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The National Rifle Association’s new president, Oliver North, deflected attention off guns and onto medication in the wake of the latest school shooting.
"The problem that we got is we are trying like the dickens to treat the symptom without treating the disease," North said. "The disease in this case isn't the Second Amendment. The disease is youngsters who are steeped in a culture of violence.
"They have been drugged in many cases. Nearly all of these perpetrators are male and they are young teenagers in most cases. And they have come through a culture where violence is commonplace. All you need to do is turn on the TV, go to a movie," North continued. "If you look at what has happened to the young people, many of these young boys have been on Ritalin since they were in kindergarten."
Pundits have long harped on the dangers of violence in movies, television shows and video games. But we were curious about the link North suggests between Ritalin, prescribed for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and gun violence.
The overprescription of ADHD medication has been the subject of heavy debate. For the record, we found no evidence that the suspected Texas shooter was diagnosed with ADHD, or prescribed Ritalin. More broadly and to North’s point, we found no evidence to back up the idea that ADHD medication was behind school shootings or that "many" shooters had been on Ritalin.
"The short answer is that this is nonsense," said Katherine S. Newman, Torrey Little professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts and author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings.
For Rampage, Newman and her fellow researchers studied medication as a precipitating factor in the school shootings that took place between 1970 and 2000. They found no evidence drugs played a role.
"The vast majority of shooters were, sadly, not under any kind of medical supervision," Newman said. "Indeed, the shocking finding is that despite evidence of serious mental disorders (after the fact at least), these young men had — in the main — not been seen by physicians for any kind of psychological disorder and were hence not under medication at all."
Peter Langman, a psychologist in private practice who has been studying school shootings for over a decade, said he has not found any ties between psychiatric medication and rampage attacks, either. Langman looked at 48 school shooters between 1966 and 2012 in his 2015 book School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators.
Langman found that two of the 24 secondary school shooters he profiled were taking medication at the time of their attacks. A third shooter might have been, or he may have stopped his medication three weeks before the attack. Including that case, 12.5 percent of the shooters Langman studied were taking medication.
The 12.5 percent statistic held true for the 48 shooters Langman studied, too, which also included adults and college students.
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, sent along various stories about the overprescription of Ritalin. Only one was a scientific study mentioning both ADHD medication and violence.
The study found that three ADHD drugs were responsible for 108 of 1,937 case reports of violence toward others in a 69-month period FDA database.
But Russell Barkley, a clinical professor of psychiatry who monitors ADHD research weekly at the Virginia Treatment Center for Children, explained that the study does not control for the high probability that patients receiving treatment with these drugs were already highly aggressive to begin with.
"We have no research in our scientific literature of more than 50,000 articles showing that Ritalin increases aggression on average," Barkley said. "Research in fact shows that stimulants like Ritalin reduce aggressive behavior in those with ADHD."
There is also no evidence that any of those reports of violence were related to school shootings.
"We don’t know that any of those people in the study had anything to do with a mass rampage attack," Langman said. "Even if the drug gets people to get agitated or angry, there’s a difference between that and plotting and carrying out a mass murder."
North said, "They have been drugged in many cases … many of these young boys have been on Ritalin since they were in kindergarten."
A minor percentage of school shooters studied had been medicated, not "many." The notion that many have specifically been on the drug Ritalin since kindergarten has no factual basis. More broadly, causation has never been established between the medication and violence. We found no specific ties between ADHD medication and school shootings, either.
We rate this statement False.
Fox News, Oliver North on NRA's response to Texas shooting, May 20, 2018
Email interview with Andrew Arulanandam, NRA spokesman, May 21, 2018
Huffington Post, Is it Drugs Not Guns that Cause Violence, Feb. 19, 2013
Psychology Today, Psychiatric Drugs and Violence: A Review of FDA Data Finds A Link,
PLOS, Prescription Drugs Associated with Reports of Violence Towards Others, Dec. 15, 2010
Esquire, The drugging of the American boy, March 27, 2014
Schoolshooters.info, Tally of Shooters’ Use of Psychiatric Medications and Substance Abuse, Feb. 2016
Schoolshooters.info, Psychiatric Medications and School Shootings, Feb. 2016
Phone interview with Peter Langman, psychologist, author of School Shooters and Why Kids Kill, editor of School Shooters, May 21, 2018
Phone interview with Philip Lazarus, school psychology professor at Florida International University, May 21, 2018
Phone interview with Email interview with Katherine Newman, Torrey Little Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts and author of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, May 21, 2018
Email interview with Russell Barkely, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry specializing in ADHD at the Virginia Treatment Center for Children and Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, May 21, 2018
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