Murder: The Weapon Isn't the Question

Murderers have their own code of ethics, and it's radically different from yours and mine.

Let me give you an example. I saw a patient referred to me by the state disability office recently for a psychological evaluation to determine if this young man was mentally able to work. Alarm bells immediately went off in my head as I noted the glazed eyes and withdrawn stance.

I was right to be worried. During the psychological testing, it became obvious that this teenager was not only violent but homicidal. I couldn't call the police because psychologists and psychiatrists aren't allowed to unless a patient names a specific victim or victims. And you can forget about referring him for mental health treatment - with no health insurance, that's not usually an option until after someone has committed a crime.

During the evaluation, I noted the patient's long list of felonies, for which he had only spent days or weeks in detention. The young man described his own views of the rights of others: Mainly they had none. People were instruments important only for their ability to provide him with what he needed. The apathetic tone in his voice described not only his lack of reverence for others' lives, but for his own.

As I watched the young man leave my office, I cringed at the thought of this loose cannon out in society. I knew it was only a matter of time before his short fuse would dangerously ignite.

Two weeks later, I got the news that my patient had fulfilled my premonition: He shot and killed a man with .38-special.

Stunned, I turned to a colleague to discuss my experience, but her only response was, "Where did he get the gun?"

I was stunned again: Her reaction seemed to miss the point. Her question is typical of those good-hearted but wrongheaded people who believe that owning a gun is dangerous.

My colleague, like so many others, believes that it is not criminals but ordinary people acting out a moment of rage who are the perpetrators of most murders. In my colleague's mind, had my patient not had a gun, no murder would have been committed. She couldn't have been more wrong.

An examination of homicide studies shows the truth: It is not ordinary citizens who commit murder. My patient epitomizes the characteristic murderer. He did not simply lose his temper in a heated moment and commit murder because he had a firearm available at the time of ungovernable anger.

Research on juvenile murderers shows they generally have a history of committing personal violence against other children, siblings, and small animals. A 1996 Harvard study of guns and gang murders shows juvenile murderers often have a long list of prior felonies.

Substance abusers, those with sub-par intelligence, and those with major mental disorders are several times more likely to commit a violent crime than are ordinary citizens. Ordinary, law-abiding citizens are not usually the cause of murder. On the contrary, murders are committed by a relatively small number of very scary aberrants.

This is a difficult concept for people to accept. It is much easier to focus on gun-control laws because it provides a false sense of security. My patient committed murder with an already illegal gun that would have been unavailable to him if gun laws could really stop killing. It should be - and already is - illegal for felons, the insane, drug addicts, and juveniles to have handguns.

The problem is, sensible though such laws are, it is unrealistic to think that people with no compunction against murder, rape, etc., will obey gun laws.

As was recently pointed out by criminologist James Q. Wilson, people on the fringes of society are unlikely to be affected by gun-control laws. If murderers have different characteristics than you and I - and research shows they do - then juvenile murder will not be affected by gun control.

So, if gun control is not the answer to juvenile murder, what is?

As a psychologist, I have learned through experience that often the way to find a solution to a problem is to ask the right question. In the case of my teenage patient, the right question is not "Where did he get the gun?", but rather, "What are the characteristics of this teenager that made him kill in the first place?"

There are no easy solutions to the social pathologies that turn juveniles into murderers. But if we as a nation continue to divert our attention away from the true issue at hand - that murderers typically have mental problems that make them very different from the rest of us - then we will never be on our way to solving the problem posed by the thousands of lethal youths like my patient.

Unfortunately, the ongoing dismantling of our nation's mental health infrastructure and the rise of Jiffy-Pop HMO approaches to serious mental illness mean we are likely to see more walking time bombs like my client among us, not fewer.

* Helen Smith is a forensic psychologist practicing in Knoxville, Tenn.

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