politics, psychology

Learning the Wrong Lessons from Newtown

It is four years since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, and we’ve had the benefit of extensive investigation and reflection. Many of the open questions in those horrible moments and days after the shooting have been answered, but we are ignoring the uncomfortable truths these answers present us with. There are lessons to be gained from Sandy Hook, but we refuse to learn them.

First, we’ve enacted no large policy changes either in controlling who gets their hands on guns, or in the delivery of mental health services. Second, advocacy efforts are focusing on useless and uncontroversial awareness raising instead of confronting the tangled root of causes of gun violence.  Organizations such as the Sandy Hook Promise try to avoid confrontation with gun advocates, opting instead for a focus on prevention and gun safety by identifying at-risk individuals and intervening before they turn violent. From the mission of the Sandy Hook Promise:

3. Developing and Delivering Mental Health & Wellness Programs that identify, intervene and help at-risk individuals and gun safety practices that ensure firearms are kept safe and secure.

The approach of the Sandy Hook Promise highlights a decentralized, grass-roots, “we can do it together” spirit together with ubiquitous (and useless) awareness raising. The message is clear: this is not about improving institutions (we should have more school nurses, psychologists and counselors) or controversial policies with big downsides (“health professionals should be more empowered to provide mental health treatment to children over their parents wishes” or “it should be easier for the legal system to strip your rights to own a gun” – these might help limit gun violence, but at considerable cost). No, the policy recommendations at the end of the awareness raising are promised to be bland and unconfrontational: sensible mental health & wellness and gun safety laws. I wonder what “wellness laws” will look like. I bet they will cost nothing but a few consultants educating teachers on how to meditate with their students. Which is all well and good, but has precious little to do with gun violence.

The approach of the Sandy Hook Promise is encapsulated in a viral video they recently produced. An emotionally manipulative and clever video with a twist ending leaves us with a clear message: “If everyday people would pay closer attention to warning signs, we can prevent school shootings before they happen.” But this is plainly not the case, for gun violence in the aggregate, as social psychologist Sanjay Srivastava notes below, or in the particular case of Sandy Hook.

We are not going to stop mass shootings by catching more “signs.” The base rates of mass shootings are too low and the purported signs not specific enough. The science is very sound on this: http://nymag.com/…/…/10/gun-control-is-the-only-way-out.html

The solution is sensible control of high-firing-rate, high-capacity weapons like AR-15s. Profiling and detection are routinely trotted out by the gun lobby as an alternative to deflect from that. I am disappointed to see the Sandy Hook name on this.

The evidence in the Sandy Hook case also plainly contradicts the effectiveness of this approach. The decidedly un-viral report from the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate, reported in the Hartford Courant in 2014 and expertly analyzed by Patrick Blanchfield. This report and Blanchfield’s essay make clear: the Sandy Hook massacre was emphatically not what this new viral video implies: an “at-risk” youth who slipped through the cracks of a troubled system, unnoticed by peers and authority figures alike. No, the perpetrator repeatedly triggered red flags with disturbing behavior. His mother repeatedly ignored medical advice, and the schools, hospitals and officials who she had contact with were unwilling or unable to change her mind or enforce treatment that was plainly in her son’s best interest.

“This shooting could have been stopped at any point along the trajectory of [Adam Lanza’s] life,” said Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse was one of the first-graders killed in classrooms in the Sandy Hook Elementary School. “Red flags were evident, yet procedures were not in place to effectively deal with the issues. This is a systemic concern.”

Of course it is tempting to view Sandy Hook through a colorblind lens. Because the perpetrator was white and the victims were overwhelmingly white, it seemed unnecessary to even refer to their race. Racial animus obviously had nothing to do with Newtown, and through our tears we could all be relieved that this horrible event didn’t have that always complicating American dimension. I wrote about it at the time and didn’t mention race at all. But luckily Blanchfield (who’s consistently incisive on the gun violence issue) clarifies that race is a critical element of this story. The report and the video should also convince us that we ignore the racial element of this tragedy at our peril. Let’s look again at a seemingly throw-away line in the Hartford Courant story:

At times, the report said, school officials in Newtown failed to comply with legal requirements in their handling of Adam.

Reasoned analyses of “we need more careful procedures” or “we need better policies so that these kids don’t fall through the cracks” should look carefully at this line. There were laws that were not followed. There were procedures that were not adhered to. Exceptions were made. This is the problem with “this is a systemic concern.” Without realizing how racism infects our systems, we’ll design better systems, but then continue to make racist exceptions. No single person in this system has to be a deplorable bigot for small assumptions to be made, again and again, about the agency and competency of a wealthy white mother looking out for her son’s best interest. These exceptions need not be the results of the extreme prejudice of individuals, but they are not accidents.  “She seemed so on top of things” because she was a wealthy and well-dressed white women, despite considerable indications of her own dysfunction. The outright bigotry of proud white supremacists such as Richard Spencer or Dylan Roof is no doubt strong evidence of the endurance of extreme racism in our country. But Nancy Lanza’s white privilege in navigating schools, hospitals and shooting ranges with her severely disturbed son is the other side of the coin of the nameless thousands of young black boys and men who are quickly shuffled into the prison system through school misbehavior.

So let’s return to the viral video, its own clear blind spots now revealed. Do we need to be more vigilant against these signs?

What will more vigilance result in? I would guess more criminalizing of the misbehavior of black students, who are already seen as more threatening, and continued rule-bending for white students. Read about the collective disturbance that led one disturbed white man to go to Comet Pizza armed to the teeth. Read this extraordinary paragraph:

But Welch had another habit. He was arrested several times on drug-possession charges and his name appeared on a forged prescription, according to police ­records. He was convicted of marijuana possession and public drinking and was sent to a ­substance-abuse program.

The problem is not just the fake news which distorts his mind, but the whiteness which protects and arms him through his numerous run-ins with the law. Also read Ijeoma Oluo on why pizzagate is a lie but what it says about our society is real.

Why does the viral video particularly frustrate me? Because it represents a disturbing trend, in which we collapse systemic political and sociological problems into psychological ones. The Connecticut Child Advocate report lays out massive complicated systemic failures. But the video uses a familiar psychological trick, demonstrating our limited attention to suggest that improving our attention can help prevent gun violence.

Gun violence is preventable, if you know the signs.

I love new examples of inattentional blindness. I use them in my classes to talk about attention. This one for bike safety is ok I guess (but now that I think about it, more bike lanes and enforcing right-of-way laws probably saves more cyclists than telling people to “look out for cyclists.”) Even as I am a cognitive psychologist who advocates for psychology’s relevance to policy and everyday life, I think it is critical to note where cognitive psychology falls short as a way to understand and improve social problems. The role of race and racism in gun violence is not an example of inattentional blindness (“if you know the signs”), but rather examples of our willful ignorance of the institutional and political ground that these signs are planted in.