Thursday, April 26, 2007

Guns, mental health and Virginia Tech

Authorities involved in the investigation of the Virginia Tech massacre report the shooter was able to get off 170 shots in nine minutes with his two semi-automatic handguns. That’s a shot about every three seconds leaving thirty dead plus the shooter and fifteen wounded. (Two others were murdered at a separate shooting earlier.)

The media has focused on sappy feel-good (or feel-sad) stories and have tried to elevate this very real tragedy into a national trauma comparable to September 11th. However, despite efforts by some to avoid debate about larger issues regarding handguns that debate, as well as how to improve our community mental health systems, needs to move forward. The issues of mental health and guns in society just happened to have overlapped in this particular instance but both need attention. (Interestingly, we have not been advised – that I am aware of – that it is a violation of common decency to discuss issues about the mental health system. Only guns.)

NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) has some recommendations on their web site in reaction to the Virginia Tech shooting. There is also article from their fall newsletter about mental illness issues on college campuses. These can be starting points for discussion.

But as Robert Reich points out there is no small amount of irony that it is easier to get a gun than a prescription for Prozac:
In the United States, if you are seriously depressed, you can purchase anti-depressive drugs like Prozac, but only if you have a prescription from a doctor. Anti-depressants are enormously beneficial to millions of people but they are also potentially dangerous if used improperly. So, you have to see a doctor and get an assessment before you can go to a drug store and purchase one.

But in the United States, in places like Virginia, a seriously depressed or deranged person can walk into a store and buy a semi-automatic handgun and a box of ammunition. All you need is two forms of identification. You don’t need permission from a doctor or counselor or anyone in the business of screening people to make sure they’re fit to have a gun.
Of course, there are some loose restrictions to purchasing guns in Virginia but the Virginia Tech shooter fell through the cracks in the law. These restrictions are loose for a reason – there is a lobby that works hard to keep it that way. This editorial from today’s New York Times that sums up the situation:
… The National Rifle Association and the gun lobby have silenced every legislature in this country. Instead of stricter laws, tighter controls and better background checks, the gun lobby proposes more guns. And what the gun lobby proposes, lawmakers deliver.

Seung-Hui Cho bought his guns illegally, though with the appearance of legality. He slipped through a loophole, through a disconnect between the way Virginia defines a disqualifying mental incapacity and the way the federal government does. After the fact, the loophole is self-evident, and it’s tempting to believe that now political leaders will work harder to keep people who are dangers to themselves from becoming dangers to others by buying guns. But the laws are as fragile and imperfect as they are because that is how the gun lobby wants them — and it is paying good money to keep them that way.

Those gun advocates who believe that the Second Amendment confers the right to carry a gun in public are quick to point out that they are law-abiding, decent citizens trying to protect themselves and their families in a world gone mad. But, of course, the guns can’t tell the difference. Arming more people would be a recipe for disaster.

True safety lies in the civility of society, in laws that publicly protect all of our rights and in having law-enforcement officers who are trained in the use of deadly force, then authorized to apply it in rationally defined situations. It is the gun lobby’s incessant efforts to weaken the gun laws that makes a tragedy like the one at Virginia Tech possible.
I don’t pretend to have the answers but I do know the time is overdue to start asking questions.


Anonymous said...

Molon Labe!

Sisyphus said...