Guns, schmuns, VaTech is about risk assessment & the limits of "being wrong"

Part of risk assessment in the mental health profession is, not surprisingly, risk. If mental health professionals, or anyone else who employs risk assessment in any profession or industry, could be certain about outcomes, then either risk assessment as a method to predict would be unnecessary or we’d use some word other than “risk” to describe the assessment we’re performing.

What is the risk in the assessment?

It’s not about “being wrong” per se though the failure to assess the risk in accordance with how acts finally play out does, at a base level, equal “being wrong.” It’s whether the person or situation that you’re assessing behaves as you anticipated.

And, in the course of any single day, we know how often antipated routines or behaviors or sequences fail to materialize. Just yesterday, my mother told me about how the New Haven post office was unreachable on Monday, April 16, the day before taxes were due, because of flooding – and she was trying to deliver her taxes (which is why the federal government has extended the tax deadline for people in the Northeast).

But it can also be a sick child with whom you have to stay home or take to the doctor and cancel meetings. Or the drunk driver you can’t possibly plan for who plows into your path, or the path of someone you know or love. Or the prankster dropping bricks from an overpass onto your car (I was actually in the car with my parents heading to a July 4th party at Judge Peter Sikora’s house one summer when that happened to us – just dented the roof, thank goodness).

During different parts of yesterday’s excellent Diane Rehm Show (I got to listen as I drove to YSU), New York Times writer Fox Butterfield mentioned elements from his report, published in this NYT article published seven years ago, “They Threaten, Seeth and Unhinge, Then They Kill in Quantity” that reinforced my belief about the role of risk assessment and those who do it in the VaTech incident. Among other things, the report describes the most common traits of people who commit mass killings.

And while we’re learning that many folks along the path of Seung-Hui Cho detected disturbances and even went so far as to make mental health and law enforcement contacts about his demeanor and expressions, still – here we are, three days after a sadly no longer unimaginable tragedy.

More guns, fewer guns. It won’t make a difference if we don’t 1) accept that risk means someone gets through (and by accepting that risk, stop looking to blame everyone and anyone – yes, we can do better, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop every single person with such goals) and 2) change society’s expectation of and reaction to “loners.”

What did you do with the loners you knew? Did you make them even more alone? Or did you think about what it must feel like to be alone and wonder what has helped you most when you felt that way?

I don’t always know whether I believe in God or not, but for those who do, then you most likely accept that some acts in life are unpreventable. You live with a constant tension between free choice and predestination. And seeking to prevent devastation like the Virginia Tech incident has caused will drive you to the edge, like the shooter, if you don’t free yourself by realizing, there is only so much you can do.

And it has nothing to do with guns and everything to do with how each one of us treats every other one of us.

5 thoughts on “Guns, schmuns, VaTech is about risk assessment & the limits of "being wrong"

  1. And seeking to prevent devastation like the Virginia Tech incident has caused will drive you to the edge, like the shooter, if you don’t free yourself by realizing, there is only so much you can do.You nailed it Jill.

  2. And it has nothing to do with guns and everything to do with how each one of us treats every other one of us.I’m not quite sure what the referent for “it” is. Risk assessment? When I know, I’ll comment further.

  3. By the way, predestination vs election is a topic which creates lively debate in the Christian community. I’m one who says it’s clear that God set up the universe to be all about choice. Adam and Eve. Abraham and Isaac. Job. David and Bathsheba. Other Christians will cite scripture which supports predestination.There’s a famous argument that say one should behave as if God exists because if God does not exist, there’s no harm in behaving as if he does. But if God does exist, and one behaves counter to God’s laws, the consequences could be unfathomable.I guess I would extend that by saying if God exists and everything is predestined, I’m just a puppet and the outcome is the same regardless of what I do. But if God exists and we are to be judged for our choices, I’d better make good ones.PL

  4. Jill:Well said. One of the prices we pay for our mostly free society is indeed the risk that things like this will happen. There is a constant tension those who want to decrease liberty to increase safety, and those who value liberty so much higher than safety that no infringement on liberty is acceptable. It reminds me of an exercise we do with kids at our summer camp. A square platform has been constructed which is mounted on a system of supports that give it two degrees of freedom. In other words, it can tilt in all directions. Only when the weight on the platform is equally distributed (in engineer talk, the sum of the force vectors is zero) will it balance. One exercise is to have two teams of kids stand on the ground at opposite edges, then figure out how to get both teams (who until that point in the day have been competing with each other) on the platform without it tilting enough to touch the ground (only a few degrees, the edges are only about 6 inches off the ground.While the kids might learn a little science in the process, the object is a demonstration of the importance of teamwork and cooperation. No one wins until everyone is on the platform and it remains balanced. There is no one solution, although most teams find it works best when most are clustered around the middle. But there are always a few who will experiment with going to the edge. That can work too, if the folks in the center move just a little to the opposite direction.Then there is often the kid who gets to the edge and then jumps off. The sudden imbalance causes the opposite edge to touch, and the system fails.I bet this kid at VT would have been a jumper.

  5. Shalom Jill,As a writer of fiction I’m troubled by how Seung-Hui Cho’s writings are being scrutinized.There is way too much 20/20 hindsight being flung around in this story.If every person who writes deeply disturbing prose is considered a threat to society then we’re going to see Stephen King and Dean Koontz behind bars.Virginia, like Ohio, has a concealed-carry law. But Virginia Technology Institute has local regulation prohibiting the lawful carrying of a firearm on the campus.Seung-Hui Cho broke that local regulation.If one student or teacher on the second floor of the building had been lawfully carrying a sidearm, we might be having a very different conversation today.B’shalom,Jeff

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