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Means, Motive, and Opportunity

Addressing gun violence requires moving beyond the usual frames.

According to a familiar adage, “means, motive, and opportunity” are necessary to prove one’s guilt in a criminal trial. By this logic, a crime would not have occurred had the perpetrator not had the tools necessary to commit a crime (e.g., the weapon), the actionable idea to commit the crime, and an unencumbered chance at following through on intention.

As news continues to emerge about the tragic events in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, social media and traditional news outlets have been filled with a variety of calls for actions to end what seems to be a surge in mass killings in recent years. These calls are, however, quite typical refrains. Like previous shootings (though perhaps to a greater degree given the children killed), this mass shooting has activated gun control advocates and gun rights supporters to suggest their standing policy prescriptions would have prevented or at least diminished the scale of this tragedy. As with most events in politics, it is unlikely that this event will have any persuasive impact on public attitudes toward gun policy. (See my previous post on that, which was written unfortunately after a previous mass shooting.)

This is unfortunate because the dominant frames surrounding gun violence are not comprehensive policy solutions. Those ideas, that greater gun control would prevent such crimes and, conversely, that greater gun ownership by responsible and law-abiding citizens would diminish the capacity of weaponized killers from producing high casualty counts, focus too narrowly on means and opportunity, respectively.

Gun control advocates suggest that restrictions on gun manufacture, sales, ownership, and possession will prevent potential killers from carrying out their intended crimes. Of course, if one cannot obtain a gun, they cannot use it to kill. Gun rights supporters, by contrast, focus too narrowly on the possibility that armed citizens might be capable of intervening. Sure, an armed citizen could shoot and disable (or kill) a potential mass killer before they are able to murder others. Yet, anyone strongly committed to using a gun for violence could almost assuredly find one regardless of their legal status and it is unclear whether armed citizens could have the presence of mind, accuracy, and opportunity to use a concealed firearm to intervene in a mass shooting situation. We do not know this because it has never happened—the bulk of high-profile mass shootings end with the shooter committing suicide.

Ultimately, neither side has much of anything to say about motives. If mental health were a significant factor leading individuals to become mass killers, neither side is offering a policy solution able to address the reasons why people commit crimes. That, assuredly, is inadequate.

The goal of reducing gun violence is admirable and widely held, but there is little public support for stricter gun control laws in general and almost no support for a ban on handguns. At the same time, data from 2005 suggest that the vast majority of people oppose sweeping concealed carry laws; fully 75% of non-gun owners think they would feel less safe in places where concealed weapons are allowed and even gun owners are evenly divided on whether they would feel more or less safe in places where concealed carry was allowed.

These data suggest that the two dominant frames in the news media, which focus on gun control and concealed carry, are publicly unpopular. Combined with a lack of consensus about either policy’s ability to comprehensively reduce gun violence generally or mass shootings in particular, political debate about gun and crime policy needs to move beyond the usual refrains. While crime rates have steadily dropped over the past two decades, the public still perceives crimes to be important (and indeed, misbelieves crime is increasing).

The most recent data (2009) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that about 17,000 people are murdered in the United States each year, more than two-thirds of those with firearms. More should be done to reduce to violent crime, but anyone who argues that gun control alone or concealed carry alone are each sufficient to dramatically impact those rates, broadly politically palatable, and able to pass constitutional muster is likely flat out wrong.

This means that government is being asked to do more to prevent crime (a problem that is smaller rather than larger, but seen as more problematic rather than less). But there is little support for the presently available policy alternatives that, it is argued by advocacy groups, might impact crime rates. If crime is a function of means, motive, and opportunity, then a comprehensive policy response—rather than narrowly targeted policies with ambiguous effects—seems to be in order.