Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

On Killing

The massacre of first graders in Newtown, Connecticut along with other recent mass shootings is going to re-start the discussion on gun-control and violence in the United States.   When people ask me what I think about these topics, I tell them to read the books by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who is both a paratrooper and Ph.D. psychologist and wrote the classic book “On Killing” in the 1990s.  Grossman essentially predicted and explained how and why these tragedies happen.   Grossman also has a website on “killology” that offers resources to prevent and deal with these catastrophes.   Here are some caveats I have gleaned from following Professor Grossman’s work over the years.

  • Many of us are far removed from death and killing by modern society.   We have never killed anything, butchered the meat we eat, seen a person die either slowly at the end of life or violently in an accident or conflict.
  • Without direct experience what we know about death and violence comes to us indirectly via the media.  So we experience a false version of violence via cartoons, in action movies or video games for example.   Whatever the source, it is a caricature of real violence and death.   This experience of pseudoviolence also sends us messages about the role of violence in problem solving (e.g. kill the bad guys) and personal empowerment.
  • Most humans are extremely reluctant to kill and have to be trained or desensitized to do it.   Grossman sees parallels between video games and techniques used to train soldiers to kill in combat.   These are classic psychological conditioning paradigms designed to reward a specific behavior and overcome inhibitions.


When you add all of the above together and put real firepower – assault weapons, high capacity ammo clips, and specific types of bullets — in the hands of an unbalanced person you can get a volatile mix that ends in tragedy.  Here is a link with statistics on the larger issue of gun deaths in the United States.   Gun deaths are almost as common as traffic fatalities.  Clearly we should be able to come up with laws and regulations that protect the rights of hunters and sportsman but at the same time limit gun violence and gun deaths in the U.S.   Through regulation we have reduced yearly traffic deaths by about 40% and deaths per passenger mile driven by about 90% since WW II.   With a little common sense and we could probably do the same for gun deaths in the U.S. in a way that protects the rights of responsible citizens to own weapons.   Whatever you think about gun control, the work of Dave Grossman offers real insight into the magnitude and many facets of the problem exemplified by Newtown.   I urge you to read his work so you can contribute to the discussion in a thoughtful way.


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