Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘gun control’

The media’s role in perpetuating gun killings

In Eish!, Fools, media, Science on December 26, 2012 at 9:20 am

This year the festive lead up to Christmas was dealt a savage blow with two events in the US that shed light on a particular area of scientific interest for me: mental health. These were the massacre of 26 people at Newtown in Connecticut and the killing of firemen responding to a call out in the upstate New York town of Webster. Both of these events brought to the fore, yet again, the issues of gun ownership and mental health.

More worryingly for me, they provided yet another opportunity for the media to play their role in perpetuating such tragic events. This can be seen in the recurring cycle of (mainstream) media coverage of mass shootings:

Initially the media busies itself with reporting on the bare bones of the event: what, when and where. After the initial shock the media tries to address the ‘who’ – ‘who was the killer’ – and the ‘why’ – ‘why did he do it?’ As expected, the typical phrase used in much of the media coverage in these particular shootings was that the perpetrators  – Adam Lanza at Newtown and William Spengler at Webster – had ‘mental health problems’ or ‘personality disorders’.

I have a serious problem with this for several reasons that are part of this recurring cycle of tragedy and violence.

Firstly it redirects attention away from the critical issue of gun control, thereby helping absolve lawmakers from confronting the controversy. (A point worth considering here is the state of mind of anyone who wants to amass an arsenal of weaponry? Are they preparing to lead an invasion? Are they scared of being attacked by zombies?)

Secondly it provides ample opportunity for the wholly unqualified to comment on mental health issues. This gives the media the opportunity to dig up people who claim to have known the killers. These are often people all too ready to ‘diagnose’ ‘incriminating evidence’ of ‘mental health problems’ or ‘personality disorders’ in order to get their 15 minutes of fame. Examples: a perfectly in-character Fox8 interview with a barber who used to cut Adam Lanza’s hair when he was a boy and the pathetic NewsOne’s search for motives by quoting Lanza’s former babysitter (bear in mind Lanza was 20 at the time of the shootings, and so I’d hazard a guess it would have been about 10-15 years since she last babysat for him!)

Thirdly, this encourages the media to highlight physical elements of a killer’s characteristic appearance as supposed ‘evidence’ of such mental health problems. For example that Lanza was ‘pale’ and ‘skinny’ or that he ‘often wore black’, or that Spengler was ‘wild-eyed’ and ‘dishevelled’. Additionally, elements of the character of a killer are isolated and highlighted for further supposed telltale signs of some mental health problems – the fact that they were ‘shy’ or ‘a loner’. By extension this draws unnecessary attention towards individuals who display similar character traits. If the comments point to certain sub-cultures – such as ‘goths’ or ‘nerds’ – it further stigmatises people who are drawn to those sub-cultures.

Fourthly, the media make sweeping statements about ‘mental health’, which is in fact an incredibly broad term for a developing science that covers a wide spectrum of issues, from common anxiety through depression to rare psychopathic behaviour. (By definition, if you are continually hampered by feelings of tension or worried thoughts about something, say inability to pay your debts, and you avoid certain situations out of worry, and you often experience sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat – sound familiar? – you’re displaying the classic symptoms of anxiety [adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology]. You may therefore have a ‘mental health issue’.)

By broadly labelling perpetrators of killings such as those at Newtown and Webster as ‘having mental health problems’ or ‘personality disorders’, and then colouring an incomplete picture with unqualified and unscientific anecdotal commentary, the media are not only guilty of bad journalism; they are injuring the developing science of psychology; and contributing to the further alienation of people who are part of ‘unconventional’ sub-cultures, and stigmatising those (many) people with mental health issues.

All they then need to do is to reach for rifle under the bed, and the cycle is repeated.

#Aurora killer’s actions explained

In Eish!, Politics, Science on July 23, 2012 at 10:47 am

The suspect in the Aurora killings. Not that inconceivable in his actions

Twitter has been abuzz with talk following the recent mass-shooting in Aurora, Colorado; mainly with messages of condolence for the families of the victims; the expected murmurings around the issue of gun control; a developing lobby to not give the suspected gunman what it’s thought he wants: notoriety – and therefore not to mention his name; and, finally, surprise as to why a seemingly normal young man would kill people.

The answer to the last point is surprisingly simple, and yet seemingly illusive to common logic: it’s a combination of human psychology and the law of averages.

If there’s one thing that the study of human psychology has unearthed, it’s the fragility of the human psyche. It’s estimated that in any given year in the US, 1 in 4 adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder. However, that doesn’t mean that the other 75% of Americans, are captains of completely logical behaviour.

They, like all other humans, are constantly faced with a myriad situations where they are emotionally tested. Who hasn’t lost their temper in an argument? Who hasn’t grown exasperated with shocking service? Who hasn’t felt the bitter sting of rejection and contemplated reaction? Who hasn’t been fired or laid off from work and vacillated between depression and anger?

Rational, civil human behaviour relies on the constant balancing of logic and emotion; and every now and then emotion wins over logic, and the result is an outburst of seemingly irrational, uncivil behaviour: having an argument with a partner in a crowded restaurant, shouting at a public official who has rejected an application, shredding an ex-boyfriend’s clothes, or publicly threatening a boss after being laid off.

Such behaviour, although shocking to observe, and seemingly irrational, is in fact – and here’s the critical point – normal human behaviour.

Now imagine if, during such a time of elevated emotional, and reduced civil, behaviour, a person has access to a firearm? It’s not something alien or inconceivable for Americans. Firearms are continually displayed in entertainment in the plethora of popular police and crime films and TV series; they are highly visible (CNN recently reported that in the US gun shops outnumber McDonald’s restaurants 8 to 1); they are highly prevalent (nearly 300 million privately owned guns in the US – approximately 9 for every 10 people); and their ownership is constitutionally encouraged.

But, the argument goes, people don’t like to kill people, so surely it’s safe to own a gun – it’s not as if everyone is a potential killer. That’s not entirely true. As any forensic psychologist will tell you, compared to the physical intimacy of stabbing, shooting someone is a crime of detachment. It’s arguably easier to pick up a gun and shoot someone than it is to stab them.

There’s also the issue of being disconnected from the outcome. Unless you have seen for yourself the damage done to someone who has been shot and killed, the most likely frames of reference are the fictional, often un-bloody, recreations on film, or, even worse, the excitement and thrill of first-person shooter games.

Now throw all this together: the percentage of Americans with a diagnosable mental health problem; the fragility of healthy, normal human behaviour; the accessibility of firearms and their ‘normalisation’ in American culture; and, finally, the psychological detachment and emotional disconnect in the act of shooting someone.

Suddenly the question as to why a seemingly normal young person would kill other people takes on a different perspective. In fact, it becomes almost irrelevant compared to the increasingly obvious, and pressing question: why don’t more seemingly normal people in the US kill other people?

Only they do. Here’s a list of just some of the reported mass shootings in the US since 2005.

I am not going to lecture Americans on the issue of gun control, I’m simply just going to say that they do need to have a serious debate about it. I can’t help noticing that neither Barrack Obama nor Mitt Romney have brought it up since the shooting. That’s because it’s a politically divisive issue.

But then so was apartheid. Just as the right to bear arms is a cornerstone of the American constitution, apartheid was an institutionalised foundation of the previous government. When it became increasingly clear to the power elite that it was an outdated legislation that was killing innocent people, tearing the country apart and taking it on the road to ruin, politicians put aside their differences and started talking. Change became not only inevitable, but urgent; and it happened.

Perhaps it’s something that Americans can learn from South Africans.