Psychopaths and gun violence

By Alan Bean

Fifteen years ago, David Kennedy decided to do something about street violence in Boston.  The first step was to discern who was doing most of the shooting and why.  “When it came to any particular shooting,” he says in his new book Don’t Shoot, “it was practically obligatory to tack on ‘senseless,’ ‘inexplicable,’ ‘irrational.'”  But when Kennedy analyzed the data he discovered that the most of the gun violence could be traced to “a small number of very exceptional kids whose names we know doing things we understand pretty damned clearly.”

Gun violence isn’t spread evenly across communities, it’s concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods.  In Boston, the mayhem was largely relegated to “sixty-one crews (gangs), with between 1,100 and 1,300 members” living in six sections of the city.  The problem is driven by “3 percent of the right age group in those neighborhoods, 1 percent of the right age group citywide,” Kennedy writes.  “All the gang turf put together was less than 4 percent of the city; it generated nearly a quarter of Boston’s serious crime.”

Moreover, “The killing was overwhelmingly not about money, drugs, markets, or anything economic.  Over and over and over, it was about ‘beefs’–standing vendettas between the groups.”

David Kennedy

The shooters had even more consistent profiles.  “Of the 125 known killers, 96–77 percent–had criminal records at the time they committed their homicides; 33 had been locked up, 68 had been on probation, and 33–over a quarter–were on probation when they did their killing.”

But the relationship between gang membership and violence was not clear-cut.  “There weren’t a lot of impact players,” Kennedy discovered.  “Out of a crew of twenty, its maybe two real players . . . making money, pulling triggers.  Otherwise it’s followers, they’re scared, wannabes.”

“Even among this superheated population,” Kennedy discovered, “most gang members never killed anyone.  Most years, most gangs never killed anyone.  Some gangs never killed anyone, ever.”

When Kennedy hit the streets he was struck by two things: “One was the ignorance gang members had about the legal risks they faced.  The other was how scared they were . . . The fear . . . makes them join gangs, it makes them get guns, it makes them carry guns, it makes them use violence to show they shouldn’t be messed with . . . The homicide rate for Boston gang kids was 1,539 per 100,000 [the national average is currently 6 per 100,000].  If you were in one of the sixty-one crews, chances were one in seven that you would die, almost certainly by gunshot, over a nine-year period . . . they were soaked in trauma and PTSD.”

Violence is a constant life experience for these children.  “One of the gang members I was talking to told me he’d been shot at a lot, never hit, stabbed twice.  ‘Everybody I know been shot,’ he said.  ‘I guess I’ve been lucky.’  A couple of months later he was dead, shot.”

I have written about Kennedy’s solution to gang-related gun violence elsewhere, and will be talking more about it in the near future.  But today, let’s concentrate on one aspect of his analysis–the tiny number of “impact players” driving the action.  In all of Boston, the number of enthusiastic gang bangers was exceedingly small.

I thought of Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot when I came across this BBC article on psychopaths.  In a previous post, I provided a quick summary of the literature on the subject:

There are more psychopaths walking around than you would imagine. They come in different shapes and sizes, and some fit the standard profile better than others, so generalizations can be dangerous. Some are violent; some aren’t. Some are sadistic; some aren’t. Some are drawn to criminal activity, others work their scams on main street. But by a common estimate, one out of every 100 males and one out of every 300 females fits the psychopathic job description. For male inmates it’s one-in-four and with dangerous offenders the ratio is one-in-two.

Psychopaths flourished during the mortgage bubble.  They were in their element.  If you doubt that, check out All the Devils are Here, a book that chronicles gross criminality in every phase of the financial industry in recent times.  The paranoid mayhem of most poor inner city neighborhoods provides another playground for the psychopathic personality.  Most of the kids with guns would gladly relinquish them if the impact players in their world could be controlled in some way.

The BBC article centers on the work of Dr. Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico who has studied the brains of remorseless killers like Brian Dugan, a prison inmate who can’t understand why anyone cares about the murder-rapes he committed prior to arrest.  “Talking about his crimes, it’s like asking him what he had for breakfast,” Kiehl says.  Dugan feels no remorse at all.  He doesn’t understand the meaning of the word.

Kiehl thinks he understands why.

Dr Kiehl’s lab has built a unique mobile brain scanner. It is equipped with the latest imaging technology but fitted into a truck he can drive into high-security prison facilities.

He used this to perform two types of analysis on Dugan’s brain: looking at its density and its function.

“Brian’s brain has very low levels of density in a system we call the para-limbic system,” he explains.

The para-limbic system is a “behaviour circuit” of the brain, including brain regions known as the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex.

Scientists have long known that these areas are associated with the processing of emotions.

Over the past century or so, people with brain damage to these areas have been studied because their behaviour suddenly changed and became anti-social.

“Those systems, we think, didn’t develop normally in Brian,” says Dr Kiehl. Psychopathy seems to involve a lack of development in these regions – which may be genetically determined.

If people like Brian lack the mental equipment related to empathy and remorse, does it make sense to deride them as evil?  Kiehl doesn’t think so.  “My hope is that the neuroscience helps the legal system to understand that these individuals have a disorder and this disorder is treatable.”

Unlike most experts on psychopathy who see the condition as largely untreatable, Kiehl believes children who score exceptionally low on the empathy, guilt and remorse scale can be helped.

The hope now is to develop a specific diagnosis for these children – callous and unemotional disorder – and to develop programmes and treatments specifically geared to their condition. In essence, these children have to be painstakingly taught reactions which the rest of us have automatically.

In other words, psychopaths can be treated in the same way children with autism and Aspergers Syndrome are taught to read social cues that come naturally to the normal child.

Will it work.  I hope so.  But Dr. Kiehl’s work sheds light on what David Kennedy has discovered about street level impact players–a majority of whom, I suspect, would score exceedingly low on the empathy, guilt and remorse scale.  In short, the kids shaping the madness are psychopaths.  Branding them as evil “super-predators” solves nothing.  We need to intervene with these children as early as possible.  They cannot be mainstreamed in the school system (as most of them presently are) and they cannot be allowed to run wild on the streets.  They need treatment and, to the extent treatment is ineffective, they must be restrained because they are a danger to themselves and others.

We don’t want to diagnose every troubled kid as a psychopath because most of them aren’t.  Not every psychopath is violent, and not every violent kid is a psychopath.  But confronted with a violent kid who lacks remorse, guilt and empathy, we aren’t dealing with a product of a lousy upbringing, we aren’t dealing with a free moral agent who has sold his soul to the devil, we aren’t dealing with a spoiled brat eager for attention, we are dealing with a kid with a malfunctioning brain.  Normal disciplinary regimes will not work.

But let’s be clear, the vast majority of the children growing up in our most neglected and crime-ridden neighborhoods are perfectly normal.  If they act out in school and at home it’s usually because they are scared out of their minds.  What can be done to minimize the trauma?

One thing is certain, mass incarceration is only adding to the problem.

One thought on “Psychopaths and gun violence

  1. Mass incarceration of non-violent drug and property crime offenders with sociopaths and other sophisticated members of the prison culture only makes more people violent like the gang-members in your artice. It gives the sociopaths one more arena, like Wall St., to prove they are smarter and more vicious than everyone else around.

    Because the concept of mental illness and criminal behaviour is such a difficult one to deal with in US jurisprudence, and mentally ill inmates are never appropriately treated in prison, it will probably be a long time before treatment for psychopathy is available, either in Canada or in the US. Improvement of children’s treatment should be, however, a priority if any crime prevention programs (even anti-bullying) are undertaken. Let’s just make sure they don’t become the “Johnny lit a fire–he’ll be a serial killer” type of streaming program that we’re so familiar with in the juvenile justice system.

    I’m not so sure that there is a clear gap separating psychopaths from those “go getting executives” and from criminals who need exciteing lives, lie when it’s convenient, and think they’re too smart to get caught. Both groups usually “reform” around middle age, realize they don’t enjoy the business slavery or prison revolving door and do things differently. The neurology is fascinating, and I will be borrowing Dr. Hare’s books from our local library,

Comments are closed.