Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Stop Throwing Them In Jail - We Need Government Assistance With The Mentally Ill



After the horrific Connecticut shooting rampage, there has been an onslaught of rhetoric in the public forum regarding gun control.  Many commentators point to countries such as Japan or Australia that have enjoyed record low incidents of violence involving firearms.  For example, in Australia, a mere 12 days after a 1996 mass shooting of 35 people (and the wounding of 23 more) - the worst mass killing in Australia's history - its legislature enacted laws where (1) the government bought back from the public more than 600,000 semi-automatic guns (almost 1/5 of all firearms in circulation at that time); (2) private sales of firearms were completely prohibited unless the potential buyer could present a "genuine reason" (aside from general self-defense) at the time of purchase; and (3) all weapons were required to be individually registered to their owners.  Since then, no mass shootings.

Or, how about Japan? They only had TWO firearm related homicides last year (as opposed to our approximately 12,000; incredible, even if accounting for population disparities).  In Japan, all firearms, aside from shotguns and air rifles, are banned.  Then, to qualify for a shotgun or air rifle, you have to:  take and pass a shooting-range class; take and pass a mental test (the burden is on the subject to affirmatively prove mental competence) and drug test which get filed with the local police; then pass a rigorous criminal background test.  Any trace of abnormality, no gun for you.  In fact, the default position is that the buyer is not entitled to purchase any fire-arms.  If you get one, you have to provide the police with documentation detailing exactly where in your home the firearm and ammunition are stored both of which must be separately stored and locked. Further, the local police will inspect your registered fire-arm once a year and the owner must re-take the class and exam every 3 years.

You never really hear about civilian mass shootings anywhere else in the world.  Seriously.  It doesn’t happen in France, Australia, Japan, Korea, England.  Once in a blue moon…maybe. But not anywhere near the frequency of the U.S. 

What is the solution?  America definitely has a gun culture.  Whenever I see “regular folks” – who usually come from one of the states listed on the top 20 here – practicing target shooting or proudly lifting the poor head of a beast they shot (way to go, champion!  You are SO COOL and awesome to be attacking a defenceless animal with a FIREARM! That is totally a fair match! You really manifested your prowess and skills!), I cringe.  I'm told time and again that it's part of their "culture."  I don't know where else in the civilized world that playing around with guns is any sort of acceptable, casual past-time.  

Vastly restricting or prohibiting firearm ownership altogether may or may not be the solution - I'll be interested to hear what the NRA's official response to the Connecticut shootings is this Friday.  Based on case studies in other nations that enjoy relative peace from firearm-related homicides, it certainly seems like tightening gun ownership requirements would at least be part of the solution.  But what is more increasingly obvious is that providing institutional assistance for the mentally ill should also be right up there as an integral part of the solution.  

I was moved by this recent Huffington Post article from a mother who lives in daily terror of her own 13-year-old son who exhibits symptoms of manic schizophrenia.  She's set up drills with her other two children where when her 13-year-old starts having a violent tantrum, they have a system where they run to the car and lock themselves in.  She had to set that up because the 13-year-old pulls knives, threatens to kill her and the family or himself when, for example, she asks him to return his library books.  The police and paramedics are routinely called to her home or school because of him.  

I can't imagine what she has to live through.  Imagine being scared of your own children. 

Nobody can deny that all of the shooters from mass shootings are mentally unstable.  And they usually - but not always - were known to their family members and/or their community to have mental issues.  Case in point, Seung-Hui Cho of the Virginia Tech massacre, who had previously been diagnosed as "mentally ill and needing hospitalization."  Nothing whatsoever happened from that report, he kept attending school until one day he shot and killed 32 people with semi-automatic pistols.  Or how about the Laura Dann shootings?  She was a known mental patient, out on the loose, terrorizing her immediate family and ex-lovers, refusing medication and to be voluntarily institutionalized.  She should have been on lockdown as soon as she sent poisoned food to her exes and their children.  But no. She roamed around free as a bird and remained untreated until she went on a shooting spree, killing and wounding innocent children and then fatally shooting herself.    

What's even more interesting is that the families of the victims ended up suing Dann's parents for obstructing the police investigations of the murders.  They settled out of court.  

When I read about that I was incensed at the parents as I'm sure you are, too.  What complete disrespect for the lives of the poor innocents.  But now go back to the Huffington Post article.  This is a PLEA from a parent who is simply unable to control her mentally disturbed son, who acknowledges that her son poses a threat to society but has no resources.  This is not a case of bad parenting.  I am the first to jump on that bandwagon, trust me.  I think parents should take more responsibility for the actions and welfare of their minors including their minors' health (don't get me started on parents who don't properly feed their children...Honeybooboo's mom, I'm looking at you, you seem to be a nice person but you are doing a terrible job as a mom and a disservice to both your daughter and our nation by eating and feeding your family the way you do...Guess who has to pay for your and your children's healthcare?...digression).  But genuine mental instability is something that regular mom and dads are not equipped to handle, they need professional intervention.   

You know what America does with the insane?  It waits until they commit a crime and then throws them in jail.  When she tried to get government help to treat her son, she was advised she really had no options other than to get her 13-year-old son incarcerated (which would start "a paper trail") and then see what happens.  No parent is going to do that. Which means mentally ill children - small or grown, like the Seung-Hui Choi's or Laura Dann's of the world - are just left untreated to roam the streets and pick up a gun leaving society at their mercy.    

We need to do something about this. And of course that involves money; all of our nation's major government-sponsored clinics, institutions and programs for the mentally ill have basically been shut down due to lack of funds.  But if we are serious about making our country a safer place for all of us, we need to resurrect these initiatives.  We are a leading country in terms of research universities and psychology and medicine - why aren't we on the forefront in treating our mentally ill?

EDIT:  
I am in no way excusing murderers or attempting to negate the pure evil and despicableness of their actions.  But just like the dialogue on gun control is not meant to mitigate the evilness of wrongdoers - do you think the Australians or Japanese who supported the gun control measures in their country ever thought that mass murderers were excused from their actions prior to the stricter gun laws? Do you think Americans who believe in stricter gun control laws believe that these shooters were not completely culpable for what they did?? Of course not - neither is talking about mental illness and how it is a huge problem in our country and how it contributes to an unsafe community.  Ignoring this issue and insisting that each person is an island unto him/herself is not going to help the welfare of our society.  I want to live in a safe environment.  I don't want to worry about me or my loved ones or anyone being randomly gunned down at a shopping mall, school or train station.  And I do think remedying the problem of the lack of readily available, cost-effective institutional assistance for the mentally ill has some part in getting there.  

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