Mass Murders: Why Us? Why the U.S.?

From gun availability to a lack of therapists, experts say many factors contribute to the spate of killings

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By Karen Pallarito
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Dec. 21 (HealthDay News) -- The recent rash of mass shootings is raising pointed questions about why America is experiencing such carnage. And, while the answers are complex, policymakers are capitalizing on public fervor over last week's massacre in Newtown, Conn., to muster support for new initiatives to prevent future tragedies.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced plans to revisit the nation's gun and mental health laws, tapping Vice President Joseph Biden to lead an effort to bring "concrete proposals" to the table for quick action in January. In part, the president supports reinstating the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition cartridges. These prohibitions expired in 2004 with the sunset of the 10-year-old Federal Assault Weapons Ban.

In the past two years alone, killing sprees have claimed dozens of lives and left many injured and disabled:

  • Six perished and 13 were injured in front of a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store in January 2011 when a lone gunman, wielding a legally obtained handgun, sprayed the crowd with bullets and, in an assassination attempt, shot former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head, nearly taking her life.
  • Five students at Chardon High School in Ohio sustained gunshot wounds this February and three of them died at the hands of the accused 17-year-old gunman who allegedly chose his victims at random. The murder weapon was a handgun reportedly stolen from the suspect's uncle.
  • A gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in July, killing 12 and injuring dozens more. The alleged 24-year-old shooter had legally obtained four weapons, including a semi-automatic assault rifle used during the attack.
  • A gunman killed six and wounded four in August at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., before a police officer shot and killed the 40-year-old suspect at the scene. The shooter legally purchased the semi-automatic handgun and ammunition used in the attack.

The latest tragedy, the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 young schoolchildren and six educators at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, has stunned the nation, inciting a call to action.

And as policymakers grapple for answers, experts point to personal and societal problems that could be underpinning these deadly events.

"It's not one factor," explained Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, N.C. "I think it's almost impossible to predict who would do a thing like this, in advance," he added.

Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary now ranks as the second deadliest school shooting in the United States, after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, which claimed 32 lives. Sandy Hook's death toll eclipses the carnage that shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold inflicted upon 13 classmates in the infamous 1999 Columbine High School rampage.

School shootings not unique to the United States

Yet school-based shootings are not a uniquely American phenomenon. Even with Europe's tougher gun laws, Finland, France, Germany and Norway have all experienced atrocities in the past decade. Mass school-based shootings at two German schools in 2002 and 2009 claimed a total of 31 victims.

Despite the public outcry spurred by the killings, the United States is not becoming an increasingly homicidal nation. The reality is the U.S. murder rate, at least through last year, has been on a downward slope. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports a steady decline in total homicides, from 14,990 in 2006 to 12,664 in 2011.

"We are still a relatively safe country and certainly by historical standards, even with these mass killings, our homicide rates are lower now than they were in the '80s. So we do need to keep this in perspective," said James Hawdon, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Still, guns figure prominently in the nation's murder rate. From 2006 to 2011, the percentage of homicides involving some type of firearm remained almost unchanged over the period, at 68 percent, according to FBI data.