Our sociopaths, ourselves
What could have stopped Adam Lanza?


Crime scene tape remains outside Nancy Lanza's Sandy Hook Village home in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 18, 2012. Nancy Lanza, was the mother of shooter Adam Lanza, who killed her before going on a rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

Article Highlights

  • America's long had easy access to guns, but people didn't slaughter first-graders. Why now? Why us?

    Tweet This

  • A 1999 FBI study reminds us that reliably predicting any type of violence is extremely difficult.

    Tweet This

  • It is natural and human to demand solutions in the face of moral catastrophe, but we must be careful.

    Tweet This

The school shooting in Newtown was so horrific and heartbreaking that it is only natural to call out for whatever it takes to make sure nothing like it ever happens again. It is hard to disagree with those who are demanding stronger gun-control laws and better mental-health oversight of unstable people. But how workable are such measures — and how effective? And are we asking the right questions?

The proposed gun-control legislation sponsored by California senator Dianne Feinstein sounds reasonable. But it is not clear that it would make a difference. It would stop the sale and manufacture of some semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. But would it prevent an Adam Lanza from carrying out his deranged plan? A very large number of such devices are already in circulation. A determined killer can murder and maim dozens with an ordinary pistol or shotgun. Some will say we should implement radical gun control and prevent nearly everyone from having access to firearms. But, like it or not, law-abiding American citizens have a constitutional right to bear arms that would surely prevent mass civilian disarmament.

A more promising solution is to strengthen the nation’s mental-health services. But would counseling have been enough to stop the Columbine or Newtown killers? Sociopaths are good at beating the system. There is no known cure for their condition. In any case, Adam Lanza appears to have had some professional attention. So did one of the Columbine shooters. There have been calls to institutionalize or forcibly medicate mentally unstable people who show a propensity for violence. That can be appropriate in cases where the person poses a clear threat to himself or others. According to one news story, Lanza shot his mother because he believed she was about to place him in a psychiatric facility. How awful it is that she did not succeed. There is an urgent need to provide frightened parents with more treatment options and support. Still, forced institutionalization carries its own risks.

What about those odd, anti-social loners found in every high school? There seems to be widespread agreement that we should keep a closer watch over them. But, according to a 2002 study by the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education, few school shooters fit that profile: “The largest group of attackers for whom this information was available appeared to socialize with mainstream students or were considered mainstream students themselves.” Nearly two-thirds of the killers had rarely, or never, been in trouble before at school. As a 1999 FBI study, “The School Shooter,” reminds us:

Reliably predicting any type of violence is extremely difficult. Predicting that an individual who has never acted out violently in the past will do so in the future is still more difficult. Seeking to predict acts that occur as rarely as school shootings is almost impossible. This is simple statistical logic: when the incidence of any form of violence is very low and a very large number of people have identifiable risk factors, there is no reliable way to pick out from that large group the very few who will actually commit the violent act. . . . At this time, there is no research that has identified traits and characteristics that can reliably distinguish school shooters from other students. Many students appear to have traits and characteristics similar to those observed in students who were involved in school shootings.

It is natural and human to demand solutions in the face of moral catastrophe. Still, we have to be careful that whatever we do, we don’t create a civil-liberties nightmare that ensnares millions of innocent people.

Why killers like the Columbine and Newtown shooters do what they do is as mysterious as the problem of evil in general. There will be no easy solution. But here are the hard questions no one has answered: Why now? Why us? Americans have always had easy access to guns. But, until fairly recently, no one thought to go to a school to slaughter first-graders. There have always been sociopaths among us. But we seem to have created a society where they feel empowered to act.

— Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Her new book, Freedom Feminism, will be published this spring by AEI Press. Follow her on Twitter: @CHSommers

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author


Christina Hoff
  • Christina Hoff Sommers, a former philosophy professor who taught ethics, is probably best known for her critique of late-twentieth-century feminism. She is also known for her extensive writings, among them Who Stole Feminism? (Touchstone Books, 1995), The War Against Boys (Touchstone Books, 2001), One Nation Under Therapy (St. Martin's Press, 2005), and The Science on Women and Science (AEI Press, 2009). Her textbook, Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, a bestseller in college ethics, is currently in its ninth edition. Her new book Freedom Feminism—Its Surprising History and Why it Matters Today will be published in spring 2013 by AEI Press. A new and revised version of The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming our Young Men will be out in August 2013 (Simon and Schuster).

    Follow Christina Hoff Sommers on Twitter.
  • Phone: 2028627180
    Email: sommers22@gmail.com
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Caroline Kitchens
    Phone: 2028625820
    Email: Caroline.Kitchens@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The Census Bureau and Obamacare: Dumb decision? Yes. Conspiracy? No.
image A 'three-state solution' for Middle East peace
image Give the CBO long-range tools
image The coming collapse of India's communists
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17
  • 18
Wednesday, April 16, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Calling treason by its name: A conversation with Liam Fox

Join us at AEI as the Right Honorable Liam Fox sits down with Marc Thiessen to discuss and debate whether America’s intelligence agencies have infringed on the personal privacy of US citizens.

Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 4:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
The curmudgeon's guide to getting ahead

How can young people succeed in workplaces dominated by curmudgeons who are judging their every move? At this AEI book event, bestselling author and social scientist Charles Murray will offer indispensable advice for navigating the workplace, getting ahead, and living a fulfilling life.

Event Registration is Closed
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.