That's right. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about Khalid al-Mihdhar and 9/11, or James Eagan Holmes opening fire on movie-goers in Colorado, or more recently, Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old responsible for the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. We now know that in each of these cases, the assailants felt they no longer had a reason to live. And it is this unnatural state that enabled them to commit unimaginable acts. Once a person makes a decision to die, the most abhorrent atrocities become permissible. There are no longer any consequences to fear: no arrest, no jail, no trial, no families of the victims to face, no remorse, no nothing. Dead is dead.

Historical anomaly

Consider this: John Wilkes Booth didn't shoot up the Ford Theater. After aiming his gun at President Lincoln, he ran. He hid. He tried to get away. The same goes for Lee Harvey Oswald. He didn't open fire on the people who lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the president's motorcade. Even disturbed killers such as Ted Bundy, Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy went to great lengths to keep their crimes hidden. Why? Because the drive to survive — to thrive, to propagate — is the strongest instinct among all living organisms. Self-preservation is a fundamental urge in nature. But in recent times, this instinct has gone awry.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antidepressants are now the most prescribed drugs in the USA, climbing almost 400% from 1988-94 through 2005-08. Not surprisingly, the biggest jump is among preschoolers and adolescents. And if that isn't a clear warning of what lies ahead, then perhaps the fact that an estimated 1 million people in the U. S. report attempting to commit suicide each year — and that one succeeds every 14 minutes — will trigger an alarm. The number of people who no longer wish to live has been steadily rising in the past two decades, even before the recession. That suicide rate among military veterans we are so worried about? It is rising to civilian levels.

And it's not just the U.S. Globally, suicides have risen 60% in the past 45 years. We have a widespread affliction on our hands that is affecting the entire human race. An affliction we understand very little about. An affliction we continue to sweep under the rug and blame on guns, the economy and every other thing. An affliction that has become a preamble for mass murder.

Small actions don't help

I wouldn't go so far as to say that separating motive from means won't be helpful. We can and should make it difficult for unstable citizens to get a gun, rent a plane, build a bomb or have access to deadly poisons. But in terms of the bigger picture, these solutions look disturbingly similar to raising the debt ceiling, taxing the wealthy and claiming we've addressed our fiscal problems. Or drilling for more oil and behaving as if we'll never run out. We know these quick fixes are designed to ameliorate our immediate pain, but they don't go to the heart of the matter.

Today, fast-firing assault weapons grab international attention, but that is not what makes people like Adam Lanza so dangerous or what gives us reason to fear more such attacks; it's the fact that Lanza had no will to live. That's not a problem that can be solved by gun control or arming school guards.

It is a problem about people. The reach of the problem is far deeper. The CDC reports a million Americans try to kill themselves every year, but twice as many make plans to do it. While suicide claims a victim four times an hour, one of our friends, family members or neighbors thinks about it every two minutes.

If we have any hope of curbing tragedies such as Columbine and Sandy Hook, we must not allow rhetoric or short-term mitigation overshadow the opportunity to address the real culprit behind mass violence.

Thriving, happy, connected human beings don't use guns to harm others, no matter how plentiful. They don't fashion fertilizer or airplanes into bombs. And they don't need the government to regulate these things. Nature has designed us so that the will to live acts as a deterrent against anything that threatens our continuation — including opening fire in a public place.

Fix this, and it won't be long before gun control is superseded by self-control. And at the end of the day, isn't this a far more lasting alternative than surrendering hard-won liberties?

Rebecca D. Costa, author of The Watchman's Rattle: A Radical New Theory of Collapse, is aformer CEO and founder of Silicon Valley start-up Dazai Advertising.