Monday, August 6, 2012

The Wisconsin Shooting: Can We Blame Guns Yet?

My heart goes out to the community of Milwaukee, the entire state of Wisconsin, and the members of the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek. Having just experienced the horror of a senseless mass murder in Aurora, I understand your pain, and I wish you had not experienced what happened on Sunday. Even more, I know what pain lies ahead, and I am truly sorry.

Although information is still sketchy, the picture emerging of the shooter is one of hate, psychopathic tendencies, and willful ignorance. The question in my mind is whether someone could have predicted his level of risk to the community. I fear the nation's gun laws contributed to our inability to do so.

When psychologists think about the level of risk someone poses in the immediate future, we look at three main criteria, listed as follows:

1. Does the person have an identified victim? This could be a specific person, or it could be a group of people, such as worshipers at a temple or moviegoers.

2. Does the person have a plan and does he intend to act on it? If someone is filled with rage toward an identified person but has no plan to act on that rage, his level of risk is lower than a person who has come up with a plan to harm others.

3. Does the person have the means to carry out the plan? If someone wants to blow up a building but does not possess a bomb and does not have the intelligence to learn how to build a bomb, his risk level is relatively low. But, if a person has a plan to kill someone with the tire iron in his trunk, his risk level will skyrocket.

It is point number 3--means to carry out a plan--where our gun laws fail us. Despite what some may say, it is incredibly easy for almost any adult to get a gun legally. You can get a gun if you have been arrested before, you can get a gun if you have a severe mental illness, you can get a gun without a waiting period. All through legal means. You can buy guns designed for no other purpose than to kill living things quickly, accurately, and from a distance. Legally.

Almost any person who meets criteria numbers 1 and 2 can quickly and easily gain the means to carry out a horrific assault on others. Even a person who was less than honorably discharged from the military, who was known to belong to a hate group, and who had numerous prior arrests.

Please know I am a strong supporter of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I understand we, as Americans, have the right to bear arms. But, there is a huge difference between a gun that holds six bullets and needs to be cocked between shots and a gun than holds hundreds of bullets and can fire 50 rounds per minute. The former, while still risky, poses much less of a threat in the hands of a murderer than the latter. And, I see nothing wrong with having red flags raised when someone buys 6000 rounds of ammunition online or when a known hate group member buys a gun. By addressing the means to carry out a deadly plan, we as a society can potentially reduce the risk toward others.

I also understand there are very smart people whose opinions on this matter differ from mine. I hope that our society is willing to engage in a civil debate over this issue in the coming months, although I am not going to hold my breath.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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