Gun Control Is Not Therapy for Mental Illness

By | April 11, 2013 | 0 Comments×226.jpg

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First of all, let us note that the Aurora, Colorado movie theater mass murderer, James Holmes, avoided seven theaters that were within 20 minutes of his home, and instead attacked the only nearby theater that had a “no guns allowed” policy. Why was this fact not mentioned in mainstream media reports? Did they find it insignificant? Or did they find it inconvenient? So much for the value of “gun-free zones.” The murderer may well have been psychotic, but he wasn’t stupid.
When I first read about the mass murder, I wondered whether Dr. Lynne Fenton, the psychiatrist who had been caring for the murderer, had done her duty. I wondered whether she had reported the disturbed student to the authorities. I wondered whether she had made them aware that she considered him a danger to others. I suspected that either the psychiatrist or the authorities, or both, had failed in their duty – and thus made the mass murder possible.
As recently unsealed documents show, to the best of our knowledge, the psychiatrist did what was expected of her. She notified the university administration, which caused the student, James Holmes, to either drop out or take a leave of absence (depending on which news story you read). The university administration, at her prompting, removed the student’s access to restricted areas of the campus. But they did not restrict his access to public areas of the campus – that’s why they’re called public areas.
I am unfamiliar with the laws in Colorado, but I assume they are similar to those in California. Here, under the Tarasoff decision, a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other health professional is obligated to notify the intended victim if he or she believes that a patient is a danger to others. This Dr. Fenton did, as she herself was an intended victim.
And under the Hedlund decision, the health professional must also notify foreseeable bystanders who might be in danger – for example, people working in the same office as the intended victim. This we assume that Dr. Fenton also accomplished. Probably she discussed the situation with her colleagues in the Student Health Center. However, Holmes reportedly expressed thoughts of killing “a lot of people.” Obviously, Dr. Fenton could not notify “a lot of people.” She did her best by notifying the campus police.
Thus my suspicions regarding the psychiatrist were unjustified. From what we know, she did what she could to prevent the tragedy. More information may come out during the trial, but it seems that Dr. Fenton is blameless.
What about the university administration and campus police? Apparently they saw as their responsibility the protection of students and faculty. They were unable to bar access to public areas of the campus without going to court and obtaining a restraining order. It is unclear whether they had enough evidence to do this. And even if they did, who can say what a judge would have done? Besides, this procedure might have pushed Holmes over the edge into psychosis and violence.
There is no report that the campus police notified the local police in surrounding communities – Aurora, for example. They apparently saw their job as protecting the campus, not the public at large. Working in a bureaucracy tends to produce bureaucrats – no surprise here. And the bureaucratic mind tends to be a narrow mind: “I do my job; the rest is somebody else’s problem.”
But what if there is no “somebody else”? What if the “somebody else” is unaware there is a problem, because no one informed him? And even if he were informed, what if “somebody else” has an equally narrow conception of his duty? What if he thinks, “That’s the university’s problem – why are you bothering me?”
As you can see, I have more questions than answers. But at least I’m asking questions. At least I’m aware that mental illness is a serious problem – one that can put others in danger. The fact that only a small minority of the mentally ill, including schizophrenics, become violent is no consolation to the victims of that violent minority.
Yes, let us continue our efforts to keep criminals and mental patients away from firearms. But let us not imagine that this could ever solve the problem of mass murder. What if Holmes owned no guns? He could have driven to a service station, bought containers of gasoline, driven to the theater, lit the gasoline at exits, and killed or horribly burned more victims than he killed by shooting. Would politicians then call for “gasoline control”? Would the PMAA (the Petroleum Marketers Association of America) be condemned for having “blood on its hands,” as was the NRA (the National Rifle Association of America)?
And with the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre still fresh in our minds, let us recall that the worst school massacre in U.S. history occurred in 1927, when a deranged tax protester murdered 44 children with dynamite. Mass murders are nothing new, and they do not require firearms.
Complex problems such as violent crime rarely have simple solutions. If they did, we would have solved them long ago. Mental illness is a complex problem, one that cannot be solved by considering it solely from a civil-rights point of view.
But even from that point of view, the best way to secure the civil rights of the Aurora theater murderer would have been to treat his illness, without his consent if necessary, and save him from becoming a mass murderer. Civil-rights advocates talk incessantly about autonomy. Crazy people have no autonomy – their illness forces them to do crazy things. First we should restore them to mental and physical health, insofar as possible. And then they will be able to make their own decisions – rational decisions.
Speaking of autonomy, it is odd that liberal civil-rights advocates apply the concept so unevenly. These people have no problem with the government telling perfectly healthy individuals what light bulbs and toilets to buy, what dishwashing detergent to use, where to send their children to school, what to feed their children for lunch, and even what size sodas to drink. They see no problem with “autonomy” there.
But when it comes to the homeless, the alcoholic, the drug-addicted, and the mentally ill – the very people least able to make their own decisions – then the civil libertarians suddenly become obsessed with autonomy. Pick up homeless drunks sleeping in doorways, and send them to dry out on the country farm for 30 days, as we used to do? No way! Involuntarily hospitalize psychotics walking up and down the street, talking to themselves and gesticulating? Absolutely not!
We are told we must respect their “autonomy” – to sleep in doorways, to relieve themselves in alleys, to frighten passersby, to be covered with sores and lice, to have untreated diabetes, and just to die. And when New York City started rounding up homeless people and taking them to shelters during a bitterly cold winter, these well-meaning fools went to court to block this program. Apparently they believe in the right to freeze to death, all in the name of “autonomy.”
On the other hand, the mental-health system can become oppressive. In the Soviet Union, political opponents were sent to mental institutions – thus both silencing them and discrediting them. And here, New York State is reportedly confiscating guns from people on anti-anxiety medications – thus trashing both their right to defend themselves and their right to the privacy of their medical records.
We need to find a balance:
● A balance between the rights of accused criminals, and the rights of their potential victims.
● A balance between the right of the mentally ill to refuse treatment, and the right of their potential victims to remain alive.
● A balance between respecting the civil rights of the mentally ill, and respecting their human rights to receive treatment for their disease before it worsens to the point that it produces tragic results – for the patients themselves, and for others as well.
● A balance between the right of society to be safe from mentally ill, violent people, and the right of all people to be safe from an intrusive, oppressive government that uses mental-health laws as an excuse to disarm and discredit political opponents.
I am not wise enough to specify the details of this balance. But at least I can recognize that we as a society must try harder to achieve it.
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