By Shermer, Michael
Skeptic (Altadena, CA) , Vol. 18, No. 1
ON DECEMBER 14, 2012, 20-YEAR OLD ADAM LANZA broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, killing 20 children and six adults--and then himself--after first slaying his mother Nancy Lanza in their home. He used a .223 caliber Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic rifle in the killing spree, but also had on him a 10mm Glock 20 SF handgun and a 9mm SIG Sauer handgun. He had a shotgun in his car, and at home police found a .45 Henry repeating rifle, a .30 Enfield rifle, and a .22 Marlin rifle, the latter of which he used to shoot his mother in the head four times. (1) All of the guns were legally owned and registered, and preliminary reports note that Nancy Lanza was a gun enthusiast who owned at least a dozen firearms and taught her son how to shoot them at gun clubs in her neighborhood. (2) Every one of the victims is a heartbreaking story, perhaps best captured by the sole survivor in a first-grade classroom who, after narrowly escaping Lanza's bullets by playing dead, exclaimed to her mother, "Mommy, I'm okay, but all my friends are dead." (3) Just imagining a first grader uttering those words is beyond horrific.
The response to the tragedy was as emotional as it was predictable, with pundits and the public demanding stricter gun-control measures and more funding for mental-health research and facilities. (4) The NRA called on Congress to appropriate enough funds to post armed police officers at every school in America. (5) President Obama pronounced: "We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics" then vowed to do everything in his power to prevent such an event happening again, "Because what choice do we have? We can't accept events like this as routine." (6)
That such reactions are emotionally understandable should not distract us from having an objective discussion over whether or not the national obsession over highly improbable events like Sandy Hook is the proper use of our time, energy, and resources toward the overall goal of reducing violence in our society. In fact, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that contra President Obama's characterization, such events are far more random than they are routine. They are what Nassim Taleb calls Black Swan events. (7) In this context I shall refer to them as Sandy Hook Events--high profile, improbable, rare and unpredictable mass murders. We cannot and never will be able to predict Sandy Hook Events. We can postdict them, looking for factors common to the killers, but the most we can ever do is make statistically-based generalizations about the likelihood of a Sandy Hook event happening somewhere sometime in the future.
This does not mean we can or should do nothing. It is, perhaps, ironically fitting that the same day as the Sandy Hook tragedy a Chinese man with a knife stabbed 22 children and one adult outside a primary school in the village of Chengping in Henan Province in central China, resulting in zero fatalities. (8) There really is a difference between a gun and a knife, and in this case that difference is measurable in the number of survivors. However, it is doubtful that Americans would vote to change our government into a Chinese-like authoritarian regime in which controlling guns is possible but at the considerable cost of other freedoms. Nevertheless, we can build a science-based rational response in the form of a two-pronged approach: (1) bottom-up actions by private citizens, experts, and scientists to identify those most likely to commit mass murder and try to reduce the odds that they will do so through various interventions (while recognizing that we can never prevent them entirely); and (2) top-down measures by government, police, and law enforcement agencies to continue the centuries-long trend in the overall decline of violence.
Murder v. Mass Murder
According to the FBI's crime reports, between 2007 and 2011 the U.S. experienced an annual average of 13,700 homicides, with guns responsible for 67. …