When something happens that overwhelms our emotions — as when a shooter murders 20 schoolchildren in cold blood — we get dizzy and out of balance. The shock and horror are too much to take.
So we look for something we can hold on to — something that will stabilize us and channel our grief, rage and horror into a concrete, actionable place.
For many of us, that something is gun control.
Ever since last Friday's murderous rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the primal scream of "We need tougher gun control laws!" has been heard throughout much of the blogosphere, social networks and mainstream media.
If it weren't so easy to obtain lethal weapons, the argument goes, it wouldn't be so easy to commit these horrific crimes.
This is a powerful argument, so powerful that it can blind us to a deeper argument- that mass violence is often due to severe mental health issues, and until we address this deeper problem, gun control and law enforcement can only do so much.
In a seminal study published in 2000 by The New York Times that examined 100 rampage attacks over 50 years, the authors noted that, “We have overlooked a critical issue, which is that at least half of the killers showed signs of serious mental health problems."
The study adds: "Society has turned to law enforcement to resolve the rampage killings that have become almost a staple of the nightly news. There has been an increasing call for greater security in schools and in the workplace. But a closer look shows that these cases may have more to do with society's lack of knowledge of mental health issues, rather than a lack of security.
“In case after case, family members, teachers and mental health professionals missed or dismissed signs of deterioration."
The Times found "much evidence of mental illness in its subjects. More than half had histories of serious mental health problems — either a hospitalization, a prescription for psychiatric drugs, a suicide attempt or evidence of psychosis."
An examination by the progressive magazine Mother Jones, reported in a piece last month titled "Mass Shootings: Maybe What We Need Is a Better Mental Health Policy," showed similar results. They analyzed 61 mass shootings over the past 30 years and found that "acute paranoia, delusions, and depression were rampant among them" and that in the majority of cases, the killers "displayed signs of mental health problems prior to the killings."
Does this mean that more sensible gun control laws shouldn't play a role? No, they should, but they must be part of a larger solution. Let’s not fool ourselves: People intent on killing have this nasty habit of disregarding laws. The Sandy Hook killer tried to buy a rifle a few days before his murders and was denied. That didn't stop him.
The point is, we can’t stop at gun control, because the deeper and most thorny issue is mental health.
We need a national debate on whether potential killers with severe mental health issues can be stopped before they commit their crimes. This is a complicated and delicate question that touches on things like civil liberties and patient rights.
As a starting point, we can go back to a finding in The Times report: "In case after case, family members, teachers and mental health professionals missed or dismissed signs of deterioration."
It wouldn’t hurt to start paying more attention to these signs of deterioration, and approach the problem of mass violence as a national public health concern — which it is.
It's not a coincidence that the invitation I received last Saturday for a Vigil for Action in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre came from the Department of Public Health at UCLA, and was co-sponsored by the Violence Prevention Coalition, an organization that advocates for seeing violence as a public health concern.
There's growing evidence that the Sandy Hook killer, Adam Lanza, had serious mental health issues and signs of deterioration. Did any family members, teachers or mental health professionals notice these signs, and if so, could they have taken more safety precautions without violating Lanza’s rights?
What should they have done to protect Lanza against himself and the world against Lanza?
These questions must be asked.
It’s in our interest to treat mass violence as a public health concern, but we must do so with extreme care and sensitivity, not least for the sake of the millions of people with mental health issues who have no violent tendencies.
In the long run, while this delicate approach is not as clear-cut as crying out for tougher gun laws, it may save even more lives.