The U.S. has averaged two episodes of mass murder a year for the past 15 years. And the odds are good that we will carry this sorry record forward forever into the future. Each tragedy provokes a predictable round of shock, grieving, soul searching, and finger pointing. Why would someone do something so crazy? Who missed what warning signs? Why weren't the victims better warned or better protected? What can we do to prevent this type of awful tragedy from constantly recurring?
Everyone is intensely interested in the psychology of the killer. There is a presumption that if we can understand the mind of the mass murderer then perhaps we can prevent the mass murders. This is dead wrong. Psychiatry has no way of predicting or preventing rare and fairly random acts of senseless violence -- it is simply impossible to find needles in haystacks. We must accept the fact that a small cohort of deranged and disaffected potential mass murderers will always exist undetected in our midst. The only questions are how often will these ticking time bombs go off and how much damage will they do when detonated.
The largely unnoticed elephant in the room is how astoundingly easy it always is for the killers to buy supercharged firearms and unlimited rounds of ammo. The ubiquity of powerful weaponry is what makes the U.S. such a dangerous place to live. Guns do kill people and the number of people depends on the number of guns and the number of rounds they can fire in a given period of time. Successful political scare tactics have buried open discussion of the most obvious of simple truths: that the wide circulation of powerful semi-automatic weapons will inevitably result in a lot of preventable deaths. So don't be at all surprised when there are a couple of mass murders every year -- it is built into our current system. The U.S. has the one of developed world's worst statistics for mass murders and gun deaths because we have so many powerful guns floating around and gun laws that allow murderers easy access to them.
Add to the mix the egregiously vitriolic and verbally violent discourse of demagogic politicians and talk show hosts -- egging on those vulnerable to physical violence and providing them with a seeming justification for their callous brutality. And I wonder about the collective conscience of those working in the video game and movie industry who have promoted a grotesque culture of violence.
There is no psychiatric solution for mass murder. Armchair analyses of the individual culprits are interesting (but harmful) distractions. We really have only two choices: 1) accept mass murder as part of the American way of life, or 2) get in line with the rest of the civilized world and adopt sane gun control policies. The smart money is betting on the gun lobby and Hollywood -- and betting against the future victims and their families.
Allen Frances is a professor emeritus at Duke University and was the chairman of the DSM-IV task force.