Shortly after I finished writing about gun control for the January issue of Philly Mag, the American Psychological Association issued a report on the causes of gun violence. The report, commissioned in response to the Sandy Hook and Aurora, Colorado, mass shootings, examined risk factors for gun violence and strategies for combating it. One of its authors was Susan B. Sorenson, a professor at Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice and director of Penn’s Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence. Just before the New Year, Sorenson spoke with me about the report and her work.
Q: How did you come to focus on family violence in your professional life?
A: I was originally trained as a clinical psychologist, but I found it frustrating seeing people after the fact — seeing the damage. I realized you could view family violence from a public-health perspective. If we could just move upstream a bit and address the social issues, maybe that would help. Because there’s a psychological component to such violence, but there are social issues as well.
Q: The APA report notes that when it comes to mass shootings, “there is no consistent psychological profile or set of warning signs that can be used reliably to identify such individuals in the general population.” Is the reason researchers haven’t been able to develop such a profile that such shootings are so rare?
A: “Rampage shootings,” as they’re called, are rare. There are some similarities among those who commit them, but then, there are a whole lot of people who have these signs. Trying to identify which individual is likely to commit a mass shooting in which setting, with what weapon — we’re not there yet. We’re just not there. Risk assessment is like medicine. We can tell you you’re at a high risk for heart disease if you’re not exercising, you eat a bad diet and you have a genetic predisposition. But we can’t say, “Okay, that means you’re going to have a heart attack.”
Q: Pro-gun folks say there’s no evidence that gun-control restrictions reduce gun violence. Is that true?
A: There’s evidence that restricting access to guns is useful in certain circumstances. When it comes to violence against women, for example, prohibiting gun possession is associated with lower rates of homicide. That’s why people under restraining orders and those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors are prohibited from purchasing and possessing guns.
Q: The report says “there is no established link between violent media exposure and firearm usage in particular,” but it calls for an examination of any such association. Do you think one is likely to be found?
A: If there is, we’re really in trouble, considering how many young men play video games. My guess is it’s not going to be that simple. People want the one-to-one correspondence. Humans are more complicated than that.
Q: According to the report, men commit 90 percent of the homicides in the United States and are the victims of 78 percent of them. Could we just kill all the men?
A: People do talk about this as an issue of gender. Rates of gun ownership are much lower in women. Gun manufacturers tried to market to women a few years ago. That didn’t work particularly well, so now they’re trying to market to existing gun owners, to interest them in the newest, the most technologically sophisticated — like a new pair of Nike sneakers. With guns, unlike other products, you don’t have price elasticity. You can cut the price and cut the price, but some people are never going to buy a gun.
Q: Why is there so little research on the efficacy of gun-control laws?
A: In 1997, Congress rescinded part of the budget of the Centers for Disease Control that was going to gun research. It was later reinstated, but it was earmarked for another kind of injury. At the behest of the gun lobbyists, the CDC was told: No research on this. And the people at the CDC weren’t willing to risk their funding to challenge that. So you don’t have the research, and you don’t have the next generation of researchers who are trained to do this work. And states have restricted the release of data. Pennsylvania makes no gun-purchase information at all available to researchers. If you have no funding and no data, it’s hard to do research.
Q: The APA report notes that four percent of the U.S. population is estimated to own 65 percent of all its 300 million guns. Who are these people?
A: Gun ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few. The number of people who own nine or more guns is quite large. Some people want the sense of owning an arsenal. Others see guns as tools, and they want different tools for different things. For some, it’s related to different sports and activities. My son plays baseball, and he has all kinds of bats to use at different times.
Q: There’s a shocking difference in the “success rate” of suicide by gun compared to the ingestion of pills — an 80.7 percent death rate for guns, vs. 2.5 percent for pills.
A: It’s a really important point to make that most gun deaths in the United States are suicides. But when people say “gun violence,” they think interpersonal violence, not self-inflicted. We need to pay attention to the suicidal, too. The people who commit rampage shootings are mentally ill people in crisis, or people who aren’t mentally ill but are despondent. We need to make mental-health crisis services available for all people.
Q: As a parent, what are the most important steps I can take to minimize the risk my child will commit gun violence?
A: Don’t have a gun in the home. Kids who use guns in rampage shootings are likely to have gotten the guns they use in their own homes. If you have guns, keep them locked up. Make it harder for your kids to have access to them.
Q: What can we do as a society?
A: We focus a lot in the United States on autonomy and individual responsibility. That’s where a lot of gun discussion begins and ends. But as a nation, we also value ingenuity and technology. Guns can be designed to reduce the risk that they’ll be used inappropriately. We know how to make a so-called “smart gun” that can only be used by its owner. If every gun was personalized to an adult, youth suicide and rampage shootings would be nearly eliminated.
Q: Gun proponents say there are already so many guns in America that gun control doesn’t matter.
A: Years ago, cars had no airbags or seat belts. Eventually there was more demand for them, and the automotive industry got behind them. Cars, guns, refrigerators — they’re all durable consumer products. We can assume that what has worked for other consumer products will apply to guns as well. Yes, there are a lot of guns out there. But there are also lots of guns entering society each year. If we turn the spigot down on the riskier guns, the ones that aren’t personalized, they will become part of what’s out there, but the safer guns will, too.
Q: The murder rate was down significantly in Philadelphia in 2013. Is that cause for optimism?
A: Yes! Isn’t that good news? But if you ask me the causes of the drop, I don’t know. There’s been so much social science research trying to understand the homicide rates. People say, “Well, when the economy is down, the murder rate goes down, too.” But Philadelphia’s rate didn’t go down until this year, when it had already gone down in other cities. You can analyze it on a local basis using on-the-ground expertise, comparing neighborhood to neighborhood. But what drives these big trends nationally? We don’t know.
Read the American Psychological Association report on gun violence here.
Follow @SandyHingston on Twitter.