With all the shootings and murders of recent weeks, one must take time to try to analyze the makeup of these deranged individuals.
That caused me to study the subject of psychopathy a bit. I do not claim to really understand what I am about to present, but it has caused me to wonder. Then this past weekend, my grandson had a football game in Menlo Park, Calif., we attended. He was to play the Gilroy Pop Warner team. Gilroy? That was the place of the recent Garlic Festival shooting, wasn’t it?
There were these young boys whose small hometown had been the site of a recent shooting. Four dead, including the gunman, and 11 more wounded. This coincidence touched home with me.
I decided to read a bit more the next morning. The 19-year-old shooter had lived in Gilroy but had moved to Utah. There, he could buy a semi-automatic rifle and about 400 rounds of ammunition — a gun that was banned from sale and ownership in California. Here was a young man shooting up his former small town. Two days before, he had made some anti-Semitic threats and lauded white supremacy. But that was all the motive that could be found so far. Was he a psychopath?
What makes a cold-blooded killer such as Ted Bundy tick? Bundy, in the 1970s, abducted dozens of women across the United States, killed them and then had sex with their corpses. Most of us have seen “The Silence of the Lambs” and have watched Hannibal Lecter cunningly escape his various confinements and end up eating the people he despises. Was the Gilroy shooter of that ilk?
Researchers are all over the board on what is the definition of a psychopath. One fairly common definition is a person who is selfish, glib and irresponsible. He has poor impulse control, is antisocial from a very young age and lacks the ability to feel empathy, guilt or remorse. He can lie, steal and cheat with no respect for others and no respect for social norms or even the law.
I read more than 90 percent of male psychopaths are in prison, on parole or otherwise embroiled in the legal system. This is quite amazing when it is thought 1 per cent of the general population is considered to be a psychopath.
It was once thought psychopaths were sick, deranged and lacking in any moral conscience. One would then assume they are nothing like us. This, however, probably is false. There are no major abilities these people lack altogether. They are not incapable of telling right from wrong, from making good decisions or even feeling empathy for others. Most people can dial empathy up and down, often based more on their own self-preservation than some highly altruistic goal.
The psychopaths aren’t irrational, as in being unable to think clearly. They often become so focused they act even though they know the act is irrational. They have deficits in reasoning that affect their decision making. They have problems adjusting their actions once a direction is chosen. One clinical test showed the psychopath asked to navigate a maze wired with electrical shocks would pursue his determined course even though he was receiving those shocks, rather than back up and try a different course.
Another interesting test was with skin conduction. As your emotions rise in a stressful situation you begin to sweat in response to fear or anger. Your skin becomes momentarily a better conductor of electrical current. When psychopaths were shown pictures of people in distress or injured, they showed substantially less skin conduction. They were not aroused by the scene presented. One interesting sidebar is when the scene shown was people being injected with needles, doctors showed the same amount of reduced conductivity as the psychopath. Their empathy was reduced as they routinely had seen these events and found them most common.
Psychopaths, however, are not outliers. They often are described as charming and personable — perhaps the reason Bundy was able to get close to all those women in the first place. They are great con men and are excellent at faking their emotional involvement. They can turn off their empathy in an instant and follow a direction they want even though it is hurtful and illegal.
After all that, one must come to wonder about certain current events. Are these shooters psychopaths? In some ways many are not. They are acting out of utter frustration, be it the fired worker shooting up a workplace or a bullied student shooting up classrooms. Yet, most of these incidents have the shooter staying around, being shot at, killed, or arrested and imprisoned for life. The individual did not fear the end results. So to many psychologists, that in itself leans toward the person being a psychopath. Experts who have studied these people have concluded they reason poorly because they do not fear punishment. Without this fear, one cannot act appropriately.
So, what have we learned? First it is most difficult to spot the psychopath because of his cunning ways. He often is quite smart. So, why does he then get caught? Because in the long run, he doesn’t process his capture or killing, and even if he does for that momentary period, he doesn’t fear the consequence. This makes him hard to spot and harder to stop. Once again, limiting the weapons available to him might help society in the long run even if we cannot spot him before the incident. But how can California protect its citizens when Utah sells the man a WASR semi-automatic rifle? We need more protection from semi-automatic weapons rather than more mental health clinics.