WASHINGTON -- Families advocating for stricter gun laws have been a near-constant presence on Capitol Hill since the horrific school shooting six months ago in Newtown, Conn.
Jeremy Richman and his wife, Jennifer Hensel, favor gun control, too, but they are focused on other ways to reduce violence. Their mission is to prevent violence by finding biological indicators that predispose people to it.
It's a logical move for them. Both are scientists -- they met in a course called Recombinant Methods of DNA Technology at the University of Arizona -- and that compels them to find answers.
They have a personal stake, too. Their daughter, Avielle, a curly-topped 6-year-old, was among those who were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown along with 19 other children and six educators.
They refer to the shooting simply as "the 14th," the date in December that Adam Lanza opened fire in their daughter's first-grade classroom. They don't utter the killer's name, either, though they spend their days wondering whether there were clues in his physiological makeup -- his DNA, his blood, his brain chemistry.
Again and again, they ask why. Not why their daughter, not why their school, not why their town. Rather, they want to know why science hasn't yet identified the biological markers that make some people more likely to kill.
"We're not looking to solve a crime. That crime has already happened and there is no solution to it. We're looking to prevent another one," Mr. Richman said.
Discovering what leads to violent behavior ought to be no harder than discovering why high levels of cholesterol predispose people to heart disease, said Mr. Richman, a pharmaceutical researcher at Boehringer Ingelheim in Danbury, Conn.
There is no test that could predict every violent crime, but scientists say there are identifiable inherited traits linked to aggression that are worth exploring. Studying them could be the key to ensuring proper treatment and reducing violence.
Biomarkers for violence
Biomarkers are observable biological characteristics -- such as genes, enzymes, hormones or specific kinds of cells -- that indicate a propensity for a physiological state. For example, high cholesterol is a biomarker for heart disease.
Mr. Richman and Ms. Hensel want to see more work on identifying biomarkers for violence. That's why they created The Avielle Foundation in their daughter's name. First they'll raise awareness of the research possibilities, then they'll raise and distribute grants to help pay for the work.
Researchers say progress is being impeded by insufficient funding and by ethical concerns about what society might do with the findings and how the work might shape public policy.
Sociologist and bioethicist Troy Duster has written extensively on the subject, calling attention to concerns about potential use of genetic data to stigmatize and marginalize carriers of certain data markers, turning them into pariahs.
"I'm not opposed to research on violence and biomarkers, but I'm concerned about making too big of a leap between biomarkers and violence," Mr. Duster said from the University of California at Berkeley, where he is a senior fellow at the Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy. "What we're going to find is a complex interaction between genes and the environment. There's a complex interplay. ... How do you explain something as complex as someone who gets an AR-15 and goes out and starts shooting people?"
Biology isn't enough to explain violence, Ms. Hensel said, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth studying.
Numerous conditions have both biological and environmental components, said Ms. Hensel, who has worked as a clinical microbiologist and now owns a medical and scientific communications company.
A person may have a genetic predisposition to cancer but won't get the disease unless she is also exposed to pollutants, and a person predisposed to diabetes may never get it if he controls his diet. Being aware of biological predisposition can help at-risk people avoid pollution or reduce carbohydrate intake, Ms. Hensel said.
"A lot of things have a genetic and behavioral or environmental aspect," she said. "We need to look at violence from that perspective as well."
The next step is using the information to help people with biomarkers get the help they need. That means reducing the stigma of mental illness and focusing instead on what Ms. Hensel and her husband call "brain health."
The aim is to provide hope for families whose children might have a biological predisposition to violence.
Mr. Richman and Ms. Hensel know they will never be able to get justice for Avielle, but they can get answers.
"I'm not looking for some moral rightness out of this. I'm looking to prevent further tragedies," Mr. Richman said during a recent plane trip home from Washington, D.C., where he attended a White House conference on mental health.
On the tarmac at Ronald Reagan National Airport he thumbed through photos of Avielle on his cell phone. Among them is one of her looking at fireflies on a road trip to Iowa last summer to see relatives.
"We were seeing fireflies all over the place and Avie and I were in awe. It was this hugely magical thing. To kids, fireflies seem like such magic and wondrous little creatures. As an adult who can biochemically explain what bioluminescence is, it's still magical and crazy amazing," he said. "I still believe there is magic in the world."
That's why The Avielle Foundation chose an image of a firefly for its logo, he explained.
Technology vs. theory
Neuroscience, genetics and brain imaging are advancing rapidly, and scientists will likely have the ability to identify more and more genetic markers long before society is ready to handle the results.
"Technology has outpaced theory," said Edward Mulvey, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
It also has outpaced practical application for how to treat people who test positive for a particular biomarker, he said.
"Do you lock them up or make them go to a program or put restrictions on their lifestyle? That's government encroachment," Mr. Mulvey said.
There's no need to worry, said Duke University neuroscientist Terrie Moffitt, who is on the Avielle Foundation's science advisory board.
"I suspect it is safe to relax, as no mad-scientist treatments for violence are being developed," she said. "The field of neuroethics, which keeps a watchful eye on the clinical application of findings from neuroscience, is quite healthy and vigorously active. There is a good system of checks and balances on neuroscience."
Biological testing could be used to tailor rehabilitation programs to individual criminals, and those offenders could be identified long before their violence escalates, said James Blair, chief of the National Institute for Mental Health's unit on affective cognitive neuroscience and a member of The Avielle Foundation's science advisory board.
"These are emotional problems, and normally we want to help people with emotional problems. It stops being complicated simply because most people want to help," Mr. Blair said. "We're talking about emotional disorders and we know we can help."
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, wants to ensure resources are available to fund research into the connection between mental health and violence. He also wants to ensure that money already allocated isn't being wasted. As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, he has requested an accounting of all federal dollars spent on mental health research to ensure research efforts aren't being duplicated across multiple agencies.
Coordination of research efforts could help federal dollars stretch further, he said. Research is advancing quickly, but there is much more to be done, he said.
"Will we be able to predict by some blood test or some saliva test what a person's behavior is going to be? I doubt it. But will it tell us there is an increased risk for that? I think so, and that's important," Mr. Murphy said.
Several federal agencies including the Institute for Justice and the National Institute for Mental Health already are involved in studies on the connection between physiological characteristics and the propensity for aggression. One such study using magnetic resonance imaging of the brain involves connections between changes in the brain and aggression.
Researchers have identified two types of emotional problems that put people at risk for aggression. One makes people hypersensitive to threats and therefore more likely to lash out, and the other involves a decreased capacity for empathy, said Mr. Blair.
Both are correlated to observable changes in the brain that can be seen using magnetic resonance imaging, he said.
Several other studies also are underway.
One enzyme already has been linked to violent behavior. Monamine oxidase A, the gene responsible for it, is commonly known as MAOA but it's also been called "the warrior gene." Everyone has it but in slightly different variations, one of which has been shown to correlate to aggressive behavior.
But plenty of meek people have the variation, and many without it have committed violent crime, said Lisa S. Parker, director of the University of Pittsburgh's master's program in bioethics.
"Genetics is, at most, a small part of the story," Ms. Parker said. "A major concern is that we would rely on genetics and inappropriately treat people who may have gene variations associated with violence but have no real likelihood of being violent because of other aspects affecting behavior."
Still, it can be useful to identify biomarkers in order to develop good treatments, she said. But that's only a small part of the solution to violence in society.
Mr. Richman agrees.
"What we're proposing isn't an alternative to fixing gun laws and addressing what it means to be safe in our communities. We want both," Mr. Richman said.
"As parents, you want to leave a legacy in your child but now we have to leave the legacy for Avielle."
For more information about The Avielle Foundation, visit www.aviellefoundation.org.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: 703-996-9292, email@example.com or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.