Newtown

I hadn’t planned to write about this, but a friend asked me to, so I will.

As a college English major, I learned about the difference between tragedy, in which some noble flaw works against the protagonist, and disaster, where no such flaw exists and events are simply horrific.  This is disaster, unmitigated and writ as large as could be.  I envy those who found comfort this weekend in true faith, but I have no patience for those who suggest that a loving God might allow such pain because it is transformative.  Faith that was not questioned this weekend is faith on shaky ground.

Last August, after the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and Oak Creek, Wisconsin, I wrote the following:

The founders did an extraordinary job of creating a framework that has proven adaptable to an evolving world.  But when the Constitution was written, the available weapons were muskets and pistols, both of which fired single shots and took about 15 seconds to reload.  They were notoriously inaccurate because they fired round balls.  Rifling hadn’t yet been invented.

Fast-forward 225 years.  One of the weapons James Holmes used in Colorado was an AR-15, which is the civilian precursor to the M-16.  This is a semi-automatic .22 caliber assault rifle.  “Semi-automatic” means it fires as fast you can pull the trigger.  Holmes had a 100-shot magazine.  The combination of the AR-15’s small ammunition and high muzzle velocity causes the bullets tumble on impact, which enables a relatively small and light weapon to do extraordinary damage to the flesh at which it’s aimed.

Nothing has changed.  The weapon Adam Lanza used to kill all of his victims in Newtown was a Bushmaster AR-15.  The magazines he carried held 30 rounds rather than 100.  Apparently, he had three of them.  By “flesh,” in this case, I mean “children.”

There is no sporting use for this weapon.  I will ask again, as I did in August, what possible reason there can be for civilians to have weapons like this in their homes.  Surely reasonable people can agree on reasonable limits.  People intent on doing harm will find ways to do it, but we could make it harder.  Short of an outright ban on certain kinds of weapons, here are two ideas.  1) Limit magazine size to, say, seven rounds.  2) Require a timing mechanism that prevents a gun from firing faster than once every 5-10 seconds.  Fine for target practice.  Not so good for shooting up a school.

I am also troubled by reports that Lanza had Asperger’s Syndrome, which  carries an implication that this caused or contributed to his actions.  Asperger’s is generally understood to be the mildest variant of autism (so much so that Asperger’s as a diagnosis separate from autism is being removed from diagnostic manuals).  More broadly, it falls into the category of “social-emotional learning disabilities.”

The comments that follow reflect the fact that I have an adult child who has such a condition (not Asperger’s), and that I served for five years on the board of a clinic that served these children.

Asperger’s is second only to ADD/ADHD in popular recognition.  Because these conditions still are not well understood in the general medical community, they are often over-diagnosed, which means that there likely are a lot of people walking around with the Asperger’s label who don’t actually have it.  Asperger’s people have weak social skills (more on that in a moment), but they also have low social interest.  They tend to have few friends, and to be OK with that because they live in their own world.  They often have prodigious strengths, including verbal ability, logical thinking and an obsessive attention to detail.  They make great software testers.  There is nothing about them that makes them uniquely prone to violence – I would guess it’s the opposite but really don’t know.  I worry that a whole class of people will now be viewed as threats, and become more ostracized than they already are, with utterly no justification.

By “social skills,” I do not mean “social graces,” although these are often lacking.  Rather, I mean the neurologically derived ability to receive and correctly interpret non-verbal communication, which my friend Dr. Steve Nowicki of Emory calls “the language of emotion.”  Non-verbal communication is the language by which we form and maintain relationships, so this is rather like being dyslexic, except that it affects the understanding of people rather than words and symbols.  Imagine that everyone around you wore a mask and spoke in a monotone, and you’ll have a rough idea what life is like for these people.

Across a range of officially-named diagnoses (which are largely irrelevant because these people simply are who they are), about 20% of the population is wired in ways that make them poor enough at this essential function that it becomes a significant impediment in their lives.

The ability to make friends and form relationships is fundamental to human happiness.  It also is something we take for granted.  Dyslexics tend to be identified and helped in school because we all know that kids have to be taught how to read.  But we assume that everyone knows how to make friends.  While awareness is growing, kids who struggle socially often are just labeled as “troubled.”  Because they don’t fit in socially, they are the kids who overwhelmingly are on the receiving end of the abuse and ostracization that we now call ‘bullying.’   They also tend to well above average, and often superior, in their cognitive capabilities.  And they can be helped.

It will be a long time before we know what mental illness drove Adam Lanza.  While we’re waiting, we can make a concerted effort to make school hospitable and safe for the millions of kids who aren’t naturally built to fit in, to help them learn to make friends, form relationships and become more a part of their community.

We also can and should muscle up and agree that it’s time to get firearms out of the hands of crazy people.

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5 Responses to “Newtown”


  1. 1 Jimmy December 17, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    Dan,

    I always like your writing and thoughts. So, I had to respond.

    1. I really like what you are saying about how the mental illness factors into all of this disaster. Why in the hell are we enabling parents such as Adam Lanza’s mother to train mentally ill siblings to use a dangerous instrument? Notice I said an “instrument” as it could be anything (ie. Gas powered nail gun,…etc.). The irresponsibility of this woman is beyond words. I can understand the love of one’s child, but common sense was completely lost here….and this woman was a first grade teacher?

    2. On mag capacity…I believe you are off the mark in thinking magazine capacity limits to be anything near seven. Most common 9mm pistols like Glock, Springfield XD(m), Smith & Wesson M&P hold 17 rounds plus one in the chamber to make it 18 total. So, eliminating magazines to anything less than 20 is not going to happen. Forget it….and 9mm is WAY bigger than a .223 round out of an AR.

    3. Speaking of the AR-15, you said, “There is no sporting use for this weapon.” I’m guessing you are not a gun person, and that’s cool. So to get you up to speed…They sell shit loads of those things every year. Do you think they are just sitting collecting dust after somebody spends over $1K to buy one? They are used heavily by many. Comp shooting is BIG business. Even reality TV is cashing in with shows about it. Some of the shows have sparked big gains in revenue numbers for the makers. Again, I’m guessing you are not a gun person, but there is a significant business side here.

    4. There was already an assault weapons ban during the Clinton years. It accomplished nothing over it’s ten years. Remember, the Chicago ghetto loves their small handguns! The fact the media will not report is this: Less than 1% of the murders each year are done with and AR type of weapon.

    5. The media loves to call it an “Assault Rifle”. The AR-15 is a rifle. Assault is and act that somebody does. Any gun, knife, bow, or automobile can be used for assault. If somebody uses a BMW 745i to mow down a person, they are charged with vehicular assault or manslaughter. So, does that mean the BMW should be declared as an “Assault Vehicle”? Gotta love that media bias protected by the first amendment. 😉

    6. Your last statement is spot on! “it’s time to get firearms out of the hands of crazy people.” AMEN TO THAT! Let’s just remember it’s not time to get firearms out of the hands of good and honest people. The worst possible thing an armed ‘bad” guy can encounter is a “good” guy with a gun. Let’s hope Illinois can get it’s shit together and get concealed carry passed.

    Finally…somebody needs to call the the media for the over-the-top sensationalism about these shootings. They are creating fame for these mentally ill killers. This will surely inspire others.

    Happy Holidays!
    Jim

    • 2 Dan Wallace December 17, 2012 at 5:14 pm

      Thanks, Jim. I always welcome others’ views. Clearly, you know a lot more about firearms than I do, so I’m happy to cede that high ground to you. I do differ in a couple of places, though. The fact that the current magazine capacity of popular handguns is as high as 17 doesn’t mean it should be that way. Some things need to change. Why not that?

      Regarding the AR-15, I go back to my comment about the purpose of the combination of small bullet and high velocity. It is designed to do maximum damage to flesh at minimum weight. (For a detailed explanation of this, see James Fallows’ 1980 book “National Defense.”) That strikes me as a poor fit for either target shooting or hunting. I know there is demand for these weapons, and I would imagine (although I don’t know) that they are largely owned by weekend Walter Mitties who are living out fantasies Navy Seal fantasies. I’m willing to consider that this is something they might need to approach differently in order to create a safer country for our children. I’m not aware, for example, of anyone having been killed by paintball.

  2. 3 Jimmy December 17, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    Those are great points you raise. As always! 🙂

    The difficulty with the lower capacity magazine argument will be the +100M firearms out there that already have capacity beyond seven rounds. They can make the laws, but the ease of access to legacy arms will easily trump it. This is why the new bio-identity firearm technology remains a tough sell.

    Yeah, it’s a real shame they often take Jim Fallow’s words (and others) to be cited incorrectly by the bias media. Here’s the scoop…
    While it is correct to quote, “It is designed to do maximum damage to flesh at minimum weight,” the final Colt design spec called for a “flesh-wound” platform. In other words the M series and AR series .223/5.56mm caliber was not picked to do kills. In war fields, support personnel will not come running to assist somebody already killed by a large caliber rifle. The strategy was to “wing” somebody and draw support troops, and then take down the support unit with the grenade launcher. To do a wing shot takes pinpoint accuracy from a distance. The .223/5.56mm caliber is perfect for that. This is why so many civilians use it in comp sports and weekend targeting events. As for killing, there are so many other guns that can do that much better, but the media loves the AR as it looks downright scary. It looks like it’s evil cousin….the fully automatic M16. Thankfully, not available to US consumers. 😉

    Quite frankly, I have never seen any Walter Mittie types on a range or event (and there are tons of people at the ranges). Everyone is focused on safety, accuracy, fun and to converse. Not fantasies. Same logic applies to the weekend golfer. I usually do not see anyone living out there fantasizing about being Arnold Palmer (egos aside!). They are there to play, converse, concentrate on shot accuracy, and have a good time. No difference.

    This is a good dialog.

    -Jim

  3. 4 Spence December 17, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    Dan – as I have told you before, you know how to put most people’s thoughts into words. Not everyone will agree with you but I for one back everything you said. Very Nice Job Sir
    Spence

  4. 5 Brad December 17, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    Hi Dan,

    Great blog posting. I admire your insight gained and shared in parenting such an adult child.

    It now looks like these mothers with “terrifying sons” are starting to come out of the wood works in wake of the shootings. There is clearly a condition of parenting that is being completely suppressed as these women did not feel enabled to talk about it until now.

    Here it is: http://now.msn.com/i-am-adam-lanzas-mother-says-mom-of-mentally-ill-son

    Perhaps the root of many of these shooting problems are in the heart of what is being said by this mother. Her one quote sums up the parenting problem here: “I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.”

    IMHO, the day you become afraid of your kids, is the day a danger to society begins.

    There are already thousands of gun laws and weapon bans already on the books. So far, they have been very successful in only one area: Pissing off honest people and getting them killed. How about eliminating these so called gun free zones? These areas seem to be the perfect killing zone. High quality certified armed security at educational institutions is an area ripe for opportunity. Piece of mind can be priceless.

    -Brad


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