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Charles J. Reid, Jr. Headshot

Brains, Guns, and Preventable Murder

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The Isla Vista mass murder was a preventable tragedy. It was the destruction of innocent life without need or reason. It is proof, as if more proof were needed, that we are past the time to break the nexus between guns, murder, and mental illness. And we should do that by enacting rigorous new gun-control legislation that takes account of an individual's fitness to own lethal weapons in light of what we are learning about the human brain.

Our knowledge of the human brain is increasing exponentially. Consider just a few recent advances: The Human Connectome Project is in the process of mapping the brain. And the maps the Project is producing are not the rough, schematic sketches of just a few years ago but a detailed guide to "every twist and turn of the 86 billion neurons in the human brain." The mapping, it is suggested, will be helpful in diagnosing not only brain trauma, such as concussions or strokes, but a wide variety of psychiatric conditions "such as post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, and dementia."

Scientists are not yet able to read people's minds. Such a task involves multiple levels of consciousness and would be difficult to accomplish. On the other hand, neuroscientists have demonstrated the capacity to access the visual contents of dreams. And neurologists are also exploring ways in which deep brain stimulation can be used to relieve if not eliminate entirely the symptoms of major depressive disorder, Parkinson's disease, and even Alzheimer's.

"Can We Predict Crime Using Brain Scans?" So asked the headline of an article in Psychology Today, dated April 17, 2013. A neuroscientist from the University of New Mexico conducted brain scans of 96 convicted felons about to be released from prison. The scans focused on identifying neurological signatures of the convicts' impulsiveness, since it is known that poor impulse control lies at the root of many types of crime. The scans revealed that telltale markers in the anterior cingulate cortex correlated with poor impulse control and high recidivism rates. Indeed, "the level of brain activation predicted how long it would take before the person committed the [next] crime."

Brain science, in other words, has advanced to the point where we can see into the brain, alleviate the symptoms of mental illness, and even make credible predictions about future misconduct.

Now, what do we know about Elliot Rodger? We know that he displayed psychological difficulties from an early time in his life. He was in therapy, it seems from the age of 8 or 9. He found it difficult to interact with other people and displayed aloofness.

These difficulties only intensified as Elliot entered adolescence. He informed all who would listen to him of his perceived problems in attracting women. Elliot, however, was not experiencing normal teenaged social anxiety but was instead slipping free of the bonds of reality. His problem was not awkwardness or clumsy interpersonal skills. It was a thought disorder that led to grandiose views of what he was entitled to and a deep sense of grievance that he was somehow being deprived of his birthright.

Much has been said about the Isla Vista massacre as a crime of privilege. And I think that there is much truth in these observations. Elliot Rodger absorbed misogynistic and racist attitudes from the ambient culture, and he expressed these repugnant thoughts in Web postings and videos. He enjoyed all the privileges of wealth. On the night of the murders, he was driving a BMW that was a gift from his father. It seems that he saw women as the one material possession he could not have, and he felt deprived. The imaginings of his mind, in other words, were fueled by an unrestrained sense of entitlement.

His parents and therapists came to understand the dark and dangerous turns he was making in the way he viewed the world. He posted threatening videos. His parents contacted the police, requesting that they intervene. The police arrived at young Elliot's door, asked a few polite and deferential questions, and closed the investigation.

The police, it seems, never bothered to inquire about whether Elliot had any weapons. Elliot, however, acknowledged in his own writings that had the police sought weapons, it would have been all over for him. The larger question thus presents itself: How in the world did such a disturbed young man come to own an arsenal of deadly weapons?

Elliot, indeed, had equipped himself with the best weapons money could buy -- handguns retailing in excess of $1,000 a piece. And this gets us to the question of guns. Elliot had never crossed the threshold that would have prevented him from buying or owning guns. Had he made a credible "threat of violence against specific, identifiable victims to a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist would have been required to report it to law enforcement, and Rodger could have been banned from owning guns for five years." Elliot, however, had merely made non-specific threats. This was not enough to take his guns away.

This is an outrageous state of affairs. We must get serious about guns. Guns are not playthings. They are not ornaments. They are lethal weapons. The whole point and purpose of a firearm is to put holes in objects -- including living human beings.

We need to shift the presumption about gun ownership in this country away from a rights-based perspective. Gun ownership must be premised on responsibility. And we can draw on brain science as a means of determining fitness to own a gun. Can someone control his or her impulses? Do they have violent tendencies? If they do, they should not own a gun.

Sorry, gun ownership should not be the universal right and privilege of every so-called red-blooded American. The presumption should always favor public safety, and that means keeping guns out of the hands of people who may abuse them. With rational gun control laws tied to what science can tell us about human behavior, we might hope to put a limit to the senseless, needless tragedy of gun violence.