Emotional Health · Politics

A Mother’s Worry About Assault Weapons

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.


4082105788_17f2086a14_zPhoto by Roland Tanglao via Flickr (Creative Commons License)


Dear Dr. Ford

I am very worried since Orlando. I have young adult children who go to stadiums for concerts and athletic events and I don’t know if I can control my anxiety after this biggest mass murder in the history of America. I’m finding that I can’t sleep, and for the past few days have almost had panic attacks when in crowded public places. I want my children to tell me where they are going and text me every hour. Why aren’t there better checks to prevent people from buying guns? I can’t understand why certain kinds of guns are for sale . . . guns that this gunman, who appears to be a terrorist of some sort, can acquire. What do you recommend?



Dear Carmen,

I can certainly understand your worry and I wish I could say there is no reason for concern. No one who ventures out into the world is completely safe, but the idea that a young person might go out for an evening’s entertainment and wind up slaughtered seems unfathomable. Of course, that’s how we felt after Sandy Hook, when dozens of innocent schoolchildren were murdered in their classrooms, after the church slaying in Charleston, after the community center slaughter in San Bernadino, etc.

Many, many parents, and citizens of all kinds, are sharing your fears this week. We live in the most technologically sophisticated nation on earth, and yet it seems like any random madman can decide to act and there is nothing that can be done to stop him. Even with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies doing their jobs well, as they did in this case by checking the Orlando gunman out, they cannot prevent someone from future bad acts that they have yet to commit . . .  not unless, of course, we want to live in a very different kind of society.

The only measure mental health professionals have to predict future behavior is past behavior. If someone hasn’t yet acted, there is no way to know what he might possibly do later. The only thing that is possible is to make it more difficult for them. Opportunity can make all the difference.

For example, a startling statistic came out of Great Britain once that nation eliminated gas heaters in apartments in the years after World War II. Suicides plummeted. A certain kind of gas oven, like the one Sylvia Plath used to kill herself, was available in every household, and once they were no longer there, people had less access to an easy means with which to act out their despair. A few hours of delay, and some added difficulty, can make all the difference for many people. This is also true for access to bridges: when people are prevented from climbing on them, they also cannot jump off them and this small thing makes a measurable difference in saving lives.

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Translate this idea to the current day and imagine a mentally unstable, disaffected young man who feels unrecognized and powerless. He’s in a bad frame of mind, but because assault weapons are easily available in the United States, an impulsive idea occurs to him.  A weapon that could kill dozens of people instantly might be very attractive to such a person: he can feel powerful, act out his rage, and become famous all at once. Because the potential shooter is in an irrational mood, he doesn’t think things through fully. If impulsivity can rule, tragedy is more likely. The Orlando gunman got his guns only days before the massacre and, according to The New York Times,

“The vast majority of guns used in 16 recent mass shootings, including two guns believed to be used in the Orlando attack, were bought legally and with a federal background check. At least eight gunmen had criminal histories or documented mental health problems that did not prevent them from obtaining their weapons.” (“How They Got Their Guns” 6/12/16).

Your question, why are such guns available, is the one on everyone’s mind this week. The pro-gun lobby is very strident on the issue of our right to bear arms, protect ourselves, and enjoy hunting within the confines of the law. It is hard to understand how assault rifles fit into this framework in any possible scenario. Outside of extreme wartime conditions, what possible justification can there be for their continued availability? Having them at all in a country where so many people feel like they are on the fringes, for whatever reason, is the equivalent of handing a book of matches to an arsonist.

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  • cecilia Ford June 16, 2016 at 8:09 pm

    Here is a reference to the decline of suicide rates in Great Britain after the change in heating systems: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/magazine/06suicide-t.html?

  • Julia Spring June 16, 2016 at 8:30 am

    I would like to get the source of the statistics about lowered suicide rates in Britain so I can use it in my arguments.

    Possible? Thanks–Julia