Crazy Gun, Mental Health Policies

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - January 26, 2011
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Smack dab in the middle of the national orgy of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth over the proposition that the recent Arizona massacre was the result of increasingly poisonous political rhetoric from the right, I recently saw a classic example of such rhetoric in the form of a political cartoon.

But this poisonous “rhetoric” was from the left. (The artist scrawled his name indecipherably, so I can’t tell you who it was.)

The cartoon showed Sarah Palin and the GOP elephant standing under a large umbrella labeled “Free speech.” The elephant is labeled “Right Wing Hate” and Palin is holding a sign with the cross hairs of a gun sight and the words, “Time to Reload.” A smoking pistol and several spent cartridges are lying on the ground behind them. Palin is saying, “What? We didn’t pull the trigger!”

The cartoonist is clearly implying that Sarah Palin and her frontier values (“Don’t retreat, reload!”) and Republican “hate speech” somehow motivated shooter Jared Loughner to kill and seriously maim 25 innocent people Jan. 8 in Tucson.

Ironically, instead of our country’s politicos trying to win the highly partisan and divisive “blame game,” our discourse should (again) be aimed at the elephant in the room: our dysfunctional mental health, judicial and firearms laws and policies which, combined, allow seriously disturbed people to evade treatment and buy guns.

Although not an exact replay of the circumstances surrounding 23-year-old Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho’s killing rampage four years ago, there are significant similarities. There had been numerous warning signals reported by fellow students and dorm mates. Ultimately, Cho ignored a judge’s order to seek mental health counseling before stalking and gunning down 32 students and faculty on Tech’s campus.

Tucson’s Loughner had a troubled mental past starting in high school, and had been described by fellow Pima Community College classmates as being moody, antisocial and prone to angry outbursts. His record includes a series of encounters with campus police, and two with Tucson police for drugs and alcohol.

One fellow student, in an e-mail to a New York newspaper, said he “scared the crap out of me.” Another said he always sat in the chair closest to the door when Loughner was in class.

Loughner turned in exams with irrelevant slogans scrawled across the paper, and after eight months was suspended. He then received a letter from the college that said he would be re-admitted only upon presenting a letter from a mental health professional certifying he did not pose a danger to himself or others. He was turned down by the Army when trying to enlist. Some even interpreted his social media postings as subtle cries for help.

The problem is, there’s no system or structure or agency to connect these dots, not with Cho at Virginia Tech or with Loughner in Tucson, or with countless other lunatics who have killed to satisfy their own unknowable demons. This is what the national dialogue should be about. How do we balance involuntary institutionalization (currently 72 hours max) and compulsory medication until a patient is stable enough to medicate voluntarily, with his or her civil rights? How do we streamline the judicial process to facilitate this? How do we track such people to ensure the mentally unstable cannot just walk in and buy a gun over the counter? How do we square with second amendment rights the rational restriction on non-sporting weapons such as automatic/rapid-fire weapons, or restrict the capacity of ammo magazines to minimize the lethality of any one incident?

The bottom line on the Tucson killer: As best we can tell, at this point, he was not motivated by Democrats or Republicans, he was not PO’d at President Obama or Sarah Palin, he was not incited by Rush Limbaugh or Fox News or CNN (one “friend” said Loughner never watched TV news or listened to talk radio). He wantonly slaughtered the innocents, young and old, for his own dark, unfathomable reasons.

This is the problem we should be talking about.

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