Random Acts of Violence: Is there a culprit being ignored?

Yesterday marked another tragic day in a recent string of violent homicides in America. A student shot and killed his 14-year-old classmate at a high school in Troutdale, Oregon, before taking his own life. This event comes on the heels of a violent killing in Las Vegas Sunday, a school shooting in Seattle last Thursday, the deadly attack in Isla Vista a few weeks ago, and, hitting close to home, the killing of a Norfolk Christian student and a police officer in Norfolk on Friday, May 30.

The taking of a life is always a tragedy, but what makes these killings so perplexing and devastating to us is the seemingly random nature of the crimes. In many of these recent cases, the killers seem to have no real connection to their victims. They are senseless, unprovoked random acts of violence, and innocent people are losing their lives.

What’s going on? Is our country becoming a more violent place? And what’s the solution? Do we homeschool our kids, or maybe send them to school with bulletproof backpacks? How do we fight against a random enemy who might be anyone, anywhere?

For those who believe in the 2nd Amendment, maybe we’re thinking we should give up the fight. Everyone seems to be pointing at the guns as the problem. In a discussion on Tumblr this Tuesday, President Obama again referenced guns as the problem in these shootings, saying,

“My biggest frustration is that this society hasn’t been willing to take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do damage. We’re the only developed country where this happens. And it happens weekly. Our levels of gun violence are off the charts.”

Maybe he’s right. Weary from hearing story after story of horrific violence in our country, I can practically see the weight of inaction on this issue pressing heavily on the shoulders of the family and loved ones of the victims. It’s happened again, and again, and again. Why can’t we stop it? What are we doing wrong? Perhaps he’s right, I think to myself this morning as I am hit with the news of yet another killing. Maybe we should round up the guns. Nothing else connects these random killers to one another besides their access to firearms, right?

But that’s not true at all, is it? There’s something amiss in this assessment, particularly because not all mass murders are committed with guns. In fact, between 2007 and 2011, far more people were murdered with knives or other cutting instruments than were murdered with guns. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that the cities with the most gun violence in America are actually the ones with the most stringent gun control laws (case study: Chicago). And that mass shootings most often occur in places that are “gun-free” zones or have incredibly strict gun control laws.

It’s not the guns. Despite the fact that gun sales have been on the rise in recent years, homicides and violent crimes at the hands of guns have significantly lowered. What does seem to be on the rise, though, are these random acts of violence and murder and their consequential coverage by the media. We hear little to no news of deadly crimes that occur in Chicago on a daily basis, but when there is a random killing in a school or a pizza parlor, we are inundated with the details over and over. And then everyone flocks back to the gun control argument and we find ourselves in a cyclical pattern of being angry at the unfairness of it all and frustrated at our inability to offer any real solutions.

How about we try this on for size? Tons of acts of violence in America, many of them totally random, have been committed by people who were on antidepressants or other psychotropic prescription medications. Columbine shooter Eric Harris was taking the antidepressant Luvox. The manufacturer of this drug has even admitted that during the clinical trials, one in 25 children and youth taking the medication experienced mania, “a dangerous and violence-prone mental derangement characterized by extreme excitement and delusion.” Andrea Yates drowned all five of her children in 2001 while taking Effexor, another antidepressant. Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 was taking Prozac. Adam Lanza, who murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, was on Fanapt, an anti-psychotic that was initially rejected by the FDA.

Think about it. These drugs are prescribed to alter the state of a person’s mind. And although they might “work” by making some people feel less depressed, most are labeled with a warning that side effects can cause violent or suicidal thoughts and behavior.

Since 1988, America has experienced a 400% increase in antidepressant prescribing. One in 12 Americans is now on an antidepressant. Regardless of the fact that with 30,000 Americans overdosing on prescription drugs in 2010, it became No. 1 cause of accidental death, prescriptions continue to be doled out like candy.

And yet, no alarm bells are sounding in the direction of the pharmaceutical companies. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is the most profitable business in the country, bringing in billions of dollars each year by prescribing their drugs. Antipsychotics take in over $14 billion annually, making them the top-selling therapeutic prescription drugs. And also the ones with the most potential to alter a person’s state of mind in a very dangerous way.

Reports of the backgrounds of the killers in these most recent events are beginning to emerge, and the trend has tragically continued. Aaron Ybarra, who killed a Seattle Pacific University student, was being prescribed Prozac and Risperdal. It is also being reported that Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista mass murderer, was very likely on a long track of prescription drugs throughout his childhood.

Yet we continue to shout “Guns!” And when we’re done blaming guns we talk about our inability to treat mental illness—and in a sense, we’re closer to the heart of the issue when we make this argument. But it’s not that we’re ignoring the mentally ill. It’s that we’re throwing pills at anyone who expresses any hint of abnormality—pills that are altering their minds in potentially dangerous ways—instead of actually treating them. We’re looking at a gaping wound that so obviously requires a tourniquet and instead slapping on a band-aid. A very expensive band-aid from which we are reaping an enormous profit. And then we look on like a bunch of sheep as more people die. And we shout “Guns!”

This post is also featured on Chelsea’s blog.