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17Dec 2012

After a moment of silence, Newtown shooting demands hard work from science reporters.

After a moment of silence, Newtown shooting demands hard work from science reporters.

Before we says anything about Newtown, a moment of silence.

As science reporters sit down at their desks on this very sad Monday morning (I'm sure I'm not the only one still in the emotional grip of this thing), we need to get to work. It's essential that we do not hand over this story to the political reporters, who will be interested in which party has leverage on gun control, how the NRA is mobilizing, what the prospects are for passage of a gun-control bill, and whether opponents of a bill will predicate their support on cuts in health care or entitlements or another unrelated issue. Political reporters are more likely than science reporters to repeat, without challenge, the myth and misinformation that will surely bubble from politicians' mouths.

There is plenty for science reporters to write about here. Why are the killers so often young adult men? What is it about schools that has led them to replace post offices as frequent scenes of mass murder? What do we know, and what do we need to know, about preventing such crimes?

Which particular weapons or accessories are likely to lead to such crimes, or to make them worse? Is it the bullets? The clip? The kind of gun? The cost of the gun? What can we learn about preventing violence from other countries where gun violence is far less common? What do we know about the world gun trade? 

Would strict gun control in the U.S. reduce the frequency of mass shootings? Would it reduce the number of people who are killed when these incidents do occur? What is the best way to restrict guns? Registration? Banning certain weapons? Waiting periods? Background checks? Are there new ideas?

Who are the people who buy guns? Why do they buy them? What do they do with them? Why are some people so strongly opposed to gun control, even if, say, it leaves exclusions for deer rifles? 

Here are a few links to encourage more thought about these questions:

Ezra Klein at his Washington Post Wonkblog compiles 12 facts about guns and mass shootings, including such things as this: 15 of the 25 worst mass shootings in the last 50 years took place in the United States; Finland was in second place with two. For a few tips on the politics, see "The six most important people in the looming gun-control debate" by Aaron Blake at Chris Cillizza's Washington Post  blog, The Fix. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has compiled studies and reports on gun violence hereAdam Gopnik of The New Yorker wrote an intelligent analysis of mass shootings after the Aurora, Colorado shooting last summer. It links to his piece about the Virginia Tech shooting, and we can suppose he'll be writing another one this week.

Many smart people have looked at the issues surrounding mass shootings, individual shootings, and gun control. Whatever their thoughts about guns, enterprising reporters can find good stories here, and perhaps help to erase some of the misinformation about guns that will soon emerge from Washington.

-Paul Raeburn





Good point Tom, it's also worthy to understand that all of these mass shootings happen to occur in gun free zones. It's unfortunate that these sickos target these areas for shooting because they know it's safer for them because there will be no guns.

I would add another question: Why is shooting guns so popular? Having grown up with guns in the Midwest, my personal experience and observations of others points to the adrenalin rush that comes with firing a powerful weapon. In other words, it has an addictive element.

For hunters and target shooters, it goes no further than this. But if the adrenalin rush itself becomes the goal, the activity can shift, as the search for greater thrills leads through a succession of weapons, culminating with the semi-automatic assault rifle.

Introducing a frustrated loner with a sense of powerlessness to shooting such weapons can be an invitation to the kind of disaster we saw. There are millions of such people who are technically not mentally ill. Yet the gulf between how they feel in their daily lives and how they feel when they fire that weapon can be enormous.

For most such people, shooting may even be therapeutic. But for the few who tip the other way, they will find themselves empowered to commit a devastating act that, for them, may feel like redemption.

Speculative statements to be sure, but we will not understand the dangers of assault weapons until psychologists fully study the psychology of shooting. Don’t go by what the shooters tell you – wire them up and see what happens in their brains when they shoot!

Very good point, David. Thanks for reminding us.

Lots of people are talking about the gun control issue, which is crucial. Some, but probably not enough, are talking about the mental health issues, and the fact that it's incredibly hard these days to get help even for clearly and profoundly disturbed people. That's partly a science story, and desereves more coverage than it's had so far.

But the subject that has been mentioned least, and in my opinion is just as important as the other two, and which is very definitely a science story, is the impact of the vastly increasing prevalence and explicitness of depictions of violence, on TV, in movies, and especially in videogames. This latest killer was allegedly (and we don't really know yet) addicted to shooter games. The Aurora killer fancied himself as a character from violent movies. The research on the links between exposure to violent imagery and incresed aggessiveness has been established for decades -- it was clear-cut when I was in high school, and I'm getting to be an old geezer. But it's a topic nobody seems to want to talk about or write about, much less legislate about. In my opinion, it's every bit as relevant and crucial to understanding these slaughters as any discussion about the weapons.

David Chandler

Trish Groves blogging on BMJ Group Blogs posts about blocked federal funding for public health research on gun control and the lobbying by the National Rifle Association that led to such legislation. 


A good list of ideas.  I might point out that on the list of mass shootings, it would make sense to rank them per capita.  It's a very small sample size, but on this list, Finland's rate of mass shootings is 8 times the rate in the United States.

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