It’s natural and normal to want to make sense of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday. It’s natural and normal to want to prevent anything similar from happening in the future. The most obvious thing in the world to say is that those kids did not deserve to be murdered in cold blood. The most obvious thing in the world to want to do is find a way to see that it never happens again.
But is that possible? Are there any conventional explanations available to help us make sense of this incomprehensible tragedy?
Adam Lanza was not poor. His father is a corporate vice president at GE. His mother reportedly retired from her job to take care of him. Contrary to earlier reports, she did not work at the elementary school Lanza attacked. They lived in an upscale neighborhood. His parents divorced in 2009, when he was about 17 years old. Poverty was not a cause here. His family remained intact during his most critical formative years, though his mental illness put him at a distance from his mother and the rest of the world.
The school was locked and Lanza was not buzzed in. He shot his way in. Short of turning schools into fortresses, no buzz protocol would have stopped him.
The firearms he used were all legal but did not belong to him. None of them were automatic weapons. They were reportedly all semi-automatic. They belonged to his mother. One of the weapons was what most would term an assault rifle, the .223 Bushmaster. The others were 9mm* pistols typically purchased for self-defense, a Glock and a Sig-Sauer. There is an unconfirmed report that he attempted to buy weapons at a Dick’s Sporting Goods but failed the background check. It’s possible that his history of mental illness flagged him for rejection in the instant background check. Recall also that when a copycat attempted to purchase firearms to assault Ft. Hood after Nidal Hassan’s massacre there, gun shop owners stopped him and alerted law enforcement.
Limiting the clip size of the .223 Bushmaster (also known as the AR-15, the civilian version of the M-16) would have made little difference. Lanza reportedly “jungle taped” two clips together so that he could empty one, eject it, flip it over and insert a second one quickly. Where did he learn to do this? Chance are, from his survivalist mother, or from poking around on the Internet. Jungle taping has been around since World War II. Simple duct tape is strong enough to do the job.
Lanza and his mental illness did not fly under the radar. His schools began monitoring him and assigned him a counselor as early as middle school. He was reportedly a quiet, withdrawn boy, who exhibited the symptoms typical of Asperger’s Syndrome: Extremely quiet, few if any friends, very intelligent but socially inept. Asperger’s is not associated with violence.
It’s possible that he was on anti-depressant drugs, though there is no definitive evidence of that yet. Doctors can prescribe a cocktail of drugs to help those with Asperger’s cope, according to PsychCentral.
- For hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity: Psychostimulants (methyphenidate, dextroamphetamine, metamphetamine), clonidine, Tricyclic Antidepressants (desipramine, nortriptyline), Strattera (atomoxetine)
- For irritability and aggression: Mood Stabilizers (valproate, carbamazepine, lithium), Beta Blockers (nadolol, propranolol), clonidine, naltrexone, Neuroleptics (risperidone, olanzapine, quetiapine, ziprasidone, haloperidol)
- For preoccupations, rituals and compulsions: SSRIs (fluvoxamine, fluoxetine, paroxetine), Tricyclic Antidepressants (clomipramine)
- For anxiety: SSRIs (sertraline, fluoxetine), Tricyclic Antidepressants (imipramine, clomipramine, nortriptyline)
It’s unreported at this point whether Lanza was on any of these drugs or some other type of drug, or no drugs at all, to treat his Asperger’s syndrome. Surely, though, the medications that may have been coursing through his system are as relevant as anything else in this horrific case.
He reportedly played violent video games. So do millions of Americans every day, without incident. It’s possible that his reported mental illness mixed with the games and mixed with his mother’s reported survivalist lifestyle and mixed with the drugs (or his failure to take any drugs prescribed to him) to produce something toxic, but it’s equally possible that none of these things had anything to do with his actions. There are no violent video games I know of that have the player shooting unarmed teachers and children. Lanza chose not to assault a police station or any other place where he could have expected to face armed opposition of the type faced in those games. He chose defenseless people — children. He may have wanted his name to go down in the history books.
Mass killers always — always — choose defenseless people. Even Nidal Hassan opened fire on Ft. Hood knowing that the soldiers stationed there do not carry their weapons on them when moving around the base.
Would any new gun laws have stopped Lanza? Short of banning all guns or banning all rifles that look aggressive or banning all semi-automatic weapons, it’s difficult to see how. All of the firearms were legally purchased. Bans have a poor history of stopping determined individuals and criminals. Nations that have banned handguns tend to suffer more violent crime after bans than before. Conversely Switzerland is awash in guns yet has a very low indigenous violent crime rate (its violent crime rate connected to Muslim gangs is rising, though). Lanza had been monitored while in school for his autism, but at age 20 was on his own living with his mother, as do many many Americans who have autism in one form or another. He may have been taking prescription drugs, or he may have avoided taking any drugs prescribed to him. He never reportedly posed a threat, until Friday, when he became evil itself.
*I originally wrote that it was a .9mm pistol, which is of course ridiculous.