Prosecutor's Report Debunks Misconceptions About the Sandy Hook Massacre

Jacob Sullum

11/27/2013 12:01:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

Last December, less than a week after Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the New York Post described his "eerie lair of violent video games," where he "obliterated virtual victims ... until the virtual became a reality." The Post reported that the troubled 20-year-old "was enthralled by blood-splattering, shoot-'em-up electronic games."

The official report on the massacre, released this week by State's Attorney Steven Sedensky, paints a more complicated picture. It casts doubt on the significance of Lanza's gaming habits, as well as several other theories about why he did what he did or how he could have been stopped.

Contrary to the impression created by stories focusing on Lanza's enthusiasm for titles like "Call of Duty," he enjoyed a wide variety of games. "One person described the shooter as spending the majority of his time playing nonviolent video games all day," the report says, "with his favorite at one point being 'Super Mario Brothers.'"

Another game that "enthralled" Lanza in the months before the massacre: "Dance Dance Revolution," which he played at a local movie theater for hours at a time every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If it seems absurd to portray Lanza's obsession with dance moves as a warning sign of the violence to come, it is only slightly less absurd to imply that "shoot-'em-up electronic games" enjoyed by millions of young men who never hurt anyone in real life turned him into a mass murderer.

There is a similar problem with the theory that mental illness made him do it. "The shooter had significant mental health issues that affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others," the report says, but "whether this contributed in any way is unknown."

Lanza was anxious, isolated, socially awkward, rigid and persnickety -- traits his mother attributed to Asperger syndrome (a condition that no longer officially exists, having been folded into the "autism spectrum" in the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual). But as The New York Times notes, "There is no evidence that people with Asperger's are more likely than others to commit violent crimes."

Nor was there evidence that Lanza himself was prone to violence. "Those mental health professionals who saw him did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior," the report says. "Investigators ... have not discovered any evidence that the shooter voiced or gave any indication to others that he intended to commit such a crime."

Lanza did not have the sort of psychiatric (or criminal) history that would have disqualified him from owning firearms, which is one reason why strengthening the background-check system for gun buyers makes no sense as a response to the Sandy Hook massacre. Another reason: "All of the firearms were legally purchased by the shooter's mother."

The Connecticut legislature has since banned the rifle Lanza used, a Bushmaster XM-15-E2S. But the ban does not apply to guns owned before it took effect, and equally lethal weapons remain legal.

Connecticut's new 10-round limit on magazines likewise exempts equipment already in circulation. Even if it didn't, the limit's relevance to Lanza's attack is debatable.

According to Sedensky's report, Lanza fired 154 rounds over five or six minutes -- about one round every two seconds. That is not a particularly fast rate of fire, and there is little reason to think it would have made a significant difference if Lanza somehow had been compelled to use 16 10-round magazines rather than six 30-round magazines.

When Lanza shot himself in the head, a minute before the first police officer entered the school, he still had almost 300 rounds for the rifle and the two pistols he was carrying. That suggests ammunition was not a limiting factor.

Easy answers are appealing in the wake of such a horrifying crime. But one year later, we should recognize the folly of trying to explain the inexplicable or prevent the unpreventable.