Thursday, April 19, 2007

Virginia Tech Massacre Psychology

What is the psychology of the mass murderer like Cho Seung-hui, the Virginia Tech killer? As a psychiatrist, I ought to know, but I don't. Like anyone else, qualified or otherwise, I can pundificate about social isolation, a sense of grievance, the desire for meaning through notoriety and a desire to control, especially to control the process of death - all of these can be applied, but like all the media commentators and politicians, I am guessing.

What is needed to move from pundification to knowledge is a systematic study of all the spree killers in modern history. There is no lack of data. Virginia 2007, Columbine 1999, Dunblane 1996, Port Arthur 1996, Hungerford 1987, University of Texas 1966, Luby's 1991, South Korea 1982, going back to Bath School 1927, these are just a few samples of the phenomenon of spree killings which is primarily, but not exclusively an American cultural event. Here is a full list of massacres.

To everyone except Americans who allow themselves to be influenced by the National Rifle Association (NRA) it is clear that the easy availability of guns is a factor in these killings. They simply and incontrovertibly provide the opportunity for mass killings, just as carbon monoxide "town" gas provided the opportunity for suicides to gas themselves to death in the days before domestic natural gas. It is of course possible to kill more than one person with a knife, sword, or even a frying pan, but guns give range and efficiency.

However, the NRA seems to have carried the day with its slogan "Guns don't kill, people kill". Actually, it is true that in 99.999% of cases, guns do not kill. It is the bullet that kills, except in those cases where the gun is used as a club. Whatever. If the NRA wants to shift the debate to the people, let's look at the people. As a psychiatrist, I am not aware of any formal studies of spree killers, although that does not mean they are not there. Here is one book: Pan Pantziarka 2000, Lone Wolf, Virgin Publishing ISBN 0-7535-0437-5. This book looks at individual cases, including Thomas Hamilton, Martin Bryant and Mark Barton. It also discusses the wider social context, psychological factors and political fall-out from spree killing. {Wikipedia}

I have not read it, but the title, Lone Wolf, suggests one prominent factor in these killings: their social isolation. A quick check of a sample of the killers mentioned in Wikipedia shows that some, but not all of them were "loners". Some of the others were obsessives, and others were clearly delusional psychotics. Others had personality disorders.

We need an authoritative study, and I will propose this to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Meanwhile, we need to start thinking about changes to the gun laws - not in America, which is clearly a basket case well beyond the reach of reason, but here in the UK.

A British applicant for a gun licence needs to show the police that (s)he has a good reason to own a gun, and to provide two referees. As a GP I used to be asked, but it no longer has to be a GP. I think the BMA decided it was too risky - what if we OK'd someone, and then they went on to kill? We could be sued.

The referee requirement should be extended to getting signatures of, say, 10 neighbours (defined as living within say 400 yards of the applicant's residence in a town, and five miles or so in the country) in who have no objection to your having a gun (and can certify that they are not being coerced at gunpoint to sign). This requirement would go some way to meet the problem of the "loner" who never speaks to his neighbours.

The other requirement that I suggest would be a psychological profile from a clinical psychologist, designed to screen for psychosis, obsessionality, and personality disorder.

I will put these ideas forward to the Home Office and let you know how I get on.

They are already Green Party policy :

a)Applicants should also be required to obtain the signature of, say, ten citizens (just as a prospective electoral candidate) who will vouch for the good character of the licence holder. This will discourage the 'loners' and socially isolated individuals who are most at risk of committing the horror that occurred at Dunblane and Hungerford.

b)The cost of medical and psychological tests must be borne by the applicant, together with a new annual fee which is sufficient to repay the economic damage - to police, court and NHS - inflicted on it by the abuse of guns generally. When licences are awarded the onus will be on the applicant to demonstrate his or her suitability to handle firearms rather than on the authorities to prove the applicant's unsuitability. Licence holders will be required to renew their applications on an annual basis individuals whose licence application is rejected will be required to wait at least two years before re-applying.

Green Party - Manifesto for a sustainable society - gun control

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