, against everything that is decent and good, stares back at us with such dark eyes.

On “Adam Lanza’s Mother”

Thinking the Unthinkable, where the mother of a violent 13 year old recounts her own struggles with her son, swamped social media over the weekend. A truly viral post.

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

Liza Long, aka Anarchist Soccer Mom, found much support with her post. Her call for more attention to mental health issues resonated broadly. But in being so public about her son, and linking violence and mental health so closely, Long also opened herself to considerable criticism – You Are Not Adam Lanza’s Mother and Want the Truth Behind “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”? Read Her Blog are two of the most prominent.

Long’s effective writing, evocative story, and sense of timing help explain how her post got circulated through so many Facebook pages. But she does one other thing that makes a huge difference. She speaks of how violence terrifies, and how little she can understand it. Yet there is her son, in the throes of fury and lashing out.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me.

How to make sense of that? Pulling a knife over library books?!

Fitting Categories

Through her own experience, Long helps us catch a glimpse of the violence of being human, and to sense, at a distance, how quickly it can destroy life. For me, that is why the piece resonated. Newtown scares us deeply, the idea that someone can do such a thing. Yet Lanza did.

Soccer Mom Long also presages our societal response – fearful, distancing from the problem, controlling the pointy objects, and making it mental alone. And for me, that is deeply problematic. It fits violence into the wrong category, making it some natural object that we then try to control socially.

Don’t get me wrong. I think improvements in policing, gun control, and mental health care are all needed to help further reduce violence in our society. We need a multi-dimensional approach for a multi-dimensional problem.

But we also need better answers to the question Lt. Paul Vance posed for us, and so many have asked ourselves since Friday – Why?

Seeing Violence

Most of us hide our eyes from violence until some horrific event like the murders in Newtown force such things before our eyes. One of the braver things Obama did in his Friday press conference was to at least mention other massacres that haven’t caught the public’s attention so much – the murder spree in Chicago (over 400 this year) and the killing of six at a Sikh temple by a white supremacist.

One might cast a broader eye, and include the truly horrific number of murders in Mexico due to the drug war or the children killed by US drones abroad. Or to the past, and the killings of juveniles at the Dozier School in Florida. But black youth, religious minorities, foreigners, children of terrorists, and delinquents do not evoke the same sympathy. They do not force us to look longer. They should.

We also might look closer at the violence of our art and entertainment, and not just our gun culture. David Dobbs wrote about the Aurora shootings, Batman Movies Don’t Kill, But They’re Friendly to the Concept.

The movies are a enormous, constant, heavily influential part of an American culture that fetishizes violence and glamorizes, to the point of ten-year wars, a militarized, let-it-rain approach to conflict resolution… Culture shapes the expression of behavioral traits. The traits don’t rise inherent as an urge to play basketball or a plan to shoot up a Batman movie. A long conversation between the trait and the surrounding culture shape those expressions. Culture gives the impulse form and direction.

My wife, when she studied justified versus unjustified violence, found that justified violence – such as to save someone or even at times revenge – led people to approve more violence than violence that was deem unjustifiable. James Bond’s violence is legitimate, even thrilling.

We forget one thing about how culture works, something pointed out by Victor Turner and Claude Levi-Strauss many years ago – that symbols and meanings often work through dualities and oppositions. I still remember my street kid friend in Bogotá describing his life, that just like the morning sun comes over the city and the good people come out, so too the dark sun comes up at night and the dark people come out. And how they hated at times the people of the day, with their good lives and comfortable justifications and easy condemnations.

Our violent heroes don’t turn the other cheek. They go out and punish, often with multiple gun shots, those who are against them. Is it so hard to understand that our anti-heroes do the same?

Of Right Mind

Lanza killed little kids. Innocents most white and wide-eyed. I have called attention before to “running amok,” a cultural model and interpretation of violence, as one way to try to grasp how someone could engage in such horrid behavior. But one word that has stuck with me this time is “deranged.”

Someone in their right mind does not go out and kill kids. That is our sense of things, despite the regular news of parents who abuse and kill the children in their care. But they don’t then go and kill their neighbor’s kids.

Why “deranged”? I suppose because I find it hard to accept that someone like Adam Lanza was in their right mind. That even if there are cultural meanings he can draw upon, he still went and did it himself. And that I find comfort in thinking something inside his brain didn’t work the same way that things work inside my brain.

But I don’t mean mentally ill. Not at all. I mean violent. Violent in the most transgressive of ways. Violent in the most deliberate of ways.

If we’re going to think of violence as a sickness, then it is its own type of sickness, different in kind and in expression from the mental and physical ailments that also possess us. Violence is red in tooth and claw, seemingly primordial, until we recognize how socially regulated it is. We teach soldiers in violence, and then punish when they step outside the rules of engagement.

Violence relies on the tools at hand, on fists and knives and guns and planes, tools that we create and control. Violence has targets, often dehumanized, the japs or commies or crips on the other side, a fiction we can maintain until it is so roughly violated by something like Newtown. And violence works terror, that the overwhelming brutality of it will keep the other at bay and that we ourselves won’t be touched. But violence boils beyond the easy boundaries we try to place on it, and we are left once again in a land of no easy answers.


Teaching, tools, targets, and terror – that’s as close as I will get to a framework today. But I don’t want to end just yet. There remains the question of what to do.

President Obama has called for meaningful action. In government, meaningful action is often symbolic, done in speeches and codified into law. Gun control would at the very least signal that things have shifted, that we will not accept this type of violence, that we are willing to place limits on our freedom for the collective good of our children.

It is increasingly clear that the quick response time of police helped save lives in Newtown. We have gotten extremely good at rapid response. We are still very bad at how to deal with violence before or after that urgent moment.

We need to get better at dealing with young men and women prone to violence through our schools and in our neighborhoods. We need to engage in prison reform, and to rework our senseless jailing of so many non-violent offenders (often to great profit for the people who run prisons) and to direct many more resources to lowering alcohol and drug use rather than a continued engagement in a violent drug war. Much of the saved money from that “war” could then go to funding more community approaches to addressing violence. So, yes, reform before and after these violent acts.

Finally, I think of Jared Cano, the teenager who plotted to bomb a high school only a few miles from my home. Cano wanted to make it bigger than Columbine or Virginia Tech. Or now Newtown. He was turned in by a friend. That sort of everyday regulation is as important as anything else. It’s not all gun control, mental health resources, and rapid response. Sometimes it’s a different sort of bravery.

I’ll leave off with Cano’s words before he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

I don’t want to be the bad guy. I want to be the good guy. The state ain’t gonna make an example. They’re gonna put me in prison. Let me make an example. I had a bad life. Let me change it around and do something good, not bad. Don’t make me the poster child for something evil. Let me be the poster child for something good. Let me do right. Give me a chance to do something right. To make my family proud. I don’t want all these people to think I’m crazy, trying to kill everybody. I want people to look at me as someone who was wrong and changed… and did something right.

[Added 2019. Greg.]

Jason Antrosio has suggested that we include a lot of the commentary because it was really good. So here are the most substantial comments that were made:

A comment by ‘Discuss White Privilege’ on 17 December, 2012:

Posting as DWP so as to keep continuity with comments I’ve made elsewhere that can be related to what I’d like to respond to here.

First, another great post, Daniel. Deeply thoughtful, as always.

Second, increasingly as I think about this tragedy, and certainly in response to my own reflection on the Sandy Hook shooting in comments I posted yesterday to Savage Minds, increasingly I feel dissatisfied with the term “mental illness” and the mental health/mental illness dichotomy. I don’t really think it serves us well, especially not in automatically associating ‘mental illness’ with violence in general, and mass killings (via gun violence) like the one Friday in Sandy Hook in particular.

Too many kinds of *social suffering* and embodied despair are collapsed into the category of ‘mental illness’, in ways that assume that one is either ‘mentally ill’ or not (i.e. ‘normal’, mentally healthy). It assumes that mental health/illness is discrete and not a spectrum (certainly gesturing towards Susan Bordo’s work on anorexia in Unbearable Weight here), in ways that prevent people from realizing that there is a spectrum of mental health, or lack thereof, and that many of the pathologized behaviors or perspectives/motivations that those labeled ‘mentally ill’ may engage in are also shared by those not labeled as mentally ill.

Moreover, I feel deeply troubled by the catch-all-ness of the term ‘mental illness’–encapsulating everything from mild depression to complete psychosis–because it really seem to obscure how different, and race-/culture-/structural-position-specific, the etiology of various conditions may be. This inattention to the specificity of cause helps to further stigmatize people, and to conflate forms of (social) suffering which may in fact be quite different and best understood in more separate categories of embodied suffering. Here I am certainly thinking about Jonathan Metzel’s work on race, implicit bias, and schizophrenia diagnosis ( and the persistent underdiagnosis of depression in black patients, who are instead diagnosed as having some violence-prone form of psychosis and/or impulse-control disorders due to racial stereotyping in diagnosis. I worry about how the current discussion of ‘mental illness’ in catch-all, dichotomized terms worsens such stigmatization and inaccurate diagnosis, especially in relation to larger conversations about who should be seen as a threat for potential violence because they have been labeled ‘mentally ill’.

Like you’ve written above, we need to rethink how we conceptualize and define violence if we are going to be able to better predict who is likely to be the next Adam Lanza. But I would also add that maybe we need to do away with the term ‘mental illness’ as well and find more specific categories for different kinds of embodied/social suffering which we use this term to describe. Such definitional specificity is itself a way to better narrow the range of people we should legitimately identify as deranged, violence-prone, and potential mass killers.

I agree with what you say about a spectrum of intensity of mental health, and that the dichotomy of the current model does us no good as a society, and no good to those of us who happen to have a DSM code assigned to us, accurate or not.

I read with interest what you have to say about the cultural/racial aspect and biases about diagnosis. It’s one of those lightbulb moments for me. where something I never before considered is revealed and I can’t deny its reality and factuality–never “truth”, as “truth” is too often merely an opinion these days.

I remember sitting with my jaw, physical and mental, dropped, when I learned that most Latino gang members are the darkest-skinned of the family, and therefore seen as “less desirable”, to the point of some families denying any close relationship, to others, of the dark-skinned child. My stomach hurt, my blood chilled, and tears welled as I thought about how cruel that was, and understanding just why such a child might grow into joining to a gang where he “belonged”, more than to his own family, who’d denied him and essentially cast him out. Did my privilege ever get revealed that day.

Just saw this relevant post:

On white male privilege, mass murder, sociopathy, and entitlement:
“But the point here is that those tempered and nuanced conversations are only able to happen because the demographic at the center of it all is white guys. That is the one group in America that gets to avoid being referred to in aggregate negative terms (and gets to avoid being unduly profiled by this nation’s security apparatus), which means we are defaulting to a much more dispassionate and sane conversation — one that treats the perpetrators as deranged individuals, rather than typical and thus stereotype-justifying representatives of an entire demographic.”

Brilliant post, Daniel. As always, you wade into topics that seem radioactive and manage to find a way to say something that doesn’t seem trivializing, and yet also clarifies.

However, outside the US, the carefulness of some of the discussion around guns seems outrageous. By now, most of us have seen the graphic showing the number of murders using handguns in a range of high income countries: the US stands out by an order of magnitude.

In Australia, where I now live, the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 led to massive efforts by the government to control guns and buy back arms: almost a million weapons were disposed of. Not a single mass shooting has happened since 1996, and the population here is equivalent to the state of New York. Like the US, Australia had its own frontier culture and rich history of gun use and mythology, but shootings are rare, usually connected to the drug trade. In contrast, when I lived in the States, shootings sometimes couldn’t even make the local nightly news.

Guns change people. It’s not just that mentally ill individuals gravitate toward guns. They don’t, any more than anyone else; when our students go to the US, some of them love going to shooting ranges and horrify us with their glee at getting to fire off weapons that, especially for an ex-pat American, seem to me to be obscene. The best piece I’ve seen on the psychology of guns was that piece in The Atlantic that followed the Colorado Batman shootings (because we have to clarify which mass murder in Colorado we’re talking about):

In phenomenology, we talk about how the capacity for action — either movement or tool-based interaction — shapes how we view the world. A person with the ability to lay their hands on a high-powered, high-capacity military-grade weapon just sees the world differently, sees opportunities to use it, even if for ‘good.’ To see the world through the lens of a gun, through the eyes of a person who can imagine what it would be like to shoot other people, isn’t ‘mentally ill’; I would say it’s actually pretty normal for some Americans. All the people who say that the teachers should have been armed, or that a civilian with a gun could have stopped Lanza (which has NEVER happened in the US), see the world this way, with a gun — real or imagined — in their hand. I would also point out that Lanza in fact did die from a gun shot; it’s just that, by then, his horrible work was done.

The report tonight on the radio as I drove home, with recordings of things said by some of the parents and a rabbi who was at one of the memorial services, was just sickening. Six- and seven-year-olds. I just can’t even wrap my head around that. If I think about it for too long, I feel physically ill.

Thanks for writing this, but no one outside the US, where these incidents happen so much less frequently, sees this as anything other than the sign of a deeply sick society that can’t face the obvious problem. Give people guns, whether they’re healthy, ill, or something in between, and they think about using them. Invariably, no good can come of this.

Greg, thank you for your insightful comments. You said two things that I’d like to pick up on: first that Australia also has a history of being a frontier society with a gun culture, and second, that in phenomenology the possibilities for action–either via movement or technology–determines how we see the world.
I would like to connect these two observations to my previous comments above and my other comments at Savage Minds referencing the Sandy Hook massacre. To take a maxim ffrom The Wire, a series which certainly engaged the ugliness of US gun violence: It’s all connected.

I think that in order to understand why it was easier for Australia to pass gun control laws after a high-profile mass killing, despite also having a frontier past, and both being former British colonies and ‘white dominions’, it is necessary to realize that the US is a post-slave post-colony while Australia is not. We need to understand the role race, as it is connected to the United States’ history of (plantation) slavery and its enduring structural ramifications and racial taxonomies, plays in in the ideological underpinning of us gun culture(s) and concomitant justifications for unfettered access to guns.

This makes it possible to talk about racial phenomenology, which is certainly what David Sirota is addressing in his Salon piece (quoted and linked to above), in pointing out that most of these mass killings are perpetrated by white men, and are about middle-class white male entitlement to public space. The possibilities for (middle-class US) white men to act and move in the world, which is formed and structured in relation to material and symbolic advantages (including media representations which over-represent them favorably, and represent them engaging in acts of violence and domination which are glorified and quotidian), determines how they–and other racial subjects–perceive the world. All racial subjects perceive the world in relation to their capacity for action, and that action is constrained not only by a body’s ability to move in the ‘physical’ world (e.g. no human can fly without the existence of technology) but also in the socio-cultural world. These mass killings are very much about phenomenology, including racial phenomenology, and the possibilities for action that bodies perceive given the ‘political technology’ of race and the worldviews it produces.

Richard Friedman writes in the New York Times that “In Gun Debate, a Misguided Focus on Mental Illness.” It’s a strong piece on why the mental illness/violence linkage is wrong, both in a broad sense and in the specific case of mass shooters.

Here’s the ending quote:

All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group. But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.

Hear, hear. Great link, Daniel. In a few posts, you’ve really worked hard to pry off the assumption that horrific violence is always a sign of mental illness. Too often, the post-violence diagnosis is circular: violence is mad, therefore we know the violent person must also be.

And Discuss White Privilege makes a great point about post-slavery society. I’m not sure that I would agree with the ‘post-‘ if it was too intensely focused on the deeper history; that ‘post-slavery’ is also fed by a continuing, sustained symbolic attack on black Americans, the scapegoating and blaming. We do get that too in Australia; every once in a while, I’m floored by a racist comment someone here makes against Aborigines. But the *fear* of blackness that I remember from the US, that intense rage — well, that’s not here. Aboriginal Australians just aren’t seen as so much of a threat.

The other thing, though, is that, in the US, gun use is so generalised that you can reasonably say things like, ‘If you outlaw guns, then only outlaws will have guns.’ Elsewhere in the world, having a gun (for anything other than strictly limited purposes) already makes you a pretty dubious individual. It’s almost like the stigma of bearing arms is alien to the US, whereas it would bring suspicion here in Australia (well, at least that’s my impression over the past seven or so years).

But I agree with DWP that there’s something about ‘respectable’ white middle-class male experience in the US that includes, in a very normal and unstigmatized way, that you might have a handgun or gun collection, and that you might actually need to get a gun out at some point to deal with another person. I just don’t think it’s in the imagination of most people in countries where gun violence is not so prevalent.

Daniel, an excellent post.
My daughter is the same age as the children who died at Sandy Hook. Her school was scheduled to have a “Code Blue” drill that morning. My wife and I had been discussing the night before about just what such drills really do. Do they help children survive a “real” threat? Are they chiefly to help law enforcement do it’s job effectively (by minimizing the movements of civilians)? Or are they part of a wider story we tell ourselves about violence and safety? Maybe all of these. I’ve avoided most of the news because it didn’t seem to make me feel anything other than worried. That said. I haven’t shied away from the gun debate.

Greg, what I notice in these “debates” (because they’re really just well rehearsed scripts in a public morality play) about guns, both now and when I’ve had them with friends and family in the past, is that for many opponents of gun control the issue isn’t their personal safety from individual violence. They instead look to the right to own a fully automatic, heavy caliber rifle as the only real deterrence against “Big Government”. The fantasy of the government coming to take your guns so it can also take your freedoms is vividly real when you press many Americans about why the second amendment is the only one that we shouldn’t compromise on. The reality of shooting to take a life, or the messiness of an actual gunfight never seems to work its way into that picture. Everybody is Rambo on the gun range.

The absurdity of this fantasy aside this goes to Daniel’s point about the media stories we sell ourselves, as well as DWP’s excellent points about the race and class assumptions taken for granted/reproduced in these so-called debates. “America is falling, and only a real (white, middle class, male) American can save it.” Whether such libertarian nightmares are realistic is of course beside the point. It is part of the quasi-sacred Freedom(TM) worship that characterizes our politics and our consumption. This fantasy is, I’ve noticed, the biggest thing that separates an American attitude towards guns from attitudes in other parts of the world.

Just to add another point, there is still a missing piece to the violence puzzle. The economic one. Gun violence has increased in the UK in the past decade or so. The police, particularly in places like Manchester, Liverpool and London have been finding more and bigger/deadlier weapons turning up. The UK’s issues with guns don’t have much in common with the violence in places like northern Mexico, except for one important thing. Where do many of the weapons come from. There is a global trade (quasi-legal in some places, black market in others) in firearms that are most easily obtained in the US. The economic structures that underpin gun violence are not often enough at issue when we speak of the why of gun-related tragedies.

That is the beauty of anthropology’s holism I think, unveiling the connections between the micro AND the macro of phenomena. It is also part of the challenge for neuroanthropology: how to tell the stories that show the seamless fabric of the neuroscience, cultures, structures and institutions of a phenomenon like violence. Daniel, you’ve made an excellent start. Thank you.

Thanks, David. I just found this good piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Top Ten Myths about Mass Shootings. The author James Alan Fox is a criminologist at Northeastern.

He addresses your question about lockdowsn with a big “don’t do them.”

Myth: Students need to be prepared for the worst by participating in lockdown drills.

Reality: Lockdown drills can be very traumatizing, especially for young children. Also, it is questionable whether they would recall those lessons amid the hysteria associated with an actual shooting. The faculty and staff need to be adequately trained, and the kids just advised to listen to instructions. Schools should take the same low-key approach to the unlikely event of a shooting as the airlines do to the unlikely event of a crash. Passengers aren’t drilled in evacuation procedures but can assume the crew is sufficiently trained.

He also warns of the many false positives if we somehow try to detect killers like Lanza versus troubled youth like Liza Long’s son:

Myth: Greater attention and response to the telltale warning signs will allow us to identify would-be mass killers before they act.

Reality: While there are some common features in the profile of a mass murderer (depression, resentment, social isolation, tendency to blame others for their misfortunes, fascination with violence, and interest in weaponry), those characteristics are all fairly prevalent in the general population. Any attempt to predict would produce many false positives. Actually, the telltale warning signs come into clear focus only after the deadly deed.

I do not intend to engage with your main arguments in this piece. Much of what you say makes sense. However, I do want to raise a question concerning what you say about mental illness and violence. I suspect that it is a great over-simplification to say that the mentally ill are no more violent than other people.

It is the case that the mentally ill commit no more violent crime, and are more likely to be victims. They stand in need of more protection from the law in this regard. However, these statistics do not necessarily mean that they are less violent. It may mean that their violence is not reported to the police.

There are good reasons to believe that this is the case. Carers, both in institutional and family settings, are unlikely to report the violence done against them. Parents and siblings will not be overly willing to report a loved one to the police, and people in the mental health system get to take the knocks as they come, seeing them as part of the trade.

But people who suffer from psychosis, particularly if they are young males, and particularly if they take drugs – which many of them do, in an effort to self-medicate – can be highly aggressive towards their immediate entourage. We are not helping anyone by pretending that this is not a problem.

It has been noted that people suffering from psychosis who do not take their medication are more likely to become aggressive and violent. It has also, and paradoxically, been noted that the medication can itself be associated with aggression and violence. The strange and unintended consequences of taking psychotropes has been well-documented by Robert Whitaker: while they may have an immediate effect of damping down symptoms, they may well also lead to increasing recurrence of psychotic outbreaks. They certainly lower life expectancy and undermine the quality of life of those who take them.

Vulnerable young people are pushed into medication earlier and earlier. They resist the straightjacket, they resist the physical symptoms that shut the gates to normal relationships with their peers, they turn to other drugs – marijuana, alcohol, and so on – and can become more frustrated, more aggressive, more violent than they would otherwise be.

We should neither deny that this is happening, nor react to it with the foolishness of lock-down and forced medication. We might think about the question of how we treat our youth, and in particular the most vulnerable, so that soccer mums and other carers can breathe more freely, and their troubled offspring look forward to something rather more rewarding than a life on Risperdal

Tim, thanks for your comment. Much appreciated. I wish everyone could be as discerning as you are in trying to discuss these issues.

I agree, with psychosis the research supports that there is some increase in reported rates of violence. It’s not definitive work (see this PLOS article and this Psychological Bulletin meta-analysis), but it looks to be a reasonable conclusion. That said, a very different thing is to say that young men suffering from psychosis are necessarily violent. That goes far beyond the data. And yet that’s the take-away message most people will have – those crazy people are violent. And that’s just wrong.

As research you’ve tweeted about – Violence and mental illness: an overview – shows, “Mental disorders are neither necessary nor sufficient causes of violence. Major determinants of violence continue to be socio-demographic and economic factors.” Indeed, this research, as well as the articles above, highlight the links between substance abuse and violence, irrespective of mental illness. So if anything, much greater resources should be invested in substance abuse prevention and treatment. Particularly alcohol.

In the case of Lanza, one particular diagnosis, Asperger’s, has been prominently mentioned in the media, but definitely refuted as being linked to violence: Autism, Empathy, and Violence: Asperger’s Does Not Explain Connecticut Shooting

Hopefully I will comment more later; I have to run now.


Tim, one other point. I really like how you point to the carers involved, the care giver and loved one who often have to bear the brunt of violence, and of mental illness too. They too often are hidden from view.

Your point resonates with how I ended the essay, to focus on the everyday, and on the people who are there in the moment – friends and family, and the bravery too of those people.

Given my focus on violence, I would also want to draw attention to the carers who suffer domestic abuse, a more intimate and much more pervasive type of violence that happens everyday and that contributes greatly to the violence of our lives. And also to the violence to children, often framed today as “adverse childhood events,” that can so mark their lives, and make children much more predisposed to violence, mental illness, substance abuse, and many other of our societal problems.


Jason Antrosio has penned a direct response to this essay with his post, Semi-Automatic Anthropology: Confronting Complexity, Anthropologically. A must read.

It opens:

It really is not so complicated. The murder-massacre of Newtown was made possible by semi-automatic weapons. The answer is simple. Difficult, yes, but simple: a semi-automatic weapons buyback or other measures to reduce and restrict the weaponry. But as anthropologists, we may not figure this one out until we get walloped and wonder what happened.

Jason is particularly pointed about my “no easy answers” title, yet another anthropologist saying “wait, it’s complicated.” For that alone, it’s worth reading:

Sound familiar? Were those Republican representatives reading Neuroanthropology, where anthropologist Daniel Lende writes that there are No Easy Answers? Lende’s thoughtful piece is full of those highly complex and complicated societal issues. It’s holistic anthropology at its best. It’s the kind of anthropology we all love…

But we have to wake up and smell the complex holistic coffee. Complexity, complicated, no easy answers, root causes, asking why: those have all become Republican talking points. And it’s not because they’re about to enroll in an anthropology class near you. They’ll cut your anthropology budget faster than you can call Florida Governor Rick Scott. It’s because complexity is the new code word for legislative paralysis, because gun control is too simple, because even if they allow for some gun control it’s going to get tied to censorship and speech lockdowns, and we can probably bet on yet more money for police and prisons, but hey we’re now in a battle for public safety.

So go read Confronting Complexity. And follow up with Antrosio’s proposal for a Semi-Automatic Weapons Buyback program, a solid how-to piece.

As much for my own reference as yours, a set of links that related to Newtown. I provide general commentary, gun control, and the nexus of mental health and violence.


-Cedar Riener, Sandy Hook and Useless Common Sense on Guns
*A father, psychologist, and scientist brings those perspectives to bear on the tragedy, asking us to confront our own inevitable biases and how science can help us question and improve what seems to make sense in the moment. An excellent piece.

-David Wescott, We’re Not Having A Discussion about Newtown. We’re Having Several.
*Visual representation (and extensive links) of mom, scientists, liberals and conservatives and what they are talking about with regards to Newtown

-Steve Almond, America’s Addiction to Violence
*Why violence holds fascination, particularly the everyday violence that can exist in marginalized communities: “People felt bored and powerless most of the time. They experienced acts of violence as a kind of liberation from the prevailing tedium.”

-Ryan Anderson, Anthropologists Respond to Newtown Violence
*Savage Minds features a great anthropological discussion of the Sandy Hook shootings, gun control, and what anthropology offers as a field.

Guns and Guns Control

-Don Kates and Gary Mauser, Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?
*Pdf of a contrarian and evidence-based approach published in Harvard Law Review

-Will Oremus, After a 1996 Mass Shooting, Australia Enacted Strict Gun Laws. It Hasn’t Had a Similar Massacre Since.
*Gun control worked in Australia. One of the major cases to consider for why a push for gun control will help address the violence problem in the United States.

-Connor Friedersdorf, The U.S. Already Had a Conversation About Guns—and the Pro Side Won
*A good starting point for those who want more background on the politics, and likely political inertia, that will surround the renewed efforts around gun control

-Tony Horwitz, The NRA and the ‘Positive Good’ of Maximum Guns
*The author outlines the historical parallels between the pro-slavery and pro-guns movements, with a focus on The National Rifle Association and the proslavery group The Fire-Eaters

Adam Gopnik, The Simple Truth about Gun Control
*A quote works well here:

Gun control works on gun violence as surely as antibiotics do on bacterial infections… [T]he central insight of the modern study of criminal violence is that all crime—even the horrific violent crimes of assault and rape—is at some level opportunistic. Building a low annoying wall against them is almost as effective as building a high impenetrable one.

Violence and Mental Health

-Victoria Costello, What I Would Have Said to Nancy Lanza and How We Can Prevent More Tragedies
*Family, mental health, and violence. A particularly good consideration of stigma at the end, which hasn’t been raised often in the present debate

-Bonnie Rochman, Guilt by Association: Troubling Legacy of Sandy Hook May Be Backlash Against Children with Autism
*More refutation of the autism-violence link being played up in the media, and further examination of the stigma coming to play

-Tia Ghose, Mass Shooting Psychology: Spree Killers Have Consistent Profile, Research Shows
*A fairly effective summary of what is known about these types of killers, with a focus on individual factors

-Cam Robinson, Does Violence in Video Games Lead to Real World Violence?
*Appropriately enough, a video. Features science writer Martin Robbins and Mark Coulson.

-Tim Wise, Race, Class, Violence and Denial: Mass Murder and the Pathologies of Privilege
*A quote from the piece:

Can we really imagine a poor, urban, black or Latina mom successfully removing her disturbed child from the local public school so as to home school him, and then, in her spare time hauling him off to the shooting range to make sure he knew how to fire, among other things, an assault rifle? Once again, I am merely wondering aloud, but it seems something less than irrational to believe that maybe, just maybe, it was this family’s social position, their class status and yes, their race, which insulated them from the judgment and external control so regularly deployed against the poor and those of color who manifest drama in one or another guise.

A new set of links, focused on violence, guns, and gun control:

-Janell Ross, Child Gun Deaths Nationwide Number Nearly 6 Newtown Massacres
*Moving piece on how everyday gun violence strikes down children, many more than the tragedy at Sandy Hook, and in ways that are too often invisible to us

-Dimitra Doukas, Targeting the Gun Question: The “Culture War” in Scope
*Highly recommended. An anthropologist who did ethnographic work in rural New York State gives us some much needed insight into the role of guns in local life

-Dina Rasor, Slow-Rolling Massacre Unfolds in the Shadow of Shocking High-Profile Shooting Sprees
*Powerful piece on the everyday toll of violence in one community

-James Fallows, Readers on Guns: The Lynching Parallel
*A powerful comment from one of Fallows’ readers, which draws parallels between today’s mass violence and the mass violence of lynching, and calls for recognition that it’s going to be a long-term fight

-Daniel Lende, It’s about Violence, not about Guns, Not about Mental Health
*My response to Jason Antrosio’s critique of my “it’s complicated/no easy answers” approach over at his Living Anthropology blog

-Syndey Yeager, Gunman Suicide – A Social Illness
*Yeager draws on both Antrosio and myself, as well as his own insights from anthropology and his life. An argument for responsibility rather than blame, in recognition that responsibility is part of the solution to this type of social illness.

-Nicholas Kristof, Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?
*Regulating guns rationally, like we do cars

-Heather Berkman, What the US Can Learn Now from Latin America’s Fight against Gun Violence
*Latin America offers lessons – in peace building, community development, and gun control

-Cory Booker, It’s Time to Emphasize Pragmatic and Achievable Gun Law Reform
*Fascinating for its description of what Newark is doing at a local level to deal with violence (complex but working at it), and why federal gun regulation is needed to stem the tide of guns that comes in from outside the city

-Hugh Gusterson, Arming Ourselves to Death
*An anthropologist on why we have so many guns, and also why this tragedy so caught our attention when others have not

-Kevin Karpiak, In The News: Anthropologists, Criminologists (and some others) on the Newtown Shootings
*A very useful set of links to research and blog posts, and also an intriguing comparison of gun ownership and the Protestant ethic

-Jason Antrosio, Gun Violence Anthropology: AAA and the NRA
*Antrosio rounds up a lot of the anthropology coverage, and adds some further commentary on how anthropology has, and has not, covered the mass shooting and the associated public and policy implications

-Steven Pinker, CNN Profiles: ‘Don’t Obsess over Newtown’
*Pinker, author of the recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature (which argued that violence has gone down over historical time), gives a radio interview with on Newtown and violence

-Thomas G. Bowers, Eric S. Holmes, and Ashley Rhom, The Nature of Mass Murder and Autogenic Massacre
*Onto research. Not sure about this one (autogenic?), but it’s a review piece to check out

-Arthur Kellermann and Frederick Rivara, Silencing the Science on Gun Research
*Editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which both covers how research on guns and gun violence has not been funded recently and covering the intersection of what is known and potential policy

-John Harris and Robin Harris, Rampage Violence Requires a New Type of Research
*A review article in the American Journal of Public Health. Looks good for its call for an interdisciplinary approach

Discuss White Privilege
An orthogonal response inspired by Rebecca Wanzo’s The Suffering Will Not Be Televised, Catherine Lutz’s Unnatural Sentiments, and Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: to what extent are we, anthropologists especially, think about the ‘mental health’ effects (and affects) of the Sandy Hook massacre in relation to intensifying the distress of those whose suffering is not televised? Thinking about how this trauma is destructive for further reinforcing the idea that only some lives matter, white lives matter more. Thinking about this in relation to Paul Moore’s comments about my being ‘angry’ simply because I post under the moniker Discuss White Privilege, and thinking this troubling, stereotypical comment in relation to Lutz’s assertion that anger and other emotions are not simply internal personal states, but indices of social relation.

This raises the question of how we determine what constitutes ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’, especially in already stigmatized racial minority groups, where legitimate anger and outrage are seen as pathological and indicative of violent proclivities.

Is being depressed about one’s structural position as a Disposable (Nonwhite) Other best understood as ‘mental illness’, especially in light of Lutz’s comments on anger as a social relation? I have always been struck by how Andrew Solomon chose to focus on the link between poverty and depression in The Noonday Demon. Why wouldn’t poverty depress people? But this is rarely the empathetic response most have is it? Because if it was, Tim Wise (and Hugh Gusterson and others) would not be so spot-on in identifying the discourses of racialized disposability and deviance which make violence both expected and acceptable when it occurs in some neighborhoods to certain people.

I don’t think constant reminders that one is a Disposable Racial Other are conducive to ‘mental health’, yet speaking out about this social suffering will itself be used to stigmatize those who do as ‘mentally ill’ and thus fit for more racialized surveillance and police control.

Pingback: Gun Control Thread- Should we? – Page 28 – The Warpath

Jason Antrosio offers further insight into gun violence, gun control, and policy in his piece New Guns for a New Year: American Anthropology and Gun Violence.

I quite like how he frames our difference – me saying we (the US) have a violence problem, him saying that the US has a gun violence problem. He also pushes more on what policy would look like, and where politics might go from here. Check it out.


Alright, so Ameican Anthro Assoc. and Huffington Post recently published an article of mine about the anthropology of gun ownership. I cited this blog, among others. Though I challenged some of your points, I’d be honored if you guys returned the favor, visited our comment thread, and critiqued my points, at

— Ashkuff | | How to use anthropology, in business and ADVENTURE!!!!

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