That’s the question on everyone’s mind in the wake of the horrifying massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary Friday.
The internet blogosphere is not short of theories.
But at the end of the day, no one yet knows why Adam Lanza decided to wreak mass murder on classrooms full of kindergarteners.
The more salient question is that of what we can do to reduce this kind of wholesale violence.
Already opinions are hotly contested.
Most of the debate centers around gun control.
Some of the rhetoric is frankly absurd. No, knives are not just as effective and deadly in the hands of a deranged killer as are guns; just because one person managed to murder a large number of people with a knife once doesn’t prove that we’d be just as unsafe in a world without guns.
And getting law enforcement to go from house to house and seize all firearms isn’t a viable solution. We will never be rid of guns entirely, so we will have to learn to live in a world in which some of us are armed, and try to find what ways we can to least reduce the harm that the most dangerous cause.
But I feel that in the raging debate over gun control laws that is inevitable in the aftermath of such a tragedy, we are forgetting that there were two critical factors that led to the atrocity.
One was that a madman had access to an enormous amount of artillery when he snapped.
The other was that he snapped.
Someone posted a comment on Facebook last week, saying that it shouldn’t be harder to get mental health care than it is to get a gun.
It is true that it is vastly more difficult to get quality mental health care for a violent, mentally ill youth than it is to get a weapon.
For years I have been covering the story of Carolyn Heatherwick Goza. She had a bipolar son who in his youth was extremely violent. That son had a son of his own for whom he was unable to care, so Carolyn and her husband Bryan took him in. The toddler began to show symptoms of serious bipolar disorder, as well.
Then Bryan grew more and more depressed, and began to believe that his wife would be better off without himself and the boy. He ultimately killed his grandson and then himself outside the Monroe Police Station in 2004.
Since then Carolyn has become an advocate for the parents of violent, mentally ill children. She tells of mothers who have driven to the hospital to seek help while being attacked the entire way by an out of control child, only to find that there was no help available, resulting in a return trip with the child still attacking the driver the whole way home.
She tells of meager resources, few options, inadequate respite, and limited financial assistance for the uninsured.
I’ve interviewed the parents of severely disturbed children. I remember the bitterness of a father whose chronic runaway had finally disappeared for what seemed like the last time. He’d tried many times to commit her to a mental health facility against her will, but the law demanded her consent, which she would never give. And when she was free, she was violent to herself and everyone in her home.
I spoke to another mom who was so profoundly exhausted she said she could barely get through a day. Her child had been thrown out of every daycare and school setting they had tried. He attacked her and made it virtually impossible for her to hold a job, and terrorized his sibling.
The despair of some of the parents is crushing. They love their children, but fear them, too.
Adam Lanza appears to have been such a child. When he embarked on his murderous rampage, he was only 20 and was still living at home, according to news reports.
Most mass killers are fairly young. All are mentally ill; shooting a room full of children or strangers is not the act of a healthy mind. And many had shown warning signs, Adam Lanza among them.
How many could have been diverted if the right kind of help had been available?
As we as a nation move to try to figure out ways to make ourselves and our children more safe from the most insane and violent among us, I hope we don’t focus on only one end of the problem.
Yes, we have a gun problem. No two ways about it. Too many people die as a result of their misuse every year, and no matter how much you love your responsibly-stored, legally-used Glock, you can’t deny that a lot of guns are used to kill a lot of innocent people in our country.
But we also have a mental health problem. We aren’t investing in enough of the research and resources that could help us learn how to recognize volatile people and intervene before they explode.
Unless we are willing to accept a certain number of these school massacres as the price of low spending on mental health services and unfettered gun rights, we’d better look at ways to address both.