The murder of 26 people, 20 of whom were children, yesterday in and around Sandy Hook Elementary School was horrific. This particular shooting appears to have affected people, including myself, more than many of the other massacres in the United States and worldwide, due to its scale and its victims.

The conversation that has followed has included the predictable arguments of “don’t politicise the tragedy”, “this is not the time for debate” and so forth. But thankfully this time around these arguments are more muted, and don’t appear to be in the majority. Perhaps due to the shocking nature of the targets of the shooting. Even so, with President Obama alluding to actually doing something on gun control, this is an unfortunate but necessary opportunity to actually make sure he follows through.

Some of the debate to follow the horrors in Connecticut has centered around gun control vs. better mental health provision, as this cartoon does well to depict.

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This need not be a dichotomy. There is no doubt that most of the individuals involved in these sorts of massacres are highly disturbed. Call them terrorists, call them psychopaths, there is clearly something not right with them.

It is apparent that America has a massive mental health deficit which needs addressing immediately. But there are two issues with this. Firstly, if we improve services, there is no guarantee than individuals needing better access to them will use them. The very nature of mental health is complex and just by improving services, it doesn’t follow that people who need them will use them. People need support systems around them  to help them and advise them in the right direction. Many of those responsible for mass killings of the kind yesterday will not have such a system, or it will be massively deficient. This in itself needs addressing. Secondly, and following on from this, if someone isn’t listed anywhere as suffering from mental health issues, then people who sell guns will have no idea that they are selling guns to them. As such, mental health reform is vital, but not sufficient to reduce the chances of another attack.

So the question can be asked, in a similar society to the United States, such as the UK, why do we have so few rampage killers?.

I’ve known a few people over the years who would likely fit the profile of the perpetrator in this case and so many others. This is not to say someone psychologically disturbed, rejected, alone and afraid will turn into a mass murderer, but clearly every society contains people of this nature. Of course in the UK we have more access to mental health provision, as with so many other areas of healthcare, even if from what I’ve learnt from many friends it is particularly limited. But the other difference, at least here in the UK, is that we have vastly reduced access to extreme firepower. And there are three reasons why this is significant.

1. The psychological distance

I’ve never shot anybody or stabbed anybody, but I’d imagine it’s a damn sight easier to shoot someone from a distance than to get up close and personal and stab them, hit them, or any other close combat. In doing the latter, someone sees and feels their victim. Shooting someone removes someone from the reality of the act a stage further. The projectile makes the contact, breaches the distance, not the perpetrator. Unless someone was getting particularly high from the actual contact itself, a gun will likely always be a preference in this case, when available. There are other ways of killing lots of people, especially via chemical and biological agents, but often there is no guarantee that they will kill, and no guarantee they will kill who the perpetrator wants, which I imagine is the intention in many of these cases.

2. The practicality

As above, a gun allows someone to keep somewhat of a distance from their victims. Using a knife or something in close combat risks being overpowered by the person being attacked or someone else doing likewise. Obviously on top of this, guns allow someone to kill many people quickly, without having to move far, whereas a knife requires someone to go to each victim whilst the rest are able to flee. Other methods such as use of biological and chemical agents of course have massive practical limitations and require advanced knowledge and planning. Picking up a gun can be a relatively spontaneous act. With the former, there is a clear level of advanced commitment needed.

3. Killing yourself

Simply put, most people in these situations don’t intend to live with the consequences. Looking at a sample of rampage killers from the US, of the 27 most significant incidents since Columbine in 1999, 22 killed themselves, 2 were killed by police, and 3 were arrested. Another clear feature of a gun is it makes killing yourself quick and easy after performing such disgusting acts. Indeed, guns are the tool used in the majority of suicide cases in the United States.

These factors will surely play a major part in someone deciding to perform such a heinous act. The ease of access to firearms is thus a major contributing factor to the prevalence of these kinds of acts in the United States, and their absence, at least at such a high frequency, in many other countries.

But mental health reform is of course vital too. One thing mental health reform will do that gun reform won’t be able to at least is to provide help for those who already have weapons, and would be worried they might one day use them “irresponsibly”. Any reform on sales, or even an assault weapons ban, will not result in every assault weapon being handed over. Providing easy and decent access to mental health services will really help here.

But ignoring major reform of Americans access to weapons, especially assault weapons, will only be setting the stage for the next massacre.

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