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Starting a Dialogue to Stem the Tide of Mass Killings in the U.S.

What a disconcerting sight it was last Friday on December 14, 2012, as we watched dozens of school children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown Connecticut marching with hands on the shoulders of their classmates being led away from the school and to safety by their teachers. Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old former student at the school, killed his mother, a teacher’s assistant at the school, at her home and then proceeded to kill 20 children, and six adults at the school while shooting over 100 rounds of ammunition. Early reports describe Lanza as an honors student, and was called "remote" and "one of the goths" by classmates.  A law enforcement official said he may have had a personality disorder.

We have seen it before. We have agonized about mass killings in our country all too many times. The year of 2012 will go down as the most violent with respect to mass killings.  Just a few days earlier on December 11, we watched in horror the aftermath of a lone gunmen, 22-year-old Jacob Tyler Roberts, going into an Oregon shopping mall and killing two, seriously wounding another, after getting off at least 60 rounds of ammunition.

On October 21, three people were killed in a Milwaukee area salon including the estranged wife of the suspected gunman, Radcliffe Haughton, a 45-year-old former Marine. He targeted his wife and killed two other women along the way.

Another mass killing took place on September 27 at a manufacturing factory in Minneapolis when 36-year-old Andrew J. Engeldinger killed five and injured 3 more just days after losing his job of twelve years at the plant.

On August 5, 40-year-old Wade Michael Page killed 6 and injured 3 at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Page was a member of a Neo-Nazi skinhead group.

To complete this year’s awful record of mass killings, on April 2, 43-year-old One L. Goh killed 7 and wounded 3 at Oikos College in Oakland, California. Goh One L. Goh, was reportedly bullied and mistreated at his nursing school program at the small Korean Christian nursing program at the College.

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was not the worst in terms of numbers of people killed in a mass murder. That “honor” goes to Seung-Hui Cho who shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others  at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia  on April 16, 2007. The Sandy Hook killings did surpass the mass murder on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School outside Littleton, Colorado when two senior students, Eric Harris and Dyle Klebold, massacred 12 students and one teacher and injured 21 others.

In virtually all of these cases the killer or killers took their own lives after the killings. In  other words they seem to have viewed the mass murders as a way to make a statement about how badly they had been treated whether it was losing a job, bullying, or some other perceived wrong-doing, and wanting to go out “with a bang.” It also appears in most, if not all cases, the killers were mentally disturbed. I don’t mean mentally disturbed because they committed such heinous crimes. That goes without saying. They were mentally disturbed with respect to having an anti-social personality disorder perhaps accompanied by depression and social anxiety.  One question is whether such mental problems could have been diagnosed in advance and treated early on.

There are no easy solutions to the growing problem of mass murders in the U.S. Yes, stricter gun laws might help and should be enacted. I don’t think our founders passed the Second Amendment right to bear arms knowing, or anticipating, the killing of one or more citizens by another in non-self-defense situations and as mass murders. The Constitution is a living, breathing document and should change as societal values change. That is why we needed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution that  prohibits each government in the U.S. from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude” and the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote.

I provide the following five suggestions in the interests of starting a meaningful dialogue on how to stem the rising tide of senseless violence in the U.S. that destroys the innocent lives of its victims and forever changes the lives of those left behind. Of necessity, these suggestions target the schools where all too many killings have occurred and where the mental disorders of the mass murders might first appear below the surface ready to simmer to a boil and spill over to the detriment of our civilized society.

  1. All schools starting with K through 4/5 should incorporate a module on personal responsibility and civic duty into their curricula. I do not mean as part of social studies or other topical program. The module should be stand-alone and deal with issues such as impulse control, anti-bullying, and outreach organizations that a troubled person can turn to for help. We need to get back to teaching why each of us has a responsibility as citizens of this country and how to be contributing members of society.
  2. Mandatory psychological evaluation for all school children starting with middle school. In a sense this would be a follow-up to the education in K through 4/5 and to diagnose potential problem kids at the earliest possible age. This will mean more highly skilled counselors in schools; it will cost money; but the potential payback in terms of reduced violence and innocent lives saved outweighs those costs.
  3. All schools should have an airport-style security screening for guns and other weapons for all who enter the school premises including children and adults. At Sandy Hook Elementary, the school  had a video surveillance system whereby visitors had to be buzzed in, but that did not stop Adam Lanza from gaining access presumably because he was known to the school. Some will say the security checkpoints infringe on our Constitutional rights – the 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. Well, I say so be it. Again, the founders could not have anticipated the violent nature of our society and use of uncontrolled arms to kill other citizens for no reason whatsoever.
  4. Training for teachers and others who interact with young people to spot the red flags that someone may have psychological problems and/or is being bullied. The training should emphasize what to look for in troubled children and young adults; what to do once the signs have been identified; and how to develop early-stage intervention programs.
  5. Start a national conversation on this problem. I hear about it from time to time from well-respected psychologists such as Dr. Drew. But, once the dust settles it seems the issue is put on the back burner. We need to sensitize all Americans to the problem and how parents and other care-givers can spot early signs of a troubled child or teenager. We need to develop specific outreach programs to deal with all aspects of the issue.

These are just ideas to get the ball rolling on creating a national dialogue on “Personal Responsibility and Mental Health Outreach.” I hope my suggestions are considered seriously and prompt responses and other suggestions to stem the tide of mass killings in the U.S.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 15, 2012