An unimaginable tragedy has taken place in Newtown, CT. Elementary school children have been killed and the nation, rightly, is shocked. The inevitable questions are being asked and the usual suspects are being brought out. I’m going to forgo the theological question for a change; I believe John Piper has admirably answered the question of theodicy when he spoke about the 2004 tsunami.
Instead I’m going to speak to the issue of how this could happen and what we should do about it. The number one usual suspect in these cases is gun control. The man entered an elementary school with an assault rifle, shouldn’t we ban assault rifles? The president has made rumblings about more gun control when he gave an otherwise wonderful eulogy at the school. And though I think we need to reform our gun laws, I don’t think doing so will solve the problem.
Hunter Baker proposed a different answer than gun control. He has suggest increasing security at our schools. The gunman shouldn’t have been able to entire the building to begin with. I’m not crazy about militarizing our schools or turning them into a prison in order to keep bad people out. Besides, in Newtown the gunman broke into the building, he didn’t walk in the front door and start shooting.
Here’s something that isn’t being said in this discussion. Lanza didn’t kill those children simply because he owned a gun or only because he had access to a school; he killed children because he was mentally disturbed. Now I don’t want to make it sound like all mass murderers are insane. I think it is pretty clear that Anders Breivik was and is quite sane, he’s just evil. But many mass shootings are done by mentally disturbed individuals. So before we fix the schools or our laws, how about if we consider the individual, the gunman first. A man in China, just a few days before the Sandy Hooks tragedy, attacked school children with a knife, stabbing many and killing a few. And the ironic thing is that China had banned the sale of knives not that long before this happened during the inauguration of their new president or whatever they call him. The man was mentally ill whether he had a knife or a gun or a bag of rocks.
There is a fascinating article from March 2012 on this issue at The Federalist Society website. Here are some statistics they cited:
- In the 1980s, the frequency of mass murders increased.
- Guns did not become more available during this time, indeed federal and state laws became more restrictive.
- Assault rifles and other types of guns weren’t introduced in this timeframe, they’d been available well before the increase started.
What caused the increase in violence if it wasn’t the availability of guns? By the 1980s, over 90 percent of the chronically mentally ill patients lived outside mental hospitals. A process of “deinstitutionalization” was began in the 1950s with the goal of moving mental patients from long-term care in an institution into community-based treatment. This sounds like a good thing. There are horror stories of what happened in mental health institutions and I’m sure many are true and many more that were never told.
The net result though, was that people who needed special care were returned to their homes and taken care of on an outpatient basis. That meant that families who were unprepared had to care for family members, some of whom were dangerous to themselves and others.
While it is wrong for us to dump the mentally ill into hospitals where there is abuse and neglect, it seems to me to be equally wrong to pull them from places that could help and put them out on the street. Add to this the fact that healthcare laws have changed quite a bit since the 1950s so that it is hard to medicate or institutionalize an individual against their will. But it may be that the patient is the one who is least capable of making a good decision about medication and hospitalization for themselves.
In Connecticut, weeks before the Sandy Hook attack, a bill that would have made it easier to do these things for the mentally ill was defeated because of concerns about patient privacy and rights. I’m not going to claim that had the bill passed the attack wouldn’t have occurred, but it is ironic how these things work out.
The bottom line is that we need to figure out a way to take better care of our mentally ill citizens. There was a jarring article I first saw at the Huffington Post that made this very point. A mother of a disturbed 13 year old told the story of how ill equipped she is to care for her son. Here is an example of her life that she shared:
A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan—they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.
Surely we can do better for the families and for the individuals. Suppose that Michael eventually acts on his violent threats, thought I pray he does not. What will become of Michael and his family is what has become of Adam Lanza and his mother. The media will turn him into a monster and cast a long look sideways at his mother. What about long term care by professionals in an environment where it will be more difficult to Michael and others like him to harm people? Unfortunately, the money and political will aren’t there. I know of a family whose young adopted child sounds a lot like Michael. The child was finally admitted into State care where they were beginning to get to the real issues. Unexpectedly, the case worker said that they might not have enough money to complete the treatment and the child may have to come home. In many ways this child may be worse and the family in greater danger than if the treatment process had never started.
The “answer” to Sandy Hook and other horrific shootings is complex and I don’t want to narrow it to one issue. But I think the way to begin fixing it is by taking a look at the individual responsible first. Sure, make it harder for them to get dangerous weapons. Sure, make sure our schools are safe places for our children to learn. But what always seems to get missed in this discussion is what we are guilty of doing and not doing for the individual who caused the horror to begin with.
It seems unlikely that Obamacare will actually go away and it looks like reforming it will be an uphill battle. Such is life. But I think a prime candidate for the use of federal and state monies is in caring for the mentally ill. We have got to come up with something better than deinstitutionalization without returning to the dark days of Nurse Ratched. Surely by now we can do better than either of these alternatives.
The Emptying of Mental Institutions – First Things
Wrong Answers for Mass Shooting – Reason
Why Not Renew the “Assault Weapons” Ban? Well, I’ll Tell You… – A “leftist who loves guns.”
Choose Your Own Crime Stats – Amidst the Noise (video)
Senator Greg Ball NY Senate Comments – Video