The atrocities at Sandy Hook Elementary are so unfathomable that we're all kind of adrift at this point—mired in angry stalemates over gun control and mental health and white male entitlement and Adam Lanza's mother's arsenal and the victimization of the mentally ill and the politicization of tragedy and so on. So the latest tack in the Sandy Hook investigation—genetic researchers from the University of Connecticut planning to study Adam Lanza's DNA for "clues" about the roots of his violence—is understandable, if not necessarily ethically pristine. It's undeniably "abnormal" to murder 20 first-graders and their protectors and one's own mother, so it makes sense that people are grasping for quantifiable, physical "abnormalities" in the very cells of Lanza's body. People are hurt and curious and confused. But that doesn't mean you can make sense out of the senseless.
"They might look for mutations that might be associated with mental illnesses and ones that might also increase the risk for violence," said Beaudet, who is also the chairman of Baylor College of Medicine's department of molecular and human genetics.
Beaudet believes geneticists should be doing this type of research because there are "some mutations that are known to be associated with at least aggressive behavior if not violent behavior."
"I don't think any one of these mutations would explain all of (the mass shooters), but some of them would have mutations that might be causing both schizophrenia and related schizophrenia violent behavior," Beaudet said. "I think we could learn more about it and we should learn more about it."
The problem, of course, is that correlative speculation like this is where stigmas come from—and people with mental illness have already suffered plenty in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.
"Given how wide the net would have to be cast and given the problem of false positives in testing it is much more likely we would go ahead and find some misleading genetic markers, which would later be proven false while unnecessarily stigmatizing a very large group of people," Bursztajn said.
Bursztajn also cautions there are other risks to this kind of study: that other warning signs could be ignored.
"It's too risky from the stand point of unduly stigmatizing people, but also from distracting us from real red flags to prevent violence from occurring," Bursztajn said. "The last thing we need when people are in the midst of grief is offering people quick fixes which may help our anxiety, but can be counterproductive to our long term safety and ethics."
Other skeptics noted that you can tell virtually nothing by a sample size of one—"Even identical twins are different and they have identical DNA," one geneticist pointed out. I have to say, from a layman's point of view, I agree. The research itself (whatever it uncovers, if anything) might possibly be helpful in some kind of longterm, oblique way, but its inevitable regurgitation in mainstream pop-sci articles seems unambiguously irresponsible and a derailment of more pressing, concrete prevention measures. Genetic predisposition to mass murder is a comforting framework for understanding this tragedy, but I can't see how more stigma and isolation would have helped Adam Lanza.