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Tragedy in Newtown and Our Changing Culture

The slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut has fundamentally altered the public debate on gun regulations. This change is long overdue.  Ultra-lethal guns are the instruments that make these acts so deadly.  Assault weapons and extra-lethal types of ammunition have no place in our communities. We must have meaningful gun regulations.

We can’t stop there.  The existence of assault weapons alone don’t explain these violent rages.  We concurrently need to strengthen our system of identifying and treating people with mental illness and anti-social conditions. And we need to do this without letting it distract us from pursuing better gun regulations. Effective mental health treatment is incredibly labor intensive. Building helping relationships with other human beings takes time and commitment. It is therefore also expensive.  Decades of budget contraction for mental health services has created a history of having to do more with less which has lead to service gaps and poor outcomes.

But we can’t stop there either. Significant weaknesses in our mental health systems don’t explain societies growing fascination with guns and violence or our loss of empathy towards “others”.  While we press for better gun regulations and improved mental health systems, we need to examine the social factors that are shifting our American cultural in a dangerous direction.

Identifying connections between shifting cultural attitudes and extremely rare events is difficult. Scientific methods are not suited to the study of rare events, yet connections between cultural shifts and extremely rare behaviors are no less real.

This last point is very important.  It is easy for those who oppose change to challenge the influence social factors might have on culture or to manipulate these factors for self-gain.  Whether we are speaking about violent content in video games or the proliferation of guns in American homes, the influence of each on culture is subtle and hard to measure.  We can easily see how being raised in a home where religious values are prominent effects development, but we don’t often consider how social development is influence in homes where deadly weapons are prominent features.  Additionally, it is always difficult to perceive cultural changes as they occur. To help explain why this is so a little though experiment might be helpful.

Start by picturing a normal “bell curve” depicting the aggressive tendencies of every person in the country.  The vast percentage of us would always fall within the normal rage.  The very middle of the bell curve is the median, or average value.  So in this case the middle represents people who have an average level of aggression.  But there are always a few extraordinarily passive or aggressive individuals at the far ends of the bell curve. Statistically, these are called outliers, but if we are plotting aggression, the furthest outliers on the aggressive end might represent those who commit mass murders.

Now, imagine that social conditions shift the national average in a more aggressive direction. The whole bell curve would move slightly in that direction.  Most people within the normal range wouldn’t notice the change.  Their own aggressive tendencies and those of everyone around them would be changing in unison. It’s difficult to perceive change when there is no fixed reference point. What everyone might start to notice, however, is what happens at the statistical extremes. As average levels of aggression increases in society, the frequency of rare acts of violence also increases.

To illustrate this last point, consider an analogy to climate change.  Suppose there was no scientific or public awareness of climate change or its impact on weather prior to Hurricane Katrina or super storm Sandy.  After these events the public might reasonably demand to know why such bad storms are becoming more frequent.  Answering that question by simply studying each storms would not be very fruitful. It could improve our knowledge of the particular weather patterns that produced each storms, but it wouldn’t answer the question of why these preconditions were happening so often.

Fortunately, scientists have been studying climate change for decades, so we know why super storms are becoming more frequent.  We also know how we can respond to this threat even though convincing those with conflicting interests is another matter. It sometimes takes a super storm to form a consensus for action.

The same logic holds true for trying to understand what happened in Newtown, Connecticut.  Studying what made Adam Lanza snap might be helpful from a mental health perspective, but it won’t explain the preconditions in his life.  The killing efficiency of his weapons helps explains why the shooting was so deadly, but it won’t explain why his mother and others are so drawn to deadly weapons. It is our changing attitudes towards guns and violence that we must understand. The study of cultural change is far less advanced than the study of climate change, so we are ill prepared for the challenge.  This needs to change.  In fact, it is clear that we all need to change if we ever hope to end the rash of senseless violence in America.

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