PBS takes on Newtown, gun control

People hold signs during a rally at the Capitol in Hartford on Feb. 14.
People hold signs during a rally at the Capitol in Hartford on Feb. 14.

Washington insiders were talking about gun control on Candy Crowley's "State of the Union" Sunday morning. They've been talking about gun control for a long time, but the conversation has picked up since Dec. 14, 2012. It's almost all they talk about when the focus turns to how to prevent another Newtown.

Crowley's panelists acknowledged that the gun debate has overshadowed other issues, but no one seemed to see any change in focus.

In some ways, it's easier for politicians to focus on guns, despite how difficult the issue may seem on the surface. It is difficult, but not as difficult as, say, fixing the mental health system, especially as it applies to the young, or funding research to help us to understand how the mind of a killer works, or, if we get to that point, wading into the ethical swamp of what to do with likely killers before they kill.

Beginning today, PBS kicks off a week devoted to Newtown and some of the issues surrounding that more recent December day of infamy, when a troubled young man blasted his way into a Connecticut elementary school and killed 27 people, including himself.

Yes, PBS considers the gun issue, with a film detailing the nation's long history of guns, stretching back to the arrival of the first European settlers.

But the big take-away from all the film specials is that the problem of violence in the United States is only partially about guns. We can pass tighter gun laws, we can take some kind of action to crack down on who has access to violent entertainment, but, from what any viewer can only conclude from all the PBS documentaries, it won't be enough. It may not even be the correct course of action.

Here are previews of some of the key components of the PBS package:

"After Newtown: Guns in America," airing Tuesday at 10 p.m., makes what may be obvious points, that guns have been an important part of American history since the arrival of the first settlers. It offers the two major points of view on the gun control debate and probably leans a bit toward the side advocating greater control, but its goal is primarily informative, not argumentative.

The film ends with a segment on Cody Wilson, who uses a 3-D printer to create plastic replicas of component parts for assault weapons. They are just as good as the original parts and can be used to assemble a weapon from scratch. He intends to distribute the plans for the gun parts on the Internet.

"Mind of a Rampage Killer," on "Nova" Wednesday night at 9 p.m., is not only informative, but inevitably maddening to anyone who wants to know why one person becomes a killer and another never commits a violent act in his life. There are no convenient "diagnostic boxes," as Harvard's Josh Buckholtz puts it, for determining what precise combination of mental ingredients will lead to a rampage killer.

Many of the contributing factors are known - being young and male, having suicidal tendencies, hostility, paranoia, substance abuse, fascination with weaponry - but there are thousands of people with the same factors who never turn to violence.

Brain function itself can be significant. After the death of University of Texas serial killer Charles Whitman, scientists studied his brain and found a small abnormality near the amygdala, which governs emotion. When perceiving a threat, the prefrontal lobe sends a warning to the amygdala. When the threat abates, the prefrontal lobe sends a second message to chill. If something interrupts that warning, the amygdala fails to stand down.

We are told in this week's "Frontline" special "Raising Adam Lanza," that he'd been diagnosed with Sensory Integration Disorder, involving difficulty in processing reactions to stimuli. In other words, a mental disconnect. While the disorder is not a "widely accepted diagnosis," we do know Adam did not like to be touched and often avoided the hallways in school because he couldn't deal with the noise and chaos.

Yet, as Buckholtz and others make clear in the "Nova" program, many other people have similar disconnects, as it were, and don't ever pick up a gun and blast their way into an elementary school.

The closest that the various psychologists and academics come to an answer of who will kill in "Mind of a Rampage Killer" is that there is a specific, and comparatively rare, combination of nature and nurture in provoking the Adam Lanzas of the world to violence. Can we predict when it will turn one kid violent while having no effect on another? And if we can identify some of the potentially volatile conditions, how do we act on them? Do we imprison a kid who hasn't yet acted out because we're "pretty sure" he will some day?

That kind of question is tougher to answer than whether we should ban assault weapons or not.

"The Path to Violence," also airing Wednesday night (10 p.m.), is the perfect follow-up to the "Nova" special because it outlines some of the ways we can stop future Newtowns from happening.

The film begins with a young woman from Roy, Utah, who knew about a school shooting in advance. You may not know about the Utah incident, because the two young men were stopped before they could carry out their plans. The reason they were stopped was that Megan, the young woman, was disturbed by texts she'd received from one of the boys and told the school's principal, Gina Butters. That's all it took: a student trusting an adult enough to talk.

In the years since Columbine, some 100 school shootings or bombings were stopped in advance because of increased security measures, special training for school personnel and greater communication on all levels of the school population.

Schools across the country stepped up protective efforts since 1999, spending millions of dollars in the process. But according to security expert Kenneth Trump, these efforts were a matter of playing "catch-up after decades of neglect."

Trump details, by comparison, the steps involved in ordering a hamburger from a drive-through window.

"For years we've protected hamburger better than our children," he says.

Parents, says Trump, may want to see video cameras and other security devices, but school systems should be wary of making what he calls "knee-jerk decisions to appease parental concerns, as opposed to decisions that will actually deal with the problem."

The issues surrounding Newtown are complex, so much so that it may seem easier to take one side or another on the seemingly (and deceptively) simpler issue of gun control. But as the documentaries in this week of programming from PBS make clear, there is much more to talk about than guns alone. The answers are not likely to come easily, inexpensively or, alas, quickly.

Aleena Nicoloro of Redding holds a sign during a rally at the Capitol in Hartford on Feb. 14.
Aleena Nicoloro of Redding holds a sign during a rally at the Capitol in Hartford on Feb. 14.


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