In the Arena

The Real Gun Violence Discussion

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Pete Wehner, with whom I’ve been known to disagree, has some wise things to say about the facile moral posturing that has attended much of the commentary about the Newtown massacre. We’ve been too focused on the need for gun control and spent too little time talking about the far more difficult part of the problem: mental health.

Let me be clear: I favor gun control. I find the National Rifle Association an abhorrent organization, feeding the wingnut paranoia about President Obama, fattening its coffers with funds donated by uninformed, frightened, gullible sorts in the hinterlands. There is no need for civilians to have semi-automatic weapons. There is no need for clips that contain more than six bullets. There is no need for some of the more exotic and lethal sorts of ammunition, like those used by Adam Lanza. Indeed, I’d favor a very stiff tax on bullets, first proposed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

But we can’t be delusional about this. We had a 10-year assault weapons ban; the number of mass shootings went down, but the Columbine massacre also took place during those ten years. We can’t underestimate the ability of a twisted mind to get the resources to do horrific things whether the weapons are legal or not.

And the twisted-mind part of the program is something we’re not talking about nearly enough. As a society, we have abdicated our responsibility to protect ourselves from the violent mentally ill, and also to protect them from themselves. What do most of these recent shootings have in common? The shooter was identified as a potential problem in advance, but nothing was done about it. That was true in Tucson, and Aurora–both shooters were identified by staff psychologists at their schools–and it was true in Newtown, where Nancy Lanza desperately sought help and couldn’t find the sort she needed.

Tonight, across America, there are parents of mentally ill children who live in fear that their son–and yes, it’s a boy problem–will be tomorrow’s Adam Lanza. Their anguish is every bit as heart-rending as the pain felt by the parents of the victims–perhaps more so, because it can seem a never-ending nightmare. The problem is especially intense when the child reaches the age of legal maturity–18 in most places–after which parents have no legal right to monitor their child’s medications, no right to force them to get help or have them restrained in a residential care setting.

Fifty years ago, we put such people in mental hospitals–but that was an inhumane solution and there was great hope that medication could replace restraint, and that more humane halfway houses could replace the hospitals. And medication did make a big difference, but not with a particular type of violent behavior; and no one wanted to have halfway houses for the mentally ill in their neighborhood. And so this problem has festered, and grown with leaps in technology–with the power of semi-automatic weapons, with fantastic video games that smudged the difference between virtual carnage and the real thing.

So what do we do? We can’t put people who “fit the profile” behind bars prospectively. But we can further empower parents, psychologists and law enforcement to make decisions about medication and control if there have been any,¬†especially repeated,¬†instances of violence. Obviously, we need to spend more money on creating a rational mental health system with humane residential settings that are located in sparsely populated areas. We can find that money by reforming the nation’s ridiculous drug laws, reducing our prison population of nonviolent offenders, and spending the money on the violent mentally ill.

Obviously, we have to be very careful about this. We can’t just toss difficult, creative sorts into lockup and throw away the key. We certainly won’t be able to predict every shooter. No doubt, some civil libertarians will oppose any weakening of individual rights–but their slippery slope arguments seem as credible right now as the NRA’s opposition to banning assault weapons and cop-killer bullets. We can find a reasonable middle ground that protects the rights of the mentally ill, but respects the wishes of their families and their communities. I believe the need for public safety in the midst of this plague, and the need to provide relief to the parents of these damaged souls, requires that we make a much greater effort to identify, treat and, if necessary, restrain those who think they can find personal epiphanies in mass slaughter. In the end, that may well be a more important piece of the puzzle than gun control.

Update: If this is true–a necessary caveat, given the amount of false information the media have circulated in this case–it only reinforces the case for giving parents greater support, of all sorts (therapeutic and legal) in these sorts of cases.