We don’t have problems interpreting the behavior of a seven year old child who sets fire to an apartment or house. It is usually attributed to “playing with matches.” We don’t seek a deeper cause or wonder why some children don’t play with matches. We also don’t usually think of the child as evil. Children are curious and like to play with things. I stuck a hairpin in a light socket when I was a child and quickly learned that was a dumb act. Sometimes those trial and error learning experiences end in tragedy. Think of the children who lost a finger or damaged an eye playing with firecrackers.
Guns are a different story. While a match or firecracker or hairpin in a light socket can be deadly, most children do not seriously hurt themselves or others. But a loaded gun in a house is asking for trouble if a child finds it. Children are curious and they explore. I found my father’s “eight-page bibles” (a sort of comic strip pornography) hidden behind the top row of his books and had to stand on a chair to reach it. Pity the parent who would be dumb enough to hide a weapon that way (some people are dumb that way). Guns are dangerous because they have a stunning lethality when they are accidentally or deliberately used by a child or by a person possessed with rage. I saw a neighbor’s child chase his brother with a metal chain and if he had caught up with him, I do not doubt he would have swung it with all his might. We can understand rage, and barroom brawls and spats between spouses and betrayed lovers.
What is still hard to figure out is what goes on in the mind of psychotic individual who plots mayhem, buying guns, lots of ammunition, occasionally making homemade bombs, and then goes out to a school, church, mall, or movie theater and tries to kill as many people as possible. Is the person driven by ideology (sometimes), by a desire for execution by police instead of “simple” self-inflicted suicide (sometimes), or by something we may never know (sometimes)? My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic and had frequent fights with our neighbors. She once tore the doorknob off a neighbor’s door. At home she sometimes took dishes and smashed them on the floor. My brother and I would run to our bedroom and dive under it until her rages passed. I’ve known other psychotic individuals who do not express physical rage when they are in an emotional stew. Some are suicidal. Some withdraw into a shell and cut themselves off from other human contact. Some run away. I don’t think there is anyone who could predict what type of specific behavior a psychotic mind will produce. At the same time there are stressed individuals who take that tension and sublimate it into creative work, art, science, scholarship, or invention. We do not know if there is a switch in our minds that allows some of us to handle disappointment and insecurity with creative acts and others to brood their way to plotting mass murder. Anyone who has a gun in the house and has a troubled relative is taking terrific risks.