Connecticut’s medical examiner has asked geneticists at the University of Connecticut to study Adam Lanza’s DNA for biological clues as to what led him to carry out his shooting spree in Newtown. A school spokesman confirmed the plans but declined to release details of the project, which has not yet begun. Experts say the researchers will likely be looking for gene mutations or abnormalities associated with mental illness and, in particular, an increased risk of violent behavior. However, news of the study — which is believed to be the first effort to examine the DNA of a mass killer — has so far been met with a mixed reaction from scientists, some of whom are already worried about its potential to cause problems for people who share genetic characteristics with criminals but have not committed crimes.
As Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Harold Bursztajn told ABC News, “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.” He added that launching the study as a seeming “quick fix” for those eager to gain insight into Lanza’s actions might prove “counterproductive to our long term safety and ethics.” After all, eugenics and other ugly practices were rooted in past efforts to identify and weed out undesirable genetic traits.
Focusing on the results of the study could also prove problematic since there is basically no data to compare it to. “The problem is there might be a genetic component, but we don’t have enough of a sample size,” said Dr. Heidi Tissenbaum of the University of Massachusetts medical school. And even if researchers do accurately identify something unusual in Lanza’s DNA, it’s not going to give the full story — nor can it really predict the actions of others like him. “I think it’s much more than a simple genetic answer, but an interplay between genetics and environment,” Tissenbaum added.
For confirmation of the concerns surrounding the study, look at the way some seized on reports that Lanza had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as a potential reason for the massacre. While advocates were quick to publicly fight back against that theory, it’s not difficult to imagine a much more harmful public reaction to the results of a genetic study, which would be even more open to wide misinterpretation than something relatively well-known like Asperger’s.