And then there's the issue of WHO we should be avoiding. How do we know who fits the profile of a shooter? Is a 59-year-old male a typical mass killer? As a group, who is more dangerous? Younger people or older people?
Actually, the question should really be: Are younger or older males more of a threat? Because if we're looking to have a frank discussion instead of trying to tiptoe through a politically correct minefield, then let's not waste time talking about women of any age as a significant homicidal threat. You don't need a commissioned, funded study to simply count and compare the numbers of male criminals, inmates and prisons compared to their female counterparts. It's not even close: Men are more dangerous than women
But what about age? In the last few years, we've had a number of high-profile, completely senseless mass shooters:
At the time of their respective atrocities, Seung-Hui Cho
was 23, Adam Lanza
was 20, James Holmes
was 24, and, most recently, and, most recently, Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez
But there have been older killers, too:
Wade Michael Page
was 40 when he killed six Sikh worshipers at a temple and shot another officer. Radcliffe Haughton
was 43 when he killed three and injured four in a Wisconsin spa. The Fort Hood shooter (the first one) Nidal Hasan
was almost 40 when he opened fire at a military base in 2009. But John Russell Hauser
, the man accused of opening fire in a Lafayette movie theater on Thursday night, was 59, which puts him at the top of even the older shooter category.
So, should we be more afraid of younger or older men?
If we go with our gut instincts, and ignore the distractions -- distractions like facts, data, and science -- we could easily arrive at the conclusion that older men are just as dangerous, or even more dangerous, than younger men. It would be typical of the present-day trend of insisting all groups are equal. And those instincts would be wrong.
That's not being glib; scientific research suggests our primate minds are notoriously bad at calculating actual risks and threats
. Many people have sworn off letting their children swim in the ocean this summer because of the "spate" of shark attacks, but their family members are far more likely to be killed in a swimming pool
. Risk-wise, they should keep swimming in the ocean, but lock the gate to the pool so the kids don't drown.
The human brain may be a supercomputer in other ways, but when it comes to assessing risk, our operating system is more like an abacus than an Apple.
Statistics on recidivism suggest that as we age, we're less likely to commit crimes. Federal courts, in fashioning sentences for convicted defendants, have recognized
that defendants over 40 exhibit markedly lower rates of recidivism in comparison to younger defendants. The United States Sentencing Commission, which establishes sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts, publishes data about recidivism and age. The total recidivism rate for defendants who are between the ages of 41 and 50 is 12.7%. The total recidivism rate
for defendants who are over 50 is 9.5%. But if you're under 21 years old, overall, you're about 35.5% likely to repeat offend.
If we turn to modern science in addition to the data, it backs up that conclusion: When it comes to safety, it really is "age before beauty."
Research in developmental psychology and neuroscience confirms
what we've known for a long time: Juveniles are immature. That immaturity creates a greater propensity for crime. The United States Supreme Court has recognized
that adolescents have less capacity for mature judgment than adults, and are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
Studies of maturity of judgment
, meanwhile, show that adolescents score much lower than adults on measures of temperance, as well as controlling impulses and aggression. Scientifically, it seems adolescents are more likely to engage in criminal activity
, as well as other kinds of risk-taking. And some of those likely to make poor decisions may "grow out of it" in adulthood. Not surprisingly, a young man's immaturity is consistent with the science of adolescent brain development
How did simple teen angst evolve into present-day horrific shootings, mostly by men under 40? That's another discussion, one full of conjecture -- though we've pointed the finger at everything from video games to social media as a contributing factor.
As far as calculating risk, we don't need to rely on our unreliable brains when we have the research: Young men are more dangerous than older men. The problem is, as with all statistics, there are outliers. The data points you can't explain -- and the ones you didn't see coming.