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After Newtown shooting, ease fear with facts


In January 2011, I used this column to discuss the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., and attempted to explain as best I could what happened there.

I suspected that the man who killed six people and wounded 12 more, including then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, had paranoid schizophrenia. He’d left a trail of clues, including emails and online postings. And he’d displayed evidence of paranoid delusions and persecution, symptoms of schizophrenia that are both the most rare and most dangerous—though they don’t universally lead to violence.

It turned out he did, in fact, have paranoid schizophrenia, and after being treated with anti-psychotic medications that got his delusions and hallucinations under control, he pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

We know far less about the shooter in Newtown, Conn., who massacred 20 children and 6 adults at a school on Dec. 14.

He didn’t have a Facebook account, didn’t use Twitter, and he smashed his computer before going on his murderous rampage. So I can’t make a diagnosis from afar the way I felt I could with the Tucson shooter.

Instead, I want to talk about the danger of trying to link any particular condition to violence. After both of these shootings, some people have leapt to link the violence to a particular mental or neurological disorder.

While the Tucson shooter did have schizophrenia, the fact is that only 1 percent of people with schizophrenia are violent, according to statistics.

In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting, I’ve been disappointed that some people are suggesting either autism or Asperger’s disorder (a mild form of autism) played a role.

While I think it’s safe to say the Newtown shooter had a troubled mental state, neither autism nor Asperger’s are mental illnesses—they’re neurological disorders—and neither is associated with premeditated violence of this kind.

The dearth of information about the Newtown shooter is leading to irresponsible speculation about this young man, but I can assure you that Asperger’s does not lead to violence, and we have too much yet to learn about this incident to make an accurate diagnosis.

Understandably, there is a surge in fear among our fellow citizens. As a parent, I share the horror of imagining my child caught in a similar situation. But we must be careful that we understand some facts.

Since 1982, there have been 62 mass shooting events in the United States, leaving far too many dead or injured. The average age of the shooters was 35, and the youngest was 11 years old.

These events capture our national attention because of the number of victims and the seeming lack of explanation for how such carnage can take place. But the number of victims of overall gun violence in the U.S. dwarfs the number of Americans who lost their lives in these mass shootings by a long shot.

Since 2001, close to 300,000 Americans have lost their lives through gun violence—most often as victims of a single murder, of domestic violence, or of suicide. (There are roughly 18,000 firearm suicides per year and 12,000 firearm homicides per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

The vast majority of homicides and suicides affect one victim. Depression is rampant among those who commit suicide, while substance and alcohol abuse plays a role in many homicides. Most of those 30,000 victims a year could be saved with better mental health services and better domestic violence resources.

With these known facts, we can calculate risk, much like I do every day for my patients. A person has a 1 in 384,000 chance of dying in a mass shooting—and a 1 in 110 chance of dying in a car accident.

We may learn more about the shooter in Newtown if the FBI can recover information from the computer hard drive that was damaged prior to the rampage. For now, we can assume he was painfully disturbed enough to commit this atrocity.

The resources to treat schizophrenia and other mental illnesses are scarce in our country. And different states have widely different laws regarding the involuntary commitment and treatment of people suspected to be a danger to themselves or others.

But after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, Seattle, Fort Hood, Oak Creek and now Newtown, I hope we can educate ourselves and become more proactive in identifying those who need help.

If you know of someone who needs urgent help locally, please make a phone call. Locally, try:

  • The Rappahannock Area Community Services Board’s 24-hour emergency hotline at 540/373-6876. Or for non-urgent questions, visit their website at
  • Mental Health America of Fredericksburg’s helpline is 800/684-6423.

Dr. Christopher Lillis, of Chancellor Internal Medicine in Spotsylvania County, can be reached at healthyliving@free