Looking for a “mass shooter” flag in the genes

Scientists will do a full genetic analysis on the Connecticut shooter. What will they find, if anything? And what does it really mean?

No easy answer
Demands to analyse Connecticut school shooter’s DNA are misguided and could lead to dangerous stigmatization, or worse.

Connecticut’s state medical examiner has requested a full genetic analysis of mass killer Adam Lanza, who shot 20 children, 6 school staff, his mother and himself in Newtown in December. At first glance, it is easy to understand why. Confronted with such senseless violence, it is human nature to seek solace in scientific explanations.

This quest to understand endures as technology advances. Now, instead of looking at cranial folds and frontal lobes for clues to the massacre, geneticists at the University of Connecticut in Farmington will scour Lanza’s genes. On its own, this hunt will be about as informative as studies of the brains of murderers: not very.

The Connecticut scientists will not talk about the job they have been handed. It is not clear what they will find, or even what they should look for. Suspend disbelief for a moment and pretend that a ‘mass-shooter gene’ exists — something that no serious geneticist believes — and scientists could still draw no conclusions from a single individual’s genome.

The main point in this piece is that, while we feel technology can help us understand, a DNA sequence cannot explain anything as complex as behaviour. There is no smoking gun to be found in the genetic code that will point to a person being prone to do such horrendous acts. The risk is that we for a direct correlation where there ISN’T one. It’s far more complicated than that. The piece ends with a rational note – this may bring us useful info but it must be understood in the right context, not used to stigmatize others.

Tip: Tyler Kokjohn


  3 comments for “Looking for a “mass shooter” flag in the genes

  1. Tyler Kokjohn
    January 11, 2013 at 12:07 PM

    Thank you for a superb synopsis and assessment.

    When analyses of the Connecticut shooter’s DNA are completed will there then be calls to screen his brother? And take preemptive action if the data reveal shared, unique mutations? This is one tricky situation with enormous implications.

  2. January 11, 2013 at 12:52 PM

    Thank you Sharon for your thoughtful and reasonable opinion regarding this issue.

  3. D. Walker
    January 11, 2013 at 6:05 PM

    If he’d not had easy access to the weaponry that he used, the carnage would not have happened. I’d think trying to go the DNA route is a dead end, especially without at least several different subjects to examine. What might be more significant would be whether he’d ever been bullied. It wouldn’t, of course, be any sort of excuse, but it might be part of an explanation. Some people, unfortunately, have to live their lives very near “The Edge” of rationality. It just takes a shove to put them over the edge completely. He probably should have been heavily medicated as well.

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