Apoptosis and Bodyscanners

Apoptosis is the word for programmed cell death.  There are a variety of reasons why a cell dies.  Sometimes it’s because it’s not meant to hang around for very long.  It outlives its usefulness.  Sometimes it’s because it gets a signal from another cell to self destruct after a physiological event, like a stroke.  Sometimes it’s an immune response.   The cell realizes it doesn’t belong and takes itself out.

And then there are young males with guns.  Maybe the reason we have had so many wars in the history of human beings is because young adult males are apoptotic. Maybe it’s all that testosterone that does weird things to their heads.  It’s either war or some kind of financial apocalypse brought on by uninhibited gambling and a “boys will be boys” attitude.  They self-destruct before they get too old by doing reckless things, like changing cars at 60 mph on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Maybe civilization wouldn’t function too well if the unstable humans among us were too numerous.

There was an “expert” on mass murderers on NPR tonight as I was driving home from Philly whose research must be funded by the NRA.  No, there’s no pattern of psychosis, he said, although Jared Loughner and the Aurora shooter would suggest otherwise. The University of Texas tower sniper knew there was something wrong with his head when he left his home the morning he carried out his massacre.  He even left a note to that effect., Turns out he was right.  He had a brain tumor that was discovered during his autopsy.

But, the expert argued,  some shooters are just depressed, which seemed a bit unfair to the depressed out there, and project the blame for their sad, sorry lives onto others, including little 5 year olds.  There’s no model we can derive that wouldn’t give us “false positives”.  Well, gee, I guess there’s nothing we can do then.  {{sigh}}

That “false positives” term reawakened a dormant pharma part of my past.  Sifting through data, looking for patterns and constructing models, um, that’s what we used to do for a living before the pharma lobby got rid of us and cried crocodile tears to any ambitious politician who would listen that they just couldn’t find good help anymore.

So, the expert says the model we construct to keep the shooters from apoptotic destruction with collateral damage would be useless because we would incorrectly identify some of the people to be shooters when they really aren’t.  These are the “false positives”. Well, that was a stupid thing to say because anyone who looks for models and patterns knows that that’s what you get on your first round of screening- false positives and hopefully, fewer false negatives.  That just narrows your set of possibles.  It’s not the final answer.  In your second round of screening, you might use a different assay to distinguish the hunters and right wing gun nuts from the truly disturbed.  Maybe you could use a questionnaire, ask them if they’ve lost a job lately, gone through a divorce, are in debt, have ever been hospitalized for mental illness.  Then, once you narrow down that set of potential shooters, put them through another round of screening.  Maybe that would be a mandatory interview or two with a psychologist to evaluate whether the gun owner shows possible indications of schizophrenia or personality disorders.

Where to start?  The first round of screening criteria might be males in young adulthood who have bought multiple guns, a larger than expected cache of ammunition and body armor.  The truly discriminating would want to collect what looks like inconsequential data for further study, like socio economic class, level of education, parents living, health insurance coverage, prior issuance of a hunting license, time between purchases, etc.  You never know when you’ll find a correlation to include or rule out someone.

And what’s the end point?  I’m guessing that if you found someone who was a young adult male gun owner with multiple guns, a cache of ammunition and body armor, who has recently undergone a job loss and has a history of mental illness, you would probably want to lure him to a safe location and take away his guns.  That’s just me.  I’m sure the NRA would be fine with a sternly worded letter to the effect that it is ungentlemanly to shoot unarmed 5 year olds.  You must wait until they retrieve their own weapons first.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what the motive is.  We’re not interested in who the future shooter is going to blame, their mother or the global conspiracy working against him.  We’re interested in the collection of descriptors that separate the healthy gun nut from the disturbed gun nut.

Meanwhile, in the wake of 9/11 and the “fear! fear! fear!” histrionics on Fox News and the evening news, the security industry has been having a field day installing cameras and electronic locks on school doors across the country.  But the fact that the office has to buzz you in has always looked like a joke to me.  With so many people coming and going each day, the office is bound to get lax and it doesn’t stop a teacher’s son from claiming that he has to drop off something he has stashed in his backpack to his mother in the kindergarten class.  (I’m just guessing.  It has crossed my mind before that if there was going to be a shooter, this is how he would do it.)  The electronic doors wouldn’t change the possibility that a shooter who is familiar to the victims could get in.  They’re probably only good for keeping a 3 man Al Qaeda cell out.

In Newton, the lockdown drills were well rehearsed but they didn’t save the 20 children who were killed once the shooter got in the building.  You might argue that the death toll would have been higher otherwise but I’m not convinced this is true.  It’s pretty typical for students to do the “duck and cover” thing and for teachers to lock the doors without any training whatsoever.

Walking to the bus stop with your 10 year old couldn’t have stopped this incident.  Preventing your 8 year olds from running around outside and playing with their friends wouldn’t have stopped this incident. Freaking out about parents who help out in school without a background check wouldn’t have stopped this incident.  Putting your kid’s childhood in permanent lockdown for the duration of their formative years won’t have stopped this incident.  We can’t barricade our kids forever.  They need to be learn to navigate the world without our help.

But I’m betting that the security industry will cash in big from the bodyscanners that frantic Fox News watching parents are soon going to demand to be purchased by every school district in every state of the nation.  Well, except for Michigan where it will soon become perfectly fine to walk into a school with a concealed gun. The security industry has been very good at treating children like prisoners under permanent siege.  It’s been a very lucrative business model even if some of the expensive security fixes turn out to be nothing more than emotional placebos for disaster porn soaked parents.

What would have stopped this incident?  I don’t know but I’m willing to start with screening prospective gun and body armor buyers and taking away their tools of self destruction.  I’d rather be left with a bunch of false positives in round 1 than 20 dead children after round 100.

See Lenore Skenazy at FreeRangeKids for a somewhat similar perspective.

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