Mental Illness Is A Problem, But It Isn’t The Same As Our Gun Problem

Filed in National by on December 17, 2012

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.

About the Author ()

"You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas." -Shirley Chisholm

Comments (15)

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  1. puck says:

    Here’s a crazy idea – we can provide more support for mental health AND add some reasonable restrictions on guns and ammo. Seems like one is always an excuse not to do the other.

  2. pandora says:

    I’m all for providing more mental health support and reasonable restrictions on guns. I’m just not willing to always link the two.

    That said, I agree with Cassandra – we have got to stop deflecting the debate to, “Hey, crazy people will be crazy. Live (or die) with it.”

    That is the political position of the NRA – even though the NRA creates paranoid people with all their The government is coming to get you and your guns.

  3. pandora says:

    Here we go again:

    Two police officers were killed outside of a Topeka, Kan. grocery store on Sunday. Authorities were still in search of the 22-year-old male suspect as of Sunday night. The Topeka police chief said the suspect has a criminal record, but a motive for the shooting was unclear.

    Cpl. David Gogian, 50, and Officer Jeff Atherly, 29, arrived as backup to a fellow officer who was responding to a report regarding a suspicious vehicle outside of the store. They were both shot fatally in the head shortly after their arrival.

    And again:

    There was another public shooting this morning, this time at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham, Ala. According to WAFF:

    The incident happened around 4am. Police Sergeant Johnny Williams tells FOX6 News that a man with a gun, shot two employees as well as a police officer. A second officer shot and killed the unidentified gunman.

    And again:

    LAS VEGAS (AP) — A man shot and fatally wounded a woman, then killed himself Friday at the Excalibur hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip, sending many patrons fleeing in fear.

    Toss the Oregon Mall shooting into this week’s headlines and then tell me we don’t have a problem.

  4. cassandra m says:

    Seems like one is always an excuse not to do the other.

    That’s true, and we never seem to do either. My point is that mental illness is not the root of our violent culture. Everyone with mental issues should have reasonable access to good treatment, whether they have violent tendencies or not. We seem to want to rush right by our bred-in-the-bone violent culture to convince ourselves that it is the fault of mental illness. And it isn’t true.

  5. TeleMan says:

    Mental illness and the free access to firepower may be the two poles of this debate, but I believe there is far more to it than that. It is a multi-layered morass that we find ourselves. How have we gotten so disconnected?

    We live in a very wealthy society compared to the rest of the world, and Newtown CT could be described as a Perfect Little Town, and a wealthy one as well. Yet this isolated and insulated citizen is capable of pulling off a tragedy of such magnitude. More than anything, modern life enables escapism. Plug in the iPod and abuse yourself with heavy metal, live in an alternative reality on Second Life, or Facebook. We’ve been bowling alone for a long time. And I have to believe as the story unfolds that there was a lot of dysfunction in this household. The maternal gun lust has to be some kind of red flag. Divorce, inability to cope, inability to parent. This is not blame, I just suspect there is a lot more to it. But if there was a stronger family, a stronger community, a stronger church, just maybe… we’ve definitely lost something. And the causes are manifold. That debate is endless.

    What I don’t get is the association to violence. How does that come about? Is the violence as unreal as the rest of this person’s experience, or is it some kind of accumulated rage? Is it a crafted statement to slaughter innocent children? I cannot grasp that.

  6. pandora says:


    December 17, 2012 ( NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.) — A man who fired about 50 shots in the parking lot of a crowded Southern California shopping mall, sending shoppers sprinting for safety, was cooperative when officers took him into custody, authorities said Sunday.

    Keep moving, folks. Nothing to see here.

  7. pandora says:

    And AGAIN:

    Police arrested a Los Angeles man Sunday for threatening to carry out shootings at elementary schools, the LA Times reported. Police found multiple weapons at the man’s home. From the LA Times:

  8. Dana Garrett says:

    Those who said above that we need to address both better diagnosis and treatment of those with mental disorders and the easy access to guns by anyone are correct. It is also true that there is not a high correlation between mental illness per se and violence. But when you bore down into specific types of mental illnesses, you see that for some the correlation is higher, illnesses like schizophrenia and some forms of bipolar depression. I wish that weren’t true, but from what I’ve read it is. If that is the case, then social policy needs to become fact based and reflect the facts.

  9. X Stryker says:

    TeleMan: Most of Europe has a higher degree of atheism than America, and they watch the same movies we do, more or less, and definitely play the same video games. And yet, vastly lower gun violence per capita. Imagine that.

  10. puck says:

    ” And yet, vastly lower gun violence per capita.”

    I guess it depends on how far back you go.

  11. puck says:

    We need to search for the root of the senseless violence in our culture no matter where it leads.

  12. Scritchy says:

    “Hijacked planes created the metal detector scans and baggage inspections designed to reduce the opportunity to bring coercive weapons on board.”

    30,000+ die per year in car crashes, the vast majority of which are completely avoidable. Texting and driving, proven more dangerous thaqn DUI, goes virtually unenforced and hardly penalized. But have a couple glasses of wine out with dinner, and lose your license for 6 months.

    Nobody cares because all of these incidents are relative small numbers of people at a time. Texting and driving is still an acceptable behavior, because out of the dead, ‘only’ 6,000 of those are tied to distracted driving. If it wasn’t, it would carry the same penalties as DUI and be enforced as such.

    I have long maintained that the govt’s job should be strictly about total numbers, not counting per incident. The fact this was mostly children does elevate the level of shock to the nation, but if it was all adults, not so much. In either case, come back in a month from now, and it’ll be business as usual with no meaningful change. With over 300 million of these things floating around out there, nothing they can do now – beyond outright confiscation on a massive scale – will keep these weapons out of the hands of anyone who seriously wants to pull this off again.

  13. puck says:

    The most counter-intuitive part of this is the complicity of the gun nut mother.

  14. cassandra m says:

    And AGAIN:

    Sheriff’s officials say a man opened fire in a San Antonio movie theater parking lot, wounding one person before an officer shot him inside the theater.