We need to learn to identify, and help, Third Stage failures

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Nothing like a massacre to remind us that we have a gun issue in this country. Sadly, Radical Right and Liberal Left fundamentalists latch right on to that, and rational discussion is drowned out in the fray.

Gotta love NPR. They keep trying anyway. Their website has a story by Amy Sullivan, who reports that only 10 members of Congress signed their names to a statement by the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence distributed several weeks ago, before the Aurora, Colo. massacre. The statement is pretty mild, really. It isn’t a pledge to ban or regulate any weapons, let alone assault weapons. It just names individuals who should be prohibited from owning guns: convicted felons, those convicted of domestic violence, terrorists and the dangerously mentally ill.

Surprisingly, the NRA apparently didn’t go ballistic (ha!) over those exceptions. Sullivan reports that a poll of NRA members and gun owners revealed “broad support for some of the very same restrictions.” She notes that “82 percent of gun owners support criminal background checks for gun purchasers (74 percent of NRA members voiced support for background checks), 68 percent of NRA members believe that individuals who have been arrested for domestic violence should not be eligible for gun permits, and 75 percent of NRA members believe that concealed weapon permits should not be available to people who have committed violent misdemeanors.”

Wow. NRA members can have rational discussions about gun control.

Who knew.

So, let’s give it a whirl, shall we?

The Brady Campaign statement correctly identifies the dangerously mentally ill amongst those who shouldn’t have guns. In the shadow of the nightmare in Aurora, let’s focus on that.

It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s much tougher than it appears. The difficulty lies in identifying the mentally ill before they dye their hair orange, strap on a SWAT team uniform and an arsenal of weapons, and march into a crowded theater and shoot 70 people.

The perpetrator, James Holmes, had no criminal background, and no psychiatric background that has surfaced. However, he mailed a notebook outlining his deadly plans to a University of Colorado psychiatrist just before the shooting. This tells us that Holmes was at least aware of the psychiatric staff at the university (which he was attending), and possibly the psychiatric staff was aware of him. Other than that, no warning signs about his mental stability are apparent, in contrast to Jared Lee Loughner, who killed several people while attempting to assassinate Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Loughner’s bizarre behavior on campus was so severe, there were restraining orders were issued against him. And yet, he still got his hands on weapons. There’s no system in place to connect this level of mental illness to a national “Do Not Sell” list at gun shops.


In Holmes’ case, there’s virtually no warning at all, other than being described as “isolated.” He was a loner who, for whatever reason, had difficulty forming and maintaining friendships. He didn’t belong anywhere. This brings to mind one of my favorite psychology icons, Abraham Maslow, who theorized that humans must satisfy certain needs, in a certain order, to reach their full potential or “self-actualize.” At the base of his “Hierarchy of Needs” are physical needs — food, air, water, sleep. Next up are safety needs, like shelter and protection from the elements and anarchy. Then come social needs (back in the day, we called this stage “Belongingness”): friendship, love and group membership. Above that are self-esteem needs like recognition, social status and accomplishment, and at the top of the pyramid is self-actualization — reaching one’s full potential.

Maslow maps out self-actualization, but with the assumption that it’s positive. What about the person who struggles and fails with each stage, and manages to self-actualize in a negative way? James Holmes self-actualized by becoming a sociopathic mass murderer. Somewhere in working through his own hierarchy of needs, things went terribly awry, and I’m betting on the Third Stage. The pattern of unsuccessfully navigating the Third Stage seems to be the common denominator amongst sociopathic murderers. They fall through the cracks until they come to the attention of law enforcement. Until there’s a victim.

There are subtle warnings that there’s Third Stage trouble: They isolate. They drop out of school. Because of their peculiar social skills, other people actively avoid them. They have few, if any, friends. They hurt. Hurt becomes anger. Anger becomes hatred. Hatred becomes obsession. Obsession gets pent up and needs release. Unfortunately, it can be released on innocent people just watching a movie.

How do you legislate that? How do you even identify it, let alone prevent it from purchasing weapons? So, while I agree with the Brady Campaign’s statement, in the end, there’s little validity in it because it’s not the diagnosed mentally ill population we need to worry about — it’s those who aren’t yet diagnosed that are truly dangerous. Put your finger right there on that — the undiagnosed mentally ill population — that’s where the discussion of gun violence of the type committed in Aurora, Colo. needs to begin.

How do we identify Third Stage failures before they act out their pent-up obsessive hatred and anger? How do we foster communication and social problem-solving skills early on in life so children learn they can express their pain with words rather than fists? When will we start to take notice of the kids who don’t fit in, who sit alone at lunch, who no one seems to like? How do we help those with difficulty making friends identify satisfying activities that allow their self-esteem to mature and remain intact?

We need to find ways to identify a future sociopath. The question is… can we help him? Or maybe it’s “Will we?”

— Email Debra at debra@wintersexpress.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.edebra.com

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