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.