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Gun Laws and Ethics

Today Connecticut is passing some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country. Approximately 60 pages of details about which long guns are now illegal, and when, where, and how people who have criminal and mental health issues may or may not have access to a firearm of any kind. In wading through the legalese, I looked and looked for something that, had it been in place before Newtown, would have stopped the murder of 26 people. I can’t find anything.

A conservative commentator, Bill Whittle, says,

We want to blame something, anything that we can control. But what we really want to ban is violence and murder and insanity, and we don’t talk about that because deep in our hearts we all know that violence and murder and insanity are built into the human condition, and likely always will be.

And I have to consider what I, as a Pagan, think about that statement. Of course I don’t believe in some Angra Mainyuesque power that pulls us toward horrible, despicable acts. But if we did not have any pull to do these things, we would not need ethics. Pagan gods provide many more obvious behavioral models than the monotheistic religions. We have plenty of warrior gods and goddesses, we have deities that destroy creation, and deities that make trouble. But we don’t condone rape because someone was possessed by Zeus, and we would not excuse a bomber because they said Kali wanted something destroyed.

Was the Newtown killer* just evil? In Simon Baron Cohen’s, The Science of Evil, the scientist explores how violence and murder relate to empathy, or more specifically, lack thereof. Empathy comes when certain pathways in the brain are activated, and humans are equipped with mirror neurons that allow us to match other people’s emotions in our own bodies. This neurology is the biological basis for empathy, and it is beautiful.

It is our biology that grounds us deeply into the Earth. We cannot forget to eat, or sleep without consequences. Our ties to the planet are our connection to her, empathy no less than food, water, or shelter. We are bound by cords of blood and bone and flesh.

Dr Cohen describes particular disorders that can, in their strongest expression, be a zero on the empathy scale: Borderline Personality disorder, Narcissistic Personality disorder, sociopathy and Asperger’s syndrome. Some of these are closely related to parental nurture. But some aren’t. The last in particular is an expression of nature’s variation. Cohen describes how people with Asperger’s may be violent because it seems logical and fits a certain pattern. There is no specific intent to harm, but there is a complete failure to recognize that their actions affect the humans around them, or even that that should matter. People with Asperger’s focus on patterns and take that far beyond average human vision. Many gains in the sciences and engineering have been made because of this variation in genetic expression. And Cohen points out that Asperger’s on its own rarely produces killers. This is because laws of community and behavior are also patterns, patterns that, while complex, are eventually acknowledged and favored by those with this different way of seeing the world.

It’s hard to know what Nancy Lanza was thinking. She didn’t lack for money, but there has still been no statement that her son had professional help of any kind. She moved him in and out of schools - a very poor choice given how resistant people with Asperger’s are to change - and there was no evidence that he had ever been hospitalized for violent behavior. He excelled in math and science, but his social skills were poor. According to one of his teachers, he avoided human contact. And he spent a lot of time playing violent video games.

In his seminal work, The Gift of Fear, noted security expert Gavin de Becker encourages us to have empathy with those that would hurt us. This will save our lives because, we understand them better than we like to admit, and this empathy lets us predict their behavior. We all have the biological impulses that urge us to strike out, to harm, or humiliate. It is accepting this and using it that provides a path to safety.

It is reasonable to speculate that Nancy bought guns for her son in an effort to engage with him around something in which he was interested. Leaving aside her poor judgment, I find I have some empathy for this. My step-daughter was deeply angry when she was forced to move in with us. She played video games and did not relate well to others in her peer group. (we did cut her off the video games, but that is another story) She liked the Legend of Zelda, and I got her a bow to give her something to positive to do. So I understand Nancy Lanza’s thought process.

I think she chose not to see that her son was a danger because he was her son and she loved him. She wanted more than anything else to see him grow up to be a happy person. There is no evidence that she did anything but trust that he was going to be fine. Which is what I did. My daughter is fantastic. Nancy’s son wasn’t.

If human law could not have prevented the deaths in Newtown, what is left but to appeal to the gods? To be sure, our gods, guides, and ancestors protect us. But it is up to us to listen to them. I don’t think that the gods will save humans from violence and murder and insanity because it is part of our biology. Our job is to look unblinking to the example they set, and live our lives balancing our ethics with our natural impulses. Laws don’t create ethics, empathy creates ethics. Our ties to each other create ethics. And laws cannot fill in where there is no connection. We are what we practice. 

* I will not write his name in any public forum. Every assassin and spree killer in the modern communications era has studied and craved the notoriety of seeing and hearing their name in the public discourse. I will not contribute to this. I politely ask that any who comment abide by the same rules.

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Tagged in: ethics Gods guns
Selina Rifkin, L.M.T., M.S. is a graduate of Temple University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. In 1998 she graduated from the Downeast School of Massage in Maine. She has published articles in Massage Therapy Journal, been a health columnist, and published The Referral Guide for Complementary Care, a book that describes 25 different healing modalities. In 2006 she completed her Masters program in Nutrition with a focus on traditional foods, and the work of Weston A. Price.
Currently she is the Executive Assistant to the Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the first Pagan seminary to offer Master’s degrees.


  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Friday, 05 April 2013

    Dear Selina,
    With all due respect, as the mother of two children on the autism spectrum (and one with a specific diagnosis of aspergers) I really REALLY wish you hadn't gone down the (far too popular) road of associating the killer of Sandy Hook with autism disorders. (However nuanced the association may attempt to be, it really just ends up branding individuals on the spectrum as "dangerous" while they are far more likely to be the victim of violent crime than perpetrators.) The op-ed in the NY Times linked below states my objections to this association well and succinctly.

    A much more interesting question to discuss in this forum would be how Paganism deals with the problem of theodicy, which you touch on only briefly. I would welcome more discussion of that topic if you are so inclined.

    Most sincerely,

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Friday, 05 April 2013

    I looked up Dr. Cohen, he's fascinating but controversial. More about his theories on autism

  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance Saturday, 06 April 2013

    As the daughter of a man diagnosed with aspergers, I, like Anne, wish you had taken a different approach on this subject. My father is the kindest, most hard-working man you will ever meet. Sure, he's been walking to work for a year because he can't bring himself to get his bike fixed, but that does not mean he is not a wonderful father, a gentile person, or 'lacks empathy' in any way.

    My dad might not process emotions like we do, but this is still the man who tucked me into bed for nearly fourteen years, who bandaged every scraped knee, who hugged me, and kissed me, and made it better whenever I cried. This is also the man who refused to serve in the military because he does not believe in violence, the man who has been a vegetarian since he was fourteen, because he can not stand to see an animal suffer, and thinks its arrogant to place the human race above other animals. My dad would never pick up a gun and kill someone. If forced between shooting himself, and shooting someone else, he would shoot himself without hesitation.

    I understand not everyone with autism and aspergers is the same, and--like everyone else--there are those who are more prone to violence. Still, throwing an entire group of people under a bus they do not belong under, is not only unhelpful so close after Autism Awareness Day, it's hurtful.

    You make some very valid points, and I thank you for those, but I'm fairly certain your points about people on the spectrum fall short of the mark quite a bit.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Saturday, 06 April 2013

    I regret having offended but I would like to point out that I'm not the one who drew the connection. I live near, and work in Newtown. I and my husband have many friends in and around the area, and that is very much one of the subjects under discussion, including among my Pagan friends. If it is not addressed, there will always be a question festering under the surface, whispered in hushed tones. Just today, my client and I spoke about how the whole town knew something was not right with this kid, and yet nothing got done. One teacher spoke out in a public TV special about Newtown about how he had been trying to engage with and challenge the boy. I did not demonize people with Asperger's, and while I certainly welcome anyone posting about their positive experiences with autism spectrum disorders, we still need to have a frank discussion about what causes human violence.

    That kid needed help and he didn't get it. His mother needed help and she didn't choose to get it. And that might be because no one wanted to talk about it. Unless we talk about it, there will always be shame, fear, and misunderstanding. The new laws just enacted will do nothing to help the next mother with a troubled child.

    I believe the gods gave us free-will. The Gods don't do bad things to us, we do bad things to each other. Understanding why is the first step to doing something about it. But when it comes down to it, there are always going to be people who make bad choices that affect us, sometimes lethally. I want to be safe, and I want my family, and my religious and social communities to be safe. If I listen to the small voice that tells me something is wrong, that is the goddess speaking to me via a million years of biology. And I darn well listen.

    I believe the gods gave us this awareness so that we can know when to run, freeze, or fight. But we are still responsible for our own safety, and the safety of our families, and our decisions all need to reflect that.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Saturday, 06 April 2013

    Dear Selina,

    I was unaware you were a New Town resident. I cannot imagine how it feels to be a member of that community now. Just (though on a lesser scale) as you clearly don't understand how Elani and I feel when we repeatedly hear AS loosely associated with every crazed mass shooter that comes down the pike. It's horrifying to us, and only pushes us (and our families) further into the mental health closet that you rightly decry. (There is NO documented tendency towards violence for people on the spectrum

    Which is why I feel compelled to say that this "sorry I offended" response doesn't cut it. You didn't *directly* demonize people with autism-spectrum-disorders, but you pointed to and quoted someone who did. You further associated the shooter with AS by saying "the mother moved him in and out of schools - a very poor choice given how resistant people with Asperger’s are to change." That statement builds on the previous quotation which associates the shooter with AS, and nothing in your subsequent comment disavows that association.

    AS is quite enough to deal with without reinforcing this pernicious and obfuscating untruth.



  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Saturday, 06 April 2013

    This is the first I have heard about any other mass killer having an autism spectrum disorder, and if this is common in the media, I can see why you're upset. I've heard ADHD (both my step-children have ADHD) combined with anti-depressants in teens, and psychosis in adults.
    Cohen does not demonize people with Asperger's. I found his book quite compassionate. Truly, I am sorry.

    I'm no stranger to parenting struggles. My step-daughter was much bigger than me, and very angry and threatening when she moved in with us. She randomly took stuff from around the house, including knives. She broke and damaged things, and she lied. And she was quite lacking in empathy. It was a tough five years until she got out of high school and went off to college. Very tough. Getting the diagnosis was moderately helpful, because we got a bit more help from the school but we didn't do medication. I only made it through because I prayed a lot, and almost continuously had reassurance from my guides and hers that it was going to be ok. As I said in the post, she's great now, in her last semester, and has grown some of the empathy she lacked as a younger person.


  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Sunday, 07 April 2013

    I am so sorry you had such a distressing struggle with your step-daughter and glad that some of that burden has been lifted for you. As to people in the press retroactively "diagnosing" mass killers with AS, I'm far from the first person to have noticed this association, and I'll just reference this story from Slate to buttress my case that such associations are widespread -- and both inaccurate and harmful.

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