I’ve been reading a great deal about the Sandy Hook shooting and shooter and have been intrigued by the effort by so very many to try to make this incident be about the astonishing inadequacy of our mental health system. If you read carefully, there aren’t any credible diagnoses of Adam Lanza’s mental condition (certainly by no one who could make that diagnosis). All there is are reports that he may have been on the ASD spectrum, reports that seem rooted in a comment by the shooter’s brother and some comments from classmates of Lanza’s. The other thing that is out there is the rationalization — that somehow it is a given that this person was mentally ill because sane people don’t perpetrate this kind of violence. Both of these narratives — without good support — help to shift the conversation away from the the plain fact that it is amazingly easy to acquire the means to quickly disrupt a community with massive acts of violence.
One of the major injustices of American life is the lack of access to adequate mental health care. This woman’s story (I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother) tells the tale all too well. Between an inadequate number of facilities and practitioners, insurance that won’t cover the need, and the challenges of long term treatment of some issues, we’ve largely made sure that the mentally ill are left to the kinds of strategies that this mother tried to keep it all manageable. You can imagine that this mom and her other kids were largely held hostage to this one kid’s issues and potential to do harm. And yet for all too many, the best management skills of parents is about all there is for treatment of young people. Criminalizing these folks or leaving them to the state isn’t a functional choice — there’s little treatment down that route, just jail cells other containment. And everyone is right — it doesn’t have to be this way.
On the other hand, Lanza’s violent crime may or may not be due to mental illness, but the fact that the tools of unspeakable violence were readily available to him is still the problem that our society continues to enable. Because the ready availability of those tools are available to everyone — not matter your mental health status — and it is for certain that it is not all mentally ill people who are damaging our communities and threatening our safety. In fact, it is the mentally ill who are especially vulnerable to the perpetrators of violent crime. But focusing on mental health as the symptom, we get to gloss over the fact that we won’t be eliminating dangerous people — if anything, because a fair number of them are quite sane.
This graph clearly shows how violent a place the United States is. (From the blog’s discussion of this graph: The following figures are from the OECD for deaths due to assault per 100,000 population from 1960 to the present. As before, the most striking features of the data are (1) how much more violent the U.S. is than other OECD countries (except possibly Estonia and Mexico, not shown here), and (2) the degree of change—and recently, decline—there has been in the U.S. time series considered by itself.) This time series documents deaths by assaults of all kinds, not just guns, but this should break the heart of every citizen. How can this be us? And while these deaths are on a decline, we are still a clear outlier — we are still subject to an entire industry fronted by their political arm hellbent on scaring us in to the false security of guns that will save us from the ever growing hordes. But go back and look at that graph. That isn’t a story of mental illness.
Blow up a Federal building and manufacturers, sellers and buyers are required to live with a new regulatory regime designed to be able to track where these chemicals go and with whom. Try to make meth from OTC cold medications, and buyers of the same OTC cold medications now have to produce photo ID and sign a certification so that law enforcement can spot trends in buying habits. Hijacked planes created the metal detector scans and baggage inspections designed to reduce the opportunity to bring coercive weapons on board. Planes flown into buildings lock down airports and passengers in imperfect and sometimes useless ways that are supposed to prevent these machines from being weapons of mass destruction.
Yet massacre after massacre, death after death, our response is the same. Nothing. Or I should say, the usual handwringing, the usual political suspects trying to make it difficult to discuss the danger that guns (or certain ones of them) present to all of us, and the idiotic “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Planes don’t kill people, people flying planes kill people. Right? The people are the common denominator here and when people fly planes into buildings, we don’t mind figuring out how to make that project alot harder in the future, and at considerable inconvenience to the rest of us. Weapons like the Bushmaster .223 aren’t for hunting or personal protection and yet their efficiency at slaughtering people is unmistakable. (This is the same gun that the Beltway sniper used too) It only took the people in Britain one school slaughter to ban most handguns. And while Great Britain does still experience deaths via firearms, it does so at a rate 30 times less than ours (per capita).
I want more of us to have Mayor Bloomberg’s attitude:
But Bloomberg has gone further than anybody, both in pointing out what should be the obvious, and in calling on President Obama to step up to the challenge. “It only happens in America,” he said today on “Meet the Press.” “And it happens again and again. There was another shooting yesterday. Three people killed I think in a hospital. We kill people in schools. We kill them in hospitals. We kill them in religious organizations. We kill them when they’re young. We kill them when they’re old. And we’ve just got to stop this.”
And to make sure you tell your government representative everywhere that you want it to stop too — and that these representatives need to commit to some leadership on this thing.