A couple of HUP authors have been among those trying to make sense this week of the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, Arizona on January 8th.
Katherine Benton-Cohen, an Arizona native and the author of Borderline Americans, contributed an opinion piece to Politico on the post-shooting characterization of Arizona as “the Tombstone of the United States.” As Benton-Cohen explains, the tendency to view Arizona as some static outpost of the Wild West is simply ahistorical. “Tombstone lawmakers in the 1880s,” she writes, “did more to combat gun violence than the Arizona government does today.”
She continues: “For all the talk of the ‘Wild West,’ the policymakers of 1880 Tombstone—and many other Western towns—were ardent supporters of gun control. When people now compare things to the ‘shootout at the OK Corral,’ they mean vigilante violence by gunfire. But this is exactly what the Tombstone town council had been trying to avoid.”
Benton-Cohen, whose book explores racial categories and vigilante violence in Cochise County, Arizona, also was interviewed by the Georgetown Blue and Gray. In that conversation, she further explains the history of Arizona’s gun laws and the prospects for their reform. As she explains, though, her goal is not the outright banning of firearms. “I’m not interested in banning every gun in America,” she said. “I come from a family of hunters. They have legal firearms in the state of Arizona, and that’s fine with me. I’m looking for ways to keep dangerously mentally ill people and dangerous people from owning dangerous handguns and semi-automatic weapons.”
The mental state of alleged shooter Jared Loughner has been one of the many flashpoints in the aftermath of the attack. Richard J. McNally, Harvard Professor of Psychology and author most recently of What is Mental Illness? weighed in on the discourse developing around Lougher’s mental health. In a Salon piece titled “Why Psychiatrists Can't Predict Mass Murderers,” McNally addresses the reasonable urge to make sense of the senseless and to learn from this incident. While many in the media have been recounting Loughner’s troubled past and wondering why authorities seemingly failed, time and again, to take action in ways that could have prevented this tragedy from occurring, McNally explains the difficulty of such intervention:
Let's assume that we've identified a set of characteristics often exhibited by mass murderers. What does that buy us? It enables us to answer the question, “Given that someone is a mass murderer, what characteristics is he likely to exhibit?” That's an interesting question, but it's not the one we want to answer. Rather, the question we really want to answer is, “Given that someone exhibits this profile of characteristics, how likely is he to commit mass murder?” Answering this question is extremely difficult because the predictors are invariably far more common than the event we hope to predict, and mass murder is very rare. Although mass murderers often do exhibit bizarre behavior, most people who exhibit bizarre behavior do not commit mass murder.
Despite the difficulties presented, McNally accepts for science the need to learn from incidents like the Arizona shooting. “The consequences of missing a future mass murderer in our midst are appalling, and the enormity of such a mistake fuels the hope that someday science will overcome the daunting challenge of distinguishing the truly dangerous from the merely odd.”