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Opening Arguments

Guns and mental illness

Everybody's going to have an opinion about the Connecticut shooting horror. FWIW, here's my two cents in the editorial I wrote for today's paper. It isn't meant to offer solutions, just the place where the conversation should start:

There are two things we desperately need to talk about – the availability of guns and the failures of our mental health systems. We can't seem to talk seriously about either one, but for different reasons.

With guns, it's because of the polarization over the issue.

[. . .]

With mental illness, it's because we're afraid to talk about the subject at all, because those who suffer from it remain the most stigmatized people in America.

[. . .]

[T]he trick is to find the balance between the rights of the individual and the need for public safety.

Finding such balance won't be easy, but the effort is imperative. Only if we make the effort will we ever get to the crux of the matter, which resides at that point where mental illness and access to guns intersect.

Yeah, I know, it reeks of that unhelpful "we must reason together" pompousness, but sometimes nothing else seems appropriate for getting the door open.

I'm generally skeptical of gun control, for all the reasons that have been offered here over the years. We're not likely to get anything new, just a rehash of arguments we've all heard before, the only difference being they will be intensified by the hideousness of this particular outrage. What it boils down to, I think, is: If you can think of a way to get rid of all guns for all time, hooray for you, and let's hear it. Otherwise, there's no way around the fact that a responsible person with a gun is the best defense against an irresponsible person with one. If you want to get into all this again, Glenn Reynolds at Instapundithas a lot of thoughts and a lot of links. This, in a link to a John Fund piece,  especially caught my eye:

Mass shootings are no more common than they have been in past decades, despite the impression given by the media.

In fact, the high point for mass killings in the U.S. was 1929, according to criminologist Grant Duwe of the Minnesota Department of Corrections. . . .

With just one single exception, the attack on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson in 2011, every public shooting since at least 1950 in the U.S. in which more than three people have been killed has taken place where citizens are not allowed to carry guns.

The arguments about the mental illness aspects of such incidents aren't as familiar because, as I said, we haven't really had any serious conversations about it. For anyone who wants to start thinking about it, I offer these two links.

First is this piece by Clayton Cramer about the unintended and, for the most part, unexamined effects of deinstitutionalization:

Deinstitutionalization played a substantial role in the dramatic increase in violent crime rates in America in the 1970s and 1980s. People who might have been hospitalized in 1950 or 1960 when they first exhibited evidence of serious mental illness today remain at large until they commit a serious felony. The criminal justice system then usually sends these mentally ill offenders to prison, not a mental hospital.

The result is a system that is bad for the mentally ill: prisons, in spite of their best efforts, are still primarily institutions of punishment, and are inferior places to treat the mentally ill. It is a bad system for felons without mental illness problems, who are sharing facilities with the mentally ill, and are understandably afraid of their unpredictability. It is a bad system for the victims of those mentally ill felons, because in 1960, a mentally ill person was much more likely to have been hospitalized before victimizing someone else. It is a bad system for the taxpayers, who foot the bill for expensive trials and long prison sentences for the headline tragedies, and hundreds of thousands of minor offenses, instead of the much less expensive commitment procedures and perhaps shorter terms of treatment.

Deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill was one of the truly remarkable public policy decisions of the 1960s and 1970s, and yet its full impact is barely recognized by most of the public. Partly this was because the changes did not happen overnight, but took place state-by-state over two decades, with no single national event. While homelessness received enormous public attention in the early 1980s, the news media’s reluctance to acknowledge the role that deinstitutionalization played in this human tragedy meant that the public safety connection was generally invisible to the general public. The solution remains unclear, but recognizing the consequences of deinstitutionalization is the first step.

Then there  is this blog entry sent along by a reader. It's from someone who calls hersefl The Anarchist Soccer Mom. Her desire to remain anonymous is understandable given the stuff she writes about, including this explanation of why she is terrified by her 13-year-old son:

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.
According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map). Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.


When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges."
[. . .]
No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done."
One reason people don't want to talk about the deinstitutionalization movement or the reluctance to use any kind of confinement today is that the mental health system was so abused for so long. It was true, as Cramer writers, that it was easier for dangerous people to be locked away, but it was also too easy for relatives to have Uncle Albert tossed in the loony bin so they could steal his inheritance, and too many people were wrongly locked away for their eccentricities or no good reason at all. Read about the life of Hollywood star Frances Farmer in the 1940s for one depressing account of what could happen to people back then.
UPDATE: Here is a skeptical -- that is to say, brutally sarcastic -- view of the mental-illness angle:

Self-pity is the enemy of agency, and nothing is more important to recovering from mental illness than acquiring a sense of agency.

If you feel helpless to solve your own problems, you will either (a) descend into a bottomless slough of despair, or (b) engage in scapegoating, blaming other people for your problems. It is reaction (b) that turns otherwise harmless kooks into dangerous menaces.

Sympathy toward the mentally ill often leads to an apologetic attitude of indulgence, of tolerating anti-social behavior, and proclaiming that the poor kook just can’t help himself.

Well, guess what, folks? “Crazy” is not synonymous with “stupid,” and kooks are capable of learned responses. Sympathetic attention is a powerful carrot, to use Cynthia’s analogy, and if being a kook gets you sympathetic attention, then kookiness is thereby incentivized.

Look: Somebody has a mental health crisis and what do they get? Doctors and nurses who are paid to take care of them, to listen to them describe their problems, to supply them with medications and therapy and otherwise invest in their well-being.

They are being rewarded for being crazy.


harl DeLos
Mon, 12/17/2012 - 4:00pm

It's pretty obvious that we cannot get rid of guns, and if you think about it, given a choice, we ought not, either. There are many alternatives to guns which are non-selective.  Box cutters, on 9/1/1, killed more people than any one person could hope to accomplish with guns. A Ryder truck loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer killed more than any gunman in the last century.

And it's not like you can eliminate explosives. Any finely-divided combustible powder will explode. Apartment buildings have been destroyed by someone putting a tablespoon of flour in a brown paper grocery bag, shaking it up so the flour is "floating" in air, and dropping it down the trash chute.

But there is something we can do, and I bring up the subject because we need to figure out how to do it right. When ever there is a prominent suicide, the suicide rate goes up. When ever there is a prominent arson, the arson rate goes up.  When ever there is a prominent highjacking, the highjacking rate goes up for a while. I don't know if seeing someone else do it "gives permission" or if it simply reminds stressed out people that the possibility exists, but monkey hear about, monkey do.

Assuming that the large media companies each decide that minimal news coverage of antisocial acts is the only responsible thing to do, you're going to have people talking about the big media "managing" the news, as if we were all children, and we're all going to wonder what is happening that the big powers want to keep secret.  Modifying the first amendment is even worse.

But it is possible to do something like this.  Shortly after the end of prohibition, the association of Ohio newspapers agreed not to run ads for liqu0r. Since the retailing of liquor was a state monopoly, it made it more practical to reach that agreement; in a state with privately-owned package stores and competitive pricing, newspaper publishers would be forfeiting a much larger chunk of change.

But newspapers withhold the names of juvenile miscreants.  For many decades, newspapers wouldn't use the word rape, which led to curious stories about women being beaten, shot, knived - and then attacked.

But it's cheaper to produce a half-hour of news than almost any other type of television program, and by sensationalizing any event that comes down the pike, you can attract a lot of viewers. I don't think you're going to get the TV news magnates to do the decent thing.  It's a wonder that they don't broadcast X-rated clips captured by security cameras, and defend their actions in the "public's right to know."

The public doesn't have a right to know.  The first amendment protects the rights of those who produce, rather than those who consume, news.


john b. kalb
Tue, 12/18/2012 - 9:07am

Leo - The Clayton Cramer item needs to be made known to the readers of your newspaper!  Your editorial, as you stated, just "scratched the surface" of this topic. Something needs to be done in this area or we are going to be faceing more and more  "Sandy Hook's"

Andrew Jarosh
Tue, 12/18/2012 - 11:37am

So now the solution to gun violence is withholding info from the public. No wonder problems never get solved.

Tim Zank
Tue, 12/18/2012 - 2:36pm

Andrew, that's rich coming from you...you guys withhold information from the public every day...

Andrew Jarosh
Tue, 12/18/2012 - 6:33pm

We only withhold information that supports the conservative point of view

Tim Zank
Tue, 12/18/2012 - 10:49pm

And you do it well..........