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.” Read more »