The nation continues to mourn the loss of 20 Sandy Hook elementary school children and 6 faculty members killed in their classrooms last Friday. Americans are questioning what went wrong and what can be done to ensure it never happens again.
Some are blaming a lack of gun control, while others bemoan lax school security, and some others are, predictably, blaming God. But the ongoing news coverage and unfolding details remind us that this is a complicated circumstance with numerous contributing factors.
As a mother, as I read more about this national tragedy, I am struck by two very important, very controversial issues.
Once again, we recognize the serious impact violence in the media and video games has on young impressionable men who already deal with an emotional avalanche of insecurities and aggression.
Sadly, the twenty-year old Newtown elementary school shooter, Adam Lanza, spent much of his time playing violent computer games, according to Fox News.
Lanza is not the only young man whose violent behavior mimicked the mature-rated video games he may have played. James Holmes, the twenty-nine-year-old who killed 12 innocent patrons at a midnight movie screening in Aurora, Colorado, was also reportedly obsessed with first-person shooter games.
This offers moms and dads a valuable lesson: Parents must monitor the games their children play. According to Kaiser Family Foundation, children 8 to18 years old consume a total of six hours and 43 minutes of screen time every day. Half of these children live in households with absolutely zero restrictions on the media they consume, and a mere five percent of parents actually watch the programs their children are watching.
Still, parental control is not always enough. We must recognize that our clever kids can still get their hands on the mature games they want. That’s when it’s appropriate for the judicial system to step in and regulate the sale of illicit games to minors.
In 2011, the highest court in the land had such an opportunity. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court justices failed parents and the safety of our kids and society as a whole, when it ruled as unconstitutional a California ban on the sale of violent video games to minors unconstitutional in a 7-2 decision.
While the justices cited the First Amendment right to free speech as their determining factor, they failed to consider the negative effects video games have on America’s teenagers. Studies like the one conducted recently by Scott Wortley, Professor at the University of Toronto’s Center of Criminology, finds that teens like Lanza and Holmes, who routinely watch violence on television or conduct simulated shootings and bombings in video games, will likely become hardened to the realities of their aggression and harm.
Video gaming has all the clinical symptoms of addiction. A May 2009 study reported in Psychological Science found that fully 8.5 percent of youthful video gamers show found that fully 8.5 percent of youthful video gamers show classic signs of addiction. Moreover, these games are so “real” in developing hand/eye coordination and targeting skills that the same technology is used by the military to train recruits.
The Newtown tragedy has thrust mental illness into America’s focus. News sources are reporting that Lanza suffered some type of personality disorder, and other sources claim he was mildly autistic. As we piece this together, I predict we’ll find that Lanza suffered from a number of mental disorders. (Children and adults with Autism alone are very rarely considered to be a threat to public safety.)
Mental illness was also a contributing factor in the 2007 Virginia Tech and 1999 Columbine massacres. Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, had a long history of mental illness, coupled with homicidal and suicidal threats. And according CNN: “One of the gunmen in the Littleton, Colorado, school shooting, Eric Harris, was rejected by Marine Corps recruiters days before the Columbine High School massacre because he was under a doctor’s care and had been prescribed an anti-depressant medication.”
In general, as children grow older and stronger, it’s more difficult for parents to seek help for them. Often times, the impaired child is unable to recognize that problems exist and refuses to see mental health professionals. In fact, in my home state of Virginia, a child as young as 14 can refuse to allow his parents to be involved in his medical care. That would include making sure he is taking important medications that would manage his illnesses.
Although in 1979 the standard of proof was significantly raised, the Supreme Court still allows laws seeking to involuntary commit those who are mentally ill and may pose a danger to others or themselves.
As states continue to struggle with this issue, laws like Kendra’s Law in New York and Laura’s Law in California seek to give judges the authority to involuntary commit those who demonstrate certain troubling signs. Unfortunately, groups like American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) continue to do everything they can to block these efforts, in the name of “civil liberty.”
According to the ACLU, these laws, known as “assisted outpatient treatment” (AOT) laws, “subject people with mental illness to potentially invasive treatment regimens based upon speculation that they might become dangerous.” That most of these laws target those with severe, recurrent problems makes no difference to them.
Just last year, the ACLU helped stop a bill in the state of Rhode Island (H.R. 5874) that sought the “civil commitment of sexually violent predators.” The bill dealt only with serial sex predators, but according to the ACLU, the bill “will not only deplete crucial State resources, but it also suggests that civilly committing these (mostly) men will constitute Double Jeopardy/ex post facto violations and clog the already backlogged Criminal Justice System.”
Over the weekend, an article titled, “Thinking the Unthinkable,” engulfed social media. It was written by a mother whose son suffers from mental illness.
This mom gives readers a raw look into the life she shares with a son who has anger problems and has threatened to kill her. After sharing the difficulties her family faces with an impaired child, she writes, “I am sharing this because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’ mother. I am Jered Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys — and their mothers — need help.”
These families do need help. There are a few resources available like ChosenFamilies.org, a Christian ministry that provides information, resources, and encouragement for families living with mental disabilities. But the important point to be made is that they need help now. Not after devastation occurs, but now.
Just like we take the Bible out of the schools, but give it back in prisons, we continue to ignore the mentally ill until tragedy hits. It is time we change that and address the needs of all the Adam Lanzas and the James Holmes in our communities today. If we do so, God only knows how many lives we might be saving.
Penny Young Nance is president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, the nation’s largest women’s public policy organization. She is the author of the book "Feisty and Feminine: A Rallying Cry for Conservative Women" (Zondervan 2016).