Disclaimer: I have no personal knowledge of the facts in this horrifying case. This analysis is based solely on the many media reports I have reviewed and some or many of these "facts" may turn out to be incorrect. I do have professional knowledge about violence and professional experience in interviewing a mass murderer as an expert witness in the Dallas "Ianni's" mass murder case in 1984.
After the shocking events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct. last Friday, I know many parents are concerned for the safety of their children this week. The apparent unpredictability and incomprehensible brutality of this tragedy can play on the fears of many parents that their children are not safe at school. The flurry of meetings at schools around the country where parents are demanding increased security at school and Texas officials are talking about letting teachers carry guns in the classroom for protection underline the sense of desperation and concern prevalent today.
Your Children Are As Safe As They Have Always Been--Very Safe
Based on the best available data, the chances of ANY child being killed by a gun (anywhere, not just at school) is about 3 in 100000. The chances of your child being hit by lightning are about 1 in 700000, and for being killed in a car accident are 1 in 23000, so that means if you want to keep your children safe from the greatest danger they face, drive safely when you take them to school.
Bottom line: Your kids are safe in school today.
Why The Newtown Tragedy is so Rare: A Confluence of Highly Unusual Circumstances
In these highly charged emotional times, it is always tempting to search for an easy answer to the question "why did this happen?", and you will probably hear a few simple theories propounded in the next few days and weeks. Just a reminder, there are NO simple answers; simple answers are always incomplete and sometimes just wrong. These unusual events are always a combination of a unique and complex combination of contributing factors, and no single factor is the answer.
To understand why this case is so unusual, one must understand a few of important facts. First, mass murders are very unusual. In the last 30 years, there have been 62 mass murders in the US out of nearly 500000 murders, so despite the massive media coverage that makes mass murder seem like an every day occurrence, it is very rare, even among murders, which are rare themselves. In the US, only 1 in every 2000 people was a murder victim last year, and the vast majority of those victims were killed by someone they knew, not by a stranger. Since 2000, the rate of mass murders in the US is DECLINING.
In order to consider the likelihood of a particular unusual event, one must multiply the odds of each potentially contributing circumstance to reach a reasonable guess about the real risks. As a litigation consultant working with lawyers every day to help them evaluate these risks in their cases, and as a former forensic psychologist and expert in a famous Dallas mass murder case, I have some insights to share about the Newtown case.
Adam Lanza was a very unusual kid
First, by all reports, Adam was a very bright kid, and many news reports describe him as a "genius". Technically, a genius is someone with an IQ of more than 130, putting them in the the top 1% of all people. Very unusually smart, and given the amount of planning that apparently went into this massacre, Adam was probably this smart.
Second, Adam was reportedly diagnosed with "Asperger's Syndrome (AS)". This is also a very unusual condition and in 1992 was present in about 1 in every 100 kids, though currently the incidence is 1 in 88. Kids with AS have a cluster of unique features, many of which were identified in press reports about Adam: difficulty in making eye contact, unusual dress habits like wearing the same shirt and pants every day with the shirt buttoned up to the neck, shyness, difficulty communicating, obsessions with computers and video games, and difficulties in empathizing with others. There is NO research linking AS to violence: None.
Third, Adam reportedly had a very rare condition called congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP), a disorder so rare, the total number of reported cases, ever, is less than 1000. These kids are at considerable risk for injury, and must be monitored closely because they can seriously injure themselves and not feel it. Some research also suggests that these kids have reduced empathy probably because they have no experience with pain. This is a less than 1 in a million occurrence.
Adam was a child of divorce with an absent father. Various reports indicated that Adam hadn't had any contact with his dad for some time. Regardless of the cause of that separation from his dad, children of divorce are vulnerable to becoming depressed and withdrawn. Nearly forty percent of divorced kids haven't seen their dads in a year; abandonment and rejection create both depression and anger.
Adam's mother reportedly told one of her friends within the last couple of weeks that Adam was becoming more withdrawn and that she was afraid she was "losing him". One in every 4 kids of divorce withdraw from their families following the divorce.
Adam was an isolated and obsessive Call of Duty player. A growing body of research now implicates these violent "first person shooter" games in raising the risk of violent acting out and aggressive behavior in kids like Adam: isolated, poor social skills, low empathy, high stress, family dysfunction. Visitors to the Lanza house recall finding Adam in the basement for hours playing Call of Duty, and there were military posters on the walls, further substantiating his pre-occupation. Not all kids are vulnerable to these risks; I believe Adam was.
Adam was apparently becoming depressed. The risk of depression in teens post-divorce is 2 to 3 times higher than for other kids, making the odds nearly 50% for Adam, and given his reported depressive symptoms much higher than that. He reportedly had a GPA of 3.25 in college, very low for someone as smart as he was. This could be a symptom of his increasing depression as well.
The danger for depressed teens who are also socially isolated like Adam (no reports of a Facebook history nor heavy texting to some friend, any friend) means that they are left to their own negative, angry, and over time, increasingly paranoid and angry thoughts. For smart kids like Adam, this can become an opportunity to create a detailed fantasy of revenge for real and imagined hurts, and begin to plan how to actually do it.
There are probably other factors about Adam and his life that are relevant to his risks of violence, but these are the ones that are apparent to me at this point in the investigation.
Nancy Lanza, the mom
Nancy Lanza was by all accounts a friendly, fun, smart and sociable woman with a "big heart". Her divorce had left her alone but affluent; her monthly support payments were more than $24K per month, putting her comfortably in the top 1% of income in the US, and among divorced women, very rare indeed.
She was reportedly still very angry with her ex, a condition she shared with 1/3 of women who are divorced. Some reports suggested that she did not want her husband to visit Adam, and once he turned 18, visits with dad would have been up to him.
Various reports also described her as "perfectionistic" with high expectations and high standards for her boys. If true, this could be a factor that increased her stress as a parent in dealing with Adam, who undoubtedly had perfectionistic rituals of his own (another trait of many AS kids). The incidence of perfectionism is about 1 in 100.
Nancy was also a divorced mom with a 20 year old son with Asperger's living with her. She reportedly stopped working to be able to home school Adam during high school, after she and the school administration had some disagreements about Adam's treatment at school. One of her friends described her as "high strung" but moderated that description once he found out about Adam's AS.
In my experience, few people in the public school system understand AS, and moms of these kids routinely have to go to bat for them to overcome unintentional mis-treatment and frequent mis-interpretation of these kids' unusual behavior at school. Regardless, this is an unending, high stress parenting job and made more difficult by her single parent status.
She was one of the 34% of women in the US who own a gun, and among a very small number of women who own more than one. The fact that she owned an assault rifle and a high-end high-capacity combat shot gun moves her from the mainstream to a very small minority group of women. My estimate is that of the 80 million households in the US, fewer than 1 in 500,000 are single women with multiple high-powered weapons in the house.
Bottom Line: The Math Behind the Headline
Total Probability for Adam's unique and relevant factors: about 1 in a Trillion
Total Probability for Nancy's unique and relevant factors: about 1 in 10 Billion
Estimated Combined Probability of This Unique Event: 1 in 10 Trillion Billion
Final Word: Your Kids are Still Safe At School
I hope this brief article has been illuminating and reassuring for you as a parent and as an educator. I have outlined the unique set of circumstances, based on my professional training and experience, that MAY have combined to lead to the Sandy Hook tragedy. I hope it's clear that these factors alone, and there are likely some others, are so unusual that the confluence of them is exceedingly rare. There are NOT a bunch of these guys running around looking for schools to attack. Your child is safe.
Kevin Karlson JD PhD is a former adjunct professor of forensic psychology at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, and a former adjunct professor in psychiatric and psychological evidence at SMU Dedman School of Law. He is now a litigation consultant, speaker, and mental health expert specializing in divorce.
Dr. Karlson is the sole contributing author to "Psychiatric and Psychological Evidence" published by Shepards/McGraw-Hill. Dr. Karlson was an intern at the Federal Correctional Institution -Fort Worth, and was an expert witness in Dallas only mass murder trial, the 'Ianni's" mass murder case in 1984.
He is available as a speaker to talk about this topic, and can be reached at 972.839.2394 for information about scheduling and honoraria. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org