Darwin award nominee

Nancy Lanza, killed with a gun from her survivalist stockpile by the son she trained in firearms use.

The Darwin Awards honor those “who have improved the human gene pool by subtracting themselves from it,” earning the award by choosing unusually foolish ways to die. (One of the 2011 winners was killed when he went over his motorcycle handlebars bare-headed while riding in a protest parade against motorcycle-helmet laws.)

The 2012 awards have not yet been announced, but I hope that the judges will accept a late nominee: Nancy Lanza, killed with one of the guns she was stockpiling to protect herself against a massive breakdown of the social order, by the seriously disturbed son she trained in the use of firearms. And I don’t think her lamentable failure to take herself out of the pool twenty years earlier ought to count against her.

Footnote Yes, yes, this has nothing to do with “fitness” in any true evolutionary sense. In this case, there’s no reason to think that survivalist mishegas has any genetic component.

Second footnote No, what happened to Nancy Lanza wasn’t funny; it was horribly sad. But survivalism is ridiculous – that is, literally, deserving of ridicule – and the Darwin Awards are for those who come by their deaths ridiculously.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

37 thoughts on “Darwin award nominee”

  1. I’m glad to see that at least one other person besides me doesn’t believe in this silly taboo against “speaking ill of the dead”. I really hate this idea that no matter what you did in life, the second you die we’re supposed to just all stop talking about the terrible things you did, even if they have consequences for those of us still around. But I digress…

    Any talk of limiting access to guns is viewed by a great many people as limiting their right to self defense. Whatever. Let’s forget about access to guns for a moment and focus on how they can be stored within a home. I personally think something like Ireland’s system is the way to go, even if we only implement the part about strict, police-inspected Federal standards for firearm storage.

  2. The point of the Darwin award, remember, is to commemorate those who make it impossible for their genes to remain in the pool. Many worthy recipients don’t qualify because, although they die in ways that indicate the unworthiness of their genes, they do so having reproduced already, and having therefore failed to remove said genes in time.

    Now, there’s another Lanza offspring running around loose. His name, we are told, is Ryan. And although there’s no indication I can find that Ryan is anything other than normal, and is probably as horrified as his father at Adam’s activities, his presence among us is nevertheless proof that Nancy failed to remove her genes from the pool completely. So it’s not her failure to take herself out of the gene pool 20 years earlier that counts against her; it’s her failure to do so before producing any surviving offspring. I’m afraid she doesn’t qualify for a Darwin.

    Bad day all around for her, failing to bring home the award. On top of being, you know, dead.

    1. I thought that anybody with reproductive potential was eligible for a Darwin award, regardless of their reproductive history. IIRC, Darwin awards have been awarded to men who found a way to destroy their genitalia. “Honorable mentions” are given to Darwin-worthy acts that have no potential impact on the gene pool.

      1. I accept the correction. It still seems to me that Ms. Lanza is less worthy of an award than someone who never reproduced and now never will, but as pointed out in the link below, any attempt to weight the results of Darwin research in favor of those who have never reproduced will have to wait until we have a reliable method of looking into the future.


      1. Ex-sister-in-law, presumably: the woman’s name is also Lanza. In other words, she is probably the sister of Ms. Lanza’s ex-husband. If you asked me about my ex-sister-in-law, I wouldn’t have a lot good to say. I’m not sure Marsha Lanza is the best source of information.

        As the mother of an adult son with Aspergers, I’ve noticed that it’s a lot easier to know how to deal with a child with disabilities if you haven’t got one. People are not shy about telling me how their superior parenting would have ensured that my son had no problems at all. Some are certain that his Aspergers itself is not real, but some artifact of the lack of their superior parenting. I don’t know what Ms. Lanza’s life was like, but I’m pretty sure it was difficult, and the right choices were not obvious.

        1. Parenting is difficult in the best of situations. Parenting a special-needs child is particularly challenging. Knowing the right choices is always difficult, and often just a guess.

          How any of those truths relate to the stockpiling of weapons of war is a mystery to me.

          1. She had guns so she deserved to die, ha ha ha? What about the twenty children who were killed– chances are, at least one lived in a house with a gun in it. So did that hypothetical child’s parents deserve to lose a child, ha ha ha, because they had a gun in the house?

            It’s a big, and nasty, step from “If you live in a house with a gun in it you are at risk of being shot with that gun” to “If you live in a house with a gun in it you deserve to be shot with that gun.”

          2. Apparently, Cardinal, you have a secret translator ring I’m not privy to.

            I wrote that her stockpiling weapons of war was a mystery. Where you came up all that claptrap of yours is another mystery.

          3. She didn’t just stockpile the guns; she enjoyed target shooting with her sons. Maybe she thought that was something she could use to connect with her son, to have a family activity, a fun pleasant ahobby where her Aspie son could excel, something to get him away from the computer screen and out of the basement into the fresh air. It ended up so horribly wrong, but it may not have been obvious beforehand that it was a bad idea.

          4. Cardinal, I enjoyed target shooting when I was a teenager. It was a bond that linked me and my dad at a time when we were often moving in different directions.

            We used bolt-action rifles. He had one and I had one. So I’m gonna try this one more time…

            How any of these truths relate to her stockpiling weapons of war is a mystery.

          5. To me, “stockpiling” suggests buying something and not using it. She was evidently using the guns. But no matter; let’s say she was stockpiling weapons of war.

            The Darwin awards are for laughing at people who died in funny ways. They’re mean-spirited at the best of times, but particularly so in the case of someone who was brutally murdered by the son she loved and cared for.

        2. There certainly is a great deal of irony in the circumstances of Mrs. Lanza’s death but I don’t think she deserved her fate anymore than any other gun aficionado. There are evidentially a lot of people stockpiling guns and ammo out there (we found out during the last week this includes at least one of my husband’s coworkers — yikes!) but do they deserve to be shot with their own weapons? Do they all have this coming?

          Nancy Lanza was a victim and it bothers me when she’s not included in the headcount. It also bothers me that Dad isn’t being considered in this calculus. If someone is going to attribute Adam Lanza’s difficulties to his genetic make-up, well half his genes came from his father. Not to mention his dad helped raise him/absented himself after a while.

          I like Cardinal, have a son, a teenager, on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum. I think there may be some sort of inverse ratio: the more functioning your kid is, the more likely people aren’t going to believe your kid’s diagnosis, or think you caused his issues, or think they could have done better (like the reason he isn’t doing so well is all the effort you put in). I get that stuff all the time, too.

          The other part of the ratio is, if your kid is non-verbal and manifests a lot of repetive behaviors, then they say things like, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” and my personal favorite, “He’s so lucky to have you as parents!”

          The truth is, it is VERY, VERY hard to parent a child with a disability, and it never gets easier. Other people may spend their last years looking back in satisfaction in a life well-lived; I imagine I’ll be battling fear about what will happen to my son after I’m gone.

          Some of the difficulty of raising a child with a disability is inherent in the disability and some of it is a result of the lack of societial support (for a start, see list of stupid comments above) we have to deal with and battle everyday.

          Maybe Nancy Lanza wasn’t the best mother out there but maybe she would have been a good enough mother for a child without profound challenges (Adam’s brother may be proof of this). And I’m going to emphasize right here that we do not know the nature of Adam Lanza’s challenges. While it’s obvious he had many, we don’t know if he had an autism spectrum disorder and even if he did, so what? Asperger’s is NOT at all equivalent to sociopathy (if you think it is, this link is for you: http://www.autismpolicyblog.com/2012/12/the-shooting-day-six.html)

          My point is, it isn’t fair to blame Nancy Lanza for not being Supermom. Do you want to snicker at survivalists? Sure, go ahead. But that’s something else.

          1. As the parents of a low functioning (non-verbal) teenager with autism, we also find “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” (as if this thread, as well as a quick perusal of any newspaper on nearly any day does not demonstrate that lots of people have more than they can handle), and “He’s so lucky to have you as parents!” a bit tiresome.

            My personal favorite, however, is “if he has autism, what is his special gift?” That is often asked as if my son was put here to instantly calculate, in his head, the square of a telephone number just for their amazement.

            Folks, we are not a circus sideshow. We are just a family trying our best to get by.

          2. My personal comeback, when people said that of my lymphoma, was, “I’d have appreciated being underestimated just this once.”

            Frankly, I think we could use a bit more survivalist style thinking, in a general sense. Stockpiling non-perishable foods, water, toilet paper; Whatever you may think of survivalists, they are doing their bit to make society less fragile in the face of the inevitable disasters.

          3. Maybe we know next to nothing about Adam Lanza. Maybe, at the age of 20, he was experiencing a completely different kind of issue than Asperger’s — Paranoid schizophrenia, for instance, has two typical ages of onset — very early adulthood (17-25) and then again at around age 30, with the latter being more easily treated. I learned this when my sister became delusional at the age of 30 (“right on schedule” said her psychiatrist). It’s possible that Ms. Lanza only “thought” she knew her son, but did not understand that he might have changed in a way that made him less stable and in need of more intervention. Being financially secure, she seems to have settled for a well-heeled kind of isolation for herself and her challenging son. None of us knows.

            We in my parts engage in target shooting on our family farm. One year friends showed up with their bushmasters and other advanced weaponry, and we then banished all guns for a while, and the assault style weapons will not be invited back because my ex-Marine brother in law has decreed them to be too dangerous for civilian use on his property. Maybe Ms. Lanza was just following the herd when she bought that too dangerous gun. The hardest thing is not knowing what you don’t know. But she really seems to have been flying blind.

  3. How about a Darwin award for the great American male?
    [insert image of a lugubrious Glenn Beck here.]

    For what it’s worth, the Newtown Massacre to me is largely about the failure of men in America, and in particular the failure of men to raise up male children into men. The tragic monster that Mr. Lanza grew up into lived with Mom and ended up parking four bullets in her brain. Imagine the tensions in that monster. It’s not an accident that the commercial fantasies represented in movies and television aimed at boys are populated by legions of super-heroes. This sort of grandiosity — the wish to project supernatural powers — is exactly what you get in boys who have not developed competence in any reality-based, meaningful realm of endeavor — and I wouldn’t necessarily include school, such as it is in our time, as a reality-based, meaningful realm of endeavor, since it is mostly a brutally boring accreditation process. Notice, Mr. Lanza’s chief instrument of death was the “Bushmaster.” His weapon made him a “master” of something, at least, even if it was just the systematic slaughter of six-year-old kids and the women in charge of them.


    1. Is this maybe more a case of stigmatizing people who carelessly supply weapons to people with mental illness?

  4. Yes by all means we should make fun of the fact that she wasn’t able to commit her son fast enough and that he killed her for trying.

  5. Have any of you noticed that the NY Times and the Washington Post are not running the story that she was a survivalist stockpiling weapons for the apocalypse? Until we have more facts, let’s not cheer her murder. People on the autism spectrum are not known for violence, and so far, no one can cite a violent act that Adam Lanza did beforehand. Is everyone who misjudges someone deserving of death?

  6. She certainly seems to have made some mistakes, mostly owning lots of guns and teaching her son to shoot them. But who stepped forward to help her with this VERY challenging (even if not known to be violent) child?

  7. My grown nephew has severe autism and I can tell you it is not easy on the mental health of the whole family. Aspbergers is of course a different kind of problem but the stress of 24/7 unpredictability must be hard to cope with. My point is that a bit of crackpotism can be forgiven. Walk a mile in her shoes.

    That said, keeping the guns and amo under lock and key might have saved this grief. It could save a lot of grief in a lot of homes and should be a focus of gun control, as in getting gun owners to keep control of their guns. Isn’t that something everybody from Jim Brady to Wayne LaPierre can agree on?

    1. I feel the need to point out here that in the first half of the 20th century there was a political movement to eliminate people deemed undesirable from the gene pool. That experiment is generally thought to have been a disaster and joking about it is in poor taste. Not to get too PC but…

      1. Thank you for this reference to the eugenics movement. It helped explain to me my strong visceral reaction to having this sad event tied to Darwinism (though over the past few days, I’ve come to understand the intended humor). I’d like to add that even though the eugenics movement is long over, we members of the disability community still often hear, in different ways and places, that the diasbled are not wanted, that they waste money and other resources, etc., e.g., special ed drains funding needed for gifted students.

    2. We have so far heard nothing about how these guns were stored. Recalling that the shooter was said to be extremely bright, might the guns have been stored in a way normally accepted as safe, which this very bright young man was able to defeat?

  8. Distasteful victim-blaming aside, I’m not sure how intellectually consistent it is for those who warn about the perils to social order presented by the likely effects of global climate change to be ridiculing survivalists — at least they’re planning for it.

  9. So let me get this straight. You make a fool of yourself defending that fool McArdle … and then you feel entitled to call this poor woman a fool?

    Sad times for this blog.

  10. I’m beginning to think I’d summarize all this as Nancy Lanza was a mother (who most likely had some limitations and definitely had an extremely challenging child whose rearing caused much stress) who failed to do what highly-trained pyschologists who spend their entire professional lives studying this issue also can’t do — foresee and predict the gun violence her child would commit.

    The fact remains that people with disabilities and/or mental illness are much more likely to be the vicitm of violence than to be the prepetrator. Yes, sometimes there are warning signs — from what I’ve read so far, this appears to be true of the arsonist/shooter in the Rochester, NY area — but I have not heard of any specific warning signs exhibited by Adam Lanza, and no, I don’t think being very withdrawn is a spefic warning sign.

    Is it ridiculous and ludricrous that Mrs. Lanza died this way? I suppose so, although she is hardly the only person to die by being shot by a family member in a household where a gun was obtained for “safety reasons.” It only takes one gun and one bullet; you are just as dead if there was only a handgun kept in the house in case an intruder should appear as you are if many assault weapons and much ammo are being stockpiled in case civilization collaspses. Mrs. Lanza is just the most recent and famous victim, the poster-child of the moment.

    1. And sometimes the only thing that distinguishes a victim from a perpetrator is access to weapons. I don’t think this is a story about autism at all. It is a story about guns and the rest is just evasion from that fact.

      1. I think the autism-related stuff grew out of the observation that mothers of children with disabilities are often scapegoated and blamed for their children’s challenges; they are also often blamed for lack of (what the scapegoater feels would be) sufficient progress (“If he was MY kid, I’d be able to make sure he’d be doing much, much better”). To blame this particular mother for her child’s actions seemed to be part of this pattern and also unnecessary piling-on.

        I agree with you that it is a story about guns. A family in which there are no disabilities, and in which one family member accidently kills another with the household’s single gun, a handgun kept for the extremely unlikely possibility that an intruder will not only appear but also make himself a good target, is a family deserving of a Darwin Award as the Lanzas (assuming you believe awarding Darwins is a worthy idea).

        1. Well, in fairness, a lot of the discussion regarding ASD children was also jump started by the woman who wrote an article entitled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” We don’t actually know enough to know whether Ms. Lanza had some warning or evidence that, notwithstanding her own honorable intentions, she needed to make her advanced weaponry inaccessible to her son. She clearly could have done this by, for instance, renting a storage locker and giving the key to a friend or the unit’s manager.

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