Dec 18, 2012

Frightened moms at the instant before the trigger

Yesterday I met a mom who was frightened of what her grown-up kid might do. The kid's life focused on violent video games. Terrible mood swings. Using drugs. Talking about getting a gun. She told us she tried to get her son to treatment, but he wouldn’t go. We went through a checklist of places she might call. We are doing what we can to help, but what she really needs is a concierge or a companion, because the prospect of presenting a nightmare to another indifferent gatekeeper in a busted-up partially-funded mental health treatment system was overwhelming.

Women in tough situations like this are coming out of the closet all over America.

It is our duty to help these women. When you think about it, the people we must actually rely on for our safety are those who know and love people at high risk. They receive the first trouble signals, many times well in advance of tragedy. Public officials, health workers and law enforcement show up much later. They must receive a call or see someone being hurt.

Frightened moms exist inside and outside the world of mental illness. We can help these women if we put our minds to it. The violence on our streets is not some baffling weird mystery ordinary people can’t grapple with. Criminologists and violence prevention experts already know the patterns to violence that our society must confront.

First, there is the mental model of the trigger man. Does he consider himself to be violent? Does he express himself violently? The violent identity can even be fictional. We have seen many people put on fantasy roles plucked from their larger culture.

Then there is the action pattern of the violent incident.

Researchers who study violent prison inmates have identified three possible developments that determine whether or not a violent actor follows through to commit a violent criminal act. The first is a kind of tunnel vision around a violent interpretation of a situation, where violence becomes the path to be taken. The second is restraining judgment, an escape from the tunnel vision, that lets the perpetrator redefine the situation and decide he should not act violently. For example, a witness may show up, or the person thinks he will get caught, or the person thinks that the violent act is just not worth it. The third element is called overriding judgment, when the person who decided not to use violence returns to his original plan and uses violence anyway because the victim’s conduct or attitude was found to be intolerable.

The same action pattern happens in suicides. People develop tunnel vision. They see no way out but suicide. But they usually remain persuadable. Someone can persuade them not to act. Yet the person is still impulsive. If the person is not brought to safety and kept under observation he may still act impulsively and harm himself.

Risk of suicide and risk of violence both connect with faulty thinking. As thinking deteriorates, risk skyrockets. Bad outcomes become more likely if people get firmly stuck in tunnel vision.  People with troubled thinking are more likely to commit to bad plans. They are less likely to generate alternative ways out of trouble. They have more difficulty processing advice offered by others. They are more likely to act impulsively, even if they retain the capacity to hesitate or reconsider. They have hair triggers.

The reason most of us don’t harm each other is a basic human taboo against hurting people. We don't have violent identities. Whether genetic or cultural, people are averse to seriously harming others, let alone themselves. Soldiers must be specially trained to shoot and kill people. If they don’t practice until shooting becomes instinctive, they need to be urged by officers to pull the trigger even in the heat of battle. (Violent video games are a substitute for all of this.) Pulling the trigger is the kind of threshold that most of humanity never crosses.

Where does gun control fit in?

Guns are part of the environment. If you think of violence as a disease, then guns are the pathogen that must be eliminated. We wiped out polio and smallpox this way. But gun control isn't a complete solution to violence. We have plenty of other lethal instruments lying about. Wiping out polio did not wipe out all sickness, but our world is better for it.

Grossman, D. (2009). On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

Rhodes, R. (2000). Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist. New York: Vintage.

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