Mental Health

Should You Blame Jared Loughner's Mental Problems for Shootings?

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by Patricia Salber

The more we learn about Jared Loughner, the perprtrator of last weekend’s horrific attacks at a political gathering in Tucson, the more apparent it becomes that he is likely schizophrenic.  He is in the age range when the disease first manifests and the descriptions of his behavior as well as his writings and postings on the internet are certainly compatible with the diagnosis.  Even if it turns out there is a different diagnosis, say methamphetamine intoxication or other drug-induced state, the journalists and  pundits on the TV shows this weekend who blamed the perpetrator’s “deranged mind” all seemed to miss what I think are  other key questions about how this young man came to kill and seriously wound so many people.

Yes, I think it likely that the hyper-polarized political environment that exists in our country today may have played a role – or at least provided what Jared “thought” was a reasonable target.  The fact that incivility and threats of violence are now commonplace in our political discourse may have also helped focus Jared’s “deranged mind” on a political, as opposed to some other, target.   These issues should be addressed going forward.  However, I believe that the talking heads on weekend TV shows failed to discuss key factors that likely contributed to the events in Tuscon.  Our national discussion of this  tragedy needs to be broader and include debate on questions such as these :

1.  Why wasn’t Jared forced to seek mental health attention?  One news report said that he had been told that he could not return to classes at Pima Community College until he had a note from a doctor stating that he was “not a danger to himself or others.”    Who was “responsible” for being sure he got evaluated and, if indicated, treated for his thought disorder?  Jared himself?  His parents?  The police who took him home to his parents after his suspension?  Evaluation and treatment of major mental illness should not be left to affected individual as, by definition, that person has impaired judgement.  We know that even highly educated, mentally sound people struggle to maneuver their way through our complex, fragmented, patient-unfriendly (translate “broken”) mental health “system.”  Failure to have clear lines of accountability to ensure the diagnosis and treatment of  people with major thought disorders will have, as we witnessed this weekend, serious consequences for the patient, his family and society.

2.  Given the widely observed bizarre behavior Jared exhibited, why was he able to legally purchase a gun?  Arizona law makes it illegal to sell or transfer a firearm to a prohibited possessor, defined as any person who has been found to be mentally ill by a court.   As far as we know, this was not the case with Jared Loughner….but it should have been.  Failure to use his bizarre behavior to trigger a mental health evaluation was the first “defect” in the chain of events which led to the shootings.  This defect then led to the second key contributer – the legal purchase of a gun.

Now I know the mantra, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  Yes, you usually need a human finger on the trigger, but guns allow that person who wants to or feels compelled to kill, to kill and maim much more efficiently and effectively.  Does anyone really believe that 6 people would have died and another 10 or so been wounded, if the perpetrator only had a knife?

3.  The final question that needs to be explored is do we want to continue to maintain easy availability of semi-automatic weapons – weapons that can kill lots of people in a very short amount of time.   We seem to have the gun conversation every time we have a mass murder in the US (and that is far more frequently than in any other developed country), but we keep coming up with the same answer:   “keep your hands off of my guns.”

The Second Amendment rhetoric usually pops up after emotions and outrage have died down – usually about a week or so after the event.  By then, most folks are calmer are once again open to the all too familiar gun rights arguments – you know what I mean – “if we control guns, then only criminals will have guns”, “it is my constitutional right to defend my family (my property, myself, etc.)”.  The pro-gun people are quiet right now but look for them to ramp up the rhetoric by week’s end.  That’s fine – free speech and all of that.  But I would like to remind you, my dear readers of something you already know from other realms of your lives:  If we keep on doing the same things, in the same ways, as we have always done in the past, we should not be surprised when we get exactly the same results.

That thought leads me to pose one final question in this august post:  Is that what we really want?