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Profiling A Shooter: 'Needle In A Haystack'

Dec 17, 2012



This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program we are going to revisit a story that caught our attention about poverty in a place that often seems overlooked. We'll hear about a young woman in the Rust Belt trying to figure out a path to a better life.

But first we want to talk about the story that no one can overlook: the shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, last Friday, where 27 people, including 20 small children, were killed by a gunman who then took his own life. It is, sad to say, not the only mass shooting in recent memory in this country; it is the latest. It has the president calling for action.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm? Can we claim as a nation that we're all together there, letting them know that they're loved and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We're not doing enough. And we will have to change.

MARTIN: There's already been a lot of talk about exactly what kind of change, if any, should come after Friday's shooting. And we'll talk about that, but we also want to talk about how we got here in the first place. So we're joined by three people who have thought and written a very great deal about the relationship Americans have with guns and with violence.

Craig Whitney is the author of the book "Living with Guns: A Liberal's Case for the Second Amendment." He spent more than 40 years as a reporter, foreign correspondent, and editor at the New York Times. Dr. Carl Bell is a psychiatrist and a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He's also the founder of the Institute for the Prevention of Violence and he joins us from time to time to talk about important issues like this.

Paul Barrett is the author of the book "Glock: The Rise of America's Gun." He's also an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. And I want to thank you all so much for joining us.

DR. CARL BELL: Thanks for having us.

PAUL BARRETT: Thank you.


MARTIN: Before I get to my questions, I just wanted to ask each of you briefly, what strikes you about what just happened? And Dr. Bell, I'll start with you.

BELL: Well, what strikes me is that this is another suicide preceded by mass murder, but the dynamic of suicide is being overlooked. And the notion that the more you publicize this, the more copycat phenomenon you get as a result.

MARTIN: Interesting. Craig Whitney, what strikes you?

WHITNEY: Well, it is a fact that more than half of all the gun deaths in this country every year are suicides. What strikes me about this incident, though, is that it's so horrific that if anything can change the paralysis that we've seen in the ability to talk about what might be done to stop or make less frequent awful things like this, this is it, the Newtown massacre.

MARTIN: Paul Barrett, what about you?

BARRETT: I'm struck by the consistency of the psychological and demographic profiles of the young men who pull off these horrendous crimes. You know, it seems like they practically come from Central Casting in terms of what we learn about their lives, what we learn about the warning signs the people saw in the months and years leading up to these horrible events, and what we learn about their relatively easy access to firearms.

MARTIN: Paul Barrett, tell me more about that. What do we - tell me what you think those elements are. And then, of course, I want to hear from Dr. Bell on that as well. And I do have to say, from the standpoint of us as a news organization, we don't feel that we know as much as we would like to know at this juncture...


MARTIN: ...about this young man and what we can actually confirm. So with that being said, Paul, what do you mean by that?

BARRETT: Well, you know, young men in their late teens, early 20s, who, you know, seem to have considerable intellectual interests of one sort or another, have various talents. These are not complete losers and yet have deep psychological problems of some sort that people have been kind of murmuring about around them for some substantial period of time and then, as the doctor said, decide that they're going to commit suicide and bring down a lot of other people with them as a show of their pain.

BELL: Yup.

BARRETT: That to me seems to be quite a consistent profile for the people, particularly in these school shootings.

MARTIN: Dr. Bell, what about that? Does that sound right to you?

BELL: No, that's absolutely right. The problem is, is that if you get into trying to profile and identify, you're looking for a needle in a haystack. Because a lot of people have those characteristics, and that makes it all the more difficult to try to identify that unique individual.

You know, we've been doing suicidology and trying to prevent suicide for the last 30 years and we haven't decreased it at all. And these suicides preceded by mass murder are even more rare. And so it's an extremely difficult challenge.

MARTIN: Craig Whitney, I wanted to pick up on something you said, which is that if anything could force us as a country to take a serious look at all these things that we need to think about, it could be it. Is that really true? I mean I remember covering a number of these stories - too many - and at every turn I remember thinking, well, this is the moment in which it changes.

I'm thinking about the story where the young kids, the other kids at a school in Boone, Arkansas killed other kids. And I'm thinking, of course, about Columbine, as everybody does. But is there really any evidence that these kinds of things change policy, Craig Whitney?

WHITNEY: Well, we'll find out in coming days and months, but it's been a long time since we've had the mass slaughter of 20 first-graders by gunfire in a classroom. And I think picking up on what the doctor and Mr. Barrett said, it's certainly true that if we had better ways of identifying people with problems of mental instability, that would've kept the shooter in the Aurora movie theater massacre from buying the guns that he was able to buy and use in that incident.

You're not ever going to be able to stop these things completely, but we could do things that might reduce their frequency and I think doing nothing is just not an acceptable alternative anymore.

MARTIN: We're speaking with journalists Craig Whitney and Paul Barrett, and Dr. Carl Bell, a psychiatrist. We're talking about the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. Dr. Bell?

BELL: Well, you know, one thing that we could do is to try to figure out how to follow the guidelines about reporting on suicide. Now, I know that's difficult because this is such a huge media event. But if you look at the guidelines around individual suicide, the journalists are very clear that you shouldn't report details about how this was done.

So it seems to me that the more we report that this sort of an assault weapon was used, that this person had this kind of bulletproof vest, that this person entered the school this way, that gives other people who are depressed and suicidal and want to take a whole bunch of people with them the knowledge on how to pull it off. And so that could be changed fairly easily.

MARTIN: Really? Well, talk more about that, if you would. I mean you're suggesting that people...

BELL: We know that for individual suicides - this was work done by Phillips in 1974, when papers were local and a newspaper would publicize a suicide event, an individual suicide event, and then two, three weeks later you'd find cluster and copycat suicides. So the Vandenberg School of Journalism at Columbia said, well, we've got to stop this so let's not put it on the front page, not on how you do that with this.

But let's not describe with accuracy how it was done so other people who are thinking in the same way won't be able to replicate the event.

MARTIN: That's a difficult question, of course, as you're surrounded by journalists in this conversation.

BELL: I know.

MARTIN: Of something of such public interest and significance. How would one do that without addressing other important values in our country? But, you know, to that end of a question of what can be done, I wanted to ask the two journalists about the kinds of things that you've reported on over the years and the deep reporting that both of you have done about what exactly can you do.

I know Craig Whitney, your book - I just quoted it very recently, in fact, where you pointed out that there are already, what is it, something like 300 million guns in circulation in the United States now, and 100 million handguns?

WHITNEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So, Craig, given that there are that many guns in circulation in the United States right now, what can one do?

WHITNEY: Well, the problem that we have is how do you keep guns out of the hands of people whom everybody agrees shouldn't have them, like Adam Lanza? He stole his guns, I guess, from his mother before he shot her to death. Perhaps she transferred them to him. That isn't known at this point. If she did, she broke the law.

We can tighten up laws that, for instance, make it a crime to buy a gun from somebody who is on the national instant check system database as being barred from buying a gun from a dealer. We should tighten up regulations like the requirement, I mean, that now doesn't exist, if you buy a gun from a private owner, your name doesn't have to be checked with the database.

This wouldn't stop all incidents like this horrific one in Newtown, but it would stop a lot of routine gun violence that happens in our cities with other kinds of weapons.

MARTIN: Paul Barrett, I want to hear from you, as well. And we're going to need to take a short break in just a minute, and we'll continue this conversation after that break. But Paul Barrett, what about that?

BARRETT: Yeah. Well, I do not disagree with anything Craig said. I would just emphasize something different, which is that we're in a fix. We've got the 300 million guns out there. We are not going to confiscate those guns. And as a result, the presence of that armory will intersect with mental illness. It will intersect with criminality. And tinkering with the rules for how new guns are acquired will have only marginal effects, at best, at controlling these crimes. So that's the kind of grim reality that I would emphasize.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we'll continue this conversation with our guests. They are journalists Paul Barrett and Craig Whitney. They've both been deep reporting about the place of guns in American life and the politics of that. And we're also joined by psychiatrist Dr. Carl Bell, who has focused quite a lot on the prevention of violence and the aftermath of violence.

I'll ask all of you to please stay with us as we take a short break. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.