Sandy Hook school shooting: Few easy answers for a violent culture (+video)

Adam Lanza, a troubled 'genius,' reportedly shot and killed 20 elementary school pupils and seven adults, including his mother, before killing himself in Newtown, Conn., on Friday. The national tragedy has sparked a search for ways to stop a senseless streak of mass killings.

By , Staff writer

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    New Jersey resident Steve Wruble, who was moved to drive out to Connecticut to support local residents, grieves for victims of an elementary school mass shooting at the entrance to Sandy Hook village in Newtown, Connecticut, Saturday.
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New details in the Newtown, Conn., school massacre suggest that the alleged shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, may have suffered from autism or a personality disorder and also had easy access to high-powered weapons – a combination of unique circumstances that may complicate President Obama's call for broad "meaningful action" in the wake of a national tragedy.

The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday pose many difficult questions about American views toward mental health problems among disaffected young men as well as possible impacts of a violent media and gun culture.

But the tragic events, experts say, also offer a unique opportunity for America to reassess its values and culture without getting bogged down by politics – a development that could yield possible solutions to a streak of mass shootings this year that have ended with a total of 65 Americans – including, now, 20 school children – losing their lives in swirls of high-powered gun fire, primarily with young, intelligent and disinhibited men behind the triggers.

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"Clearly, this is a young man who was very, very angry and willing to express his anger in almost unthinkable ways," says James Cassidy, a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven. "But I think we do also have to look at ourselves here. Yes, it's unclear … what factors were the most prevalent, but certainly the fact that we have a mental health system that is failing right now plays a role. We're also coming to understand that while violence on TV, in movies and in lyrics haven't led to more crime, it does appear that a certain faction of society is vulnerable to such violence, that it disinhibits them in some way."

The Monitor's View: Newtown shootings: What to say to ourselves

Police say Mr. Lanza, a former honor roll student known to carry a black briefcase to class, killed his mother and then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School, where he forced his way into the school.

Once inside, he killed 20 children, six adults, and finally himself in a hail of rapid gun fire that took place, police say, in two separate areas of the school, including a classroom. The three guns found by police – two semiautomatic pistols, a Glock and a Sig Sauer and an assault-style Bushmaster rifle – were registered to Lanza's mother.

Coming 10 days before Christmas and becoming the seventh major mass shooting of the year, the coldblooded and senseless brutality of the Sandy Hook massacre shook Americans to their core. President Obama wiped away tears and had to collect himself as he addressed the nation Friday afternoon, saying Americans have to take "meaningful action" to thwart such senseless violence.

It won't be an easy task, given the country's fiscal situation and reticence to tinker with hard-fought gun rights.

Bottom line: It's difficult to "figure [mass shootings] out and try to predict [them] without trampling on the Constitution and certain inalienable rights guaranteed when this country was developed," says Scott Belshaw, a criminal justice professor at the University of North Texas, in Denton.

To be sure, gun control advocates, having largely lost the legal arguments in the wake of major court decisions affirming Second Amendment rights to own and carry guns for self-defense, are now primed to push forward new gun control legislation. Since the sun-setting of the assault weapons ban in 2004, Congress has shored up state reporting of gun purchases, but has not passed any major gun control law.

Until now at least, American views on gun ownership rights have not been budged by mass shootings such as the one in Aurora, Colo., in July, where 12 people were killed and 58 hurt at a midnight movie screening by a gunman who introduced himself afterwards to police as "The Joker." According to the Pew Research Center, Americans remain neatly split on the topic of gun control, with 47 percent supporting more restrictions and 46 percent favoring protecting gun rights.

At the same time, those numbers could budge in the wake of Friday's tragic incident, especially given that polls show Americans on the whole are more receptive to specific proposals such as limiting the size of magazines, closing the so-called "gun show loophole," and shoring up mental health checks and procedures for gun purchasers.

Meanwhile, some Democrats suggest that the National Rifle Association's grip on the political system – where both Republicans and Democrats are wary of crossing the powerful lobbying group – may be loosening, as evidenced by the GOP's election losses last month. So far, the NRA has withheld comment on the Sandy Hook massacre.

“If 20 kids at a school killed senselessly doesn’t change anything, I don’t know what will,” Karl Swarts, who joined a gathering of gun control protesters in front of the White House Friday night, told Bloomberg News.

But given the 300 million guns in circulation and a boom in the number of concealed weapons carriers in the US over the last decade, a counter argument has emerged primarily among conservatives that restricting gun ownership obscures what they see as the real problem: Limits on where guns can be carried by lawful citizens.

"Fortunately, the efforts to punish [lawful gun owners for massacres] are getting less traction these days," writes Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, in a USA Today column. "Given that gun-free zones seem to be a magnet for mass shooters, maybe we should be working to shrink or eliminate them, rather than expand them."

Despite the inevitable partisanship of post-massacre gun control debates, the Sandy Hook shootings united Americans in grief, with House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, saying that "we will lock arms and unite as citizens, for that is how Americans rise above unspeakable evil."

"If we stop politicizing it … and recognize that there's some part of the population that's vulnerable to media violence and recognize that assault weapons do play a role in the deadliness of incidents, then we may find we can start unraveling this," says Mr. Cassidy at the University of New Haven.

As the country mourns along with the parents of the slain children and school staff, law enforcement authorities have not yet revealed any evidence of a motive in the shootings. Lanza's parents were divorced and his older brother, Ryan Lanza, told police he believed his brother had a personality disorder or was autistic. Friends described Lanza as a "Goth" type, a nerd, even a "genius." He was quiet, shy and rarely made eye contact when he communicated, friends said.

Lanza left no messages behind and had no criminal record. Witnesses said he committed his crime without saying a word.

The Monitor's View: Newtown shootings: What to say to ourselves

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