What now?

Like many of us, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we could change the laws in this country so that we might actually be able to prevent incidents like the Connecticut school massacre.

I’ve long been an unenthusiastic supporter of stricter gun control. Supporter because I think the wild proliferation of guns is doing terrible things to our country. (Personally, I’d ban everything but hunting rifles.) Unenthusiastic because I have real doubts that anything other than a near-total prohibition would do much good — and that’s not going to happen.

At the moment, I’m thinking that we should focus on doing much, much more to screen people for mental illness before we allow them to buy guns. I don’t know if it would have mattered in Connecticut, especially if it turns out that the guns were purchased by the shooter’s mother. But it might very well have prevented the Gabrielle Giffords and Virginia Tech shootings.

And since we know that this is going to get bogged down in politics, it also seems to me that keeping paranoid schizophrenics away from guns might be the one issue on which Republicans could be persuaded to stand up to the NRA.

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7 thoughts on “What now?

  1. James Harvey

    Given the anti-science bias of the GOP mainstream these days, I can only imagine the cries of “schizophrenia is a liberal plot to take away our guns!”

    And even in the reality-based part of the political spectrum, I see some potential problems, the biggest of which is that it’s really hard to keep guns out of the hands of paranoid schizophrenics without an easily accessible list/database of every paranoid schizophrenic in the country. But such a list could easily be misappropriated to exclude people from jobs, schools, online dating, etc. Being on the list could be life-ruining.

    Medical confidentiality laws exist for good reason. It’s good public policy for people to be able to talk with their doctors honestly without worrying about what the “wrong” diagnosis might do to their lives. And when medical privacy laws don’t apply, patients do behave differently. Fewer people seek necessary medical attention, and those who do are tempted to understate their symptoms. (I saw this first hand in college, when as a suicide-prevention measure, stressed out students who went to see the campus mental health services were often placed on medical leave for the remainder of the semester, and sometimes longer. Students who could afford it started going to off-campus providers, and others just didn’t seek medical attention at all.)

    Which isn’t necessarily to say that the list would do more harm than good. But it’s definitely a possibility. We can’t just say, “it seems unlikely that anything short of a total ban will be ineffective, but this MIGHT do some good, so let’s try it,” without considering the negative consequences that come along with the policy.

  2. Scott Lazarowitz

    Gun control laws don’t prevent violent psychopaths from committing their crimes. If someone is going to violate laws against murder, assault, and rape, do you really think he is going to obey some gun restriction?

    And more important, the disarmament laws in CT prevented the adults at the school from being able to stop the shooter at the beginning of his rampage. Had an adult there been armed, he or she could have saved the lives of most of the killer’s victims.

    As John Lott pointed out in his book, More Guns, Less Crime, the states and cities with the more restrictive gun laws are the places with the higher rates of crime. That is because when would-be robbers and murderers know that their prospective victims might be armed, the would-be robber/murderer is very likely to decide against committing the crime.

    Americans need to take the emotion out of their arguments, and deal with facts and common sense.

    1. Mike Benedict

      Clearly if only everyone were packing, no one would ever shoot up a place. You know, like the first 125 years of American history.

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  5. Dan Kennedy Post author

    My friend Pat Danielson takes issue with some of what I wrote above. Because she was having trouble posting a comment, I am posting this on her behalf.

    Forty years ago in a small New Hampshire town, a somewhat limited and impoverished student was suspended for some minor offense from the school where I was school psychologist. He returned to school with a rifle and shot out windows across the front of the school. The principal, ex-Army, chained all the outside doors. The English teacher, also ex-Army, ran to each classroom along the of the school and yelled for everyone to hit the floor and crawl into the hall away from the windows. No one was hurt. No newspapers reported the sorry little event. When State Police visited the boy’s mother, she swore that the boy had never left their trailer all afternoon. She correctly guessed that he’d be put into State Care if she admitted he had left her side. He was her only friend in the world. After some court pre-lims he returned to school. School continued with him carefully watched.

    In that same New Hampshire town we had some “bomb threats”. You know how these bomb threats tend to happen on balmy Spring days and students get to spend half an hour outside of class. Some principals determined to discourage bomb threats by keeping everyone outside an unnecessarily long time and then requiring everyone to stay after school to make up the time. Nevertheless bomb threats went viral. Finally my principal was fed up. He arrived at school early one morning and picked up a phone call. When the caller said in properly muffled voice, “There’s a bomb in the locker room,” he replied, “Well, I’m the custodian and I’m nowhere near the locker room. You need to call back after nine o’clock when that lazy principal gets into school.” There was no call back, and the principal never told anyone until after his retirement.

    Then there was Columbine. And massive news coverage.

    Every responsible school administrator developed action plans for how to lock the doors, move the students to safe spaces, screen everyone entering the building, and defend schools from “shooters”. The carefully managed plans were pretty much like what our little staff in New Hampshire had done instinctively. I scoffed because I knew an occasional “crazy” like John Hinkley might try to shoot a celebrity for some fifteen minutes of fame, but I knew that schools are very safe places. It was still more important to teach students to look both ways and be afraid before crossing the street than to teach them to be afraid of entering an elementary school.

    Then my daughter, a former beautiful blond honor student, began to suffer from schizophrenia.

    As a parent of one of the children who was going onto very dangerous paths, I had to do things to her that loving parents should not have to do. I recall her attacking me when she was only fourteen and ninety pounds. I managed to move us back to her bedroom and as soon as she was inside, I pulled the door shut and yelled for her brother. She was inside alone yelling, “Stop hitting me, stop hitting me.” I recall giving her a warm coat with a hood when she kept running away, so, at least, she wouldn’t freeze to death. Her coat got stolen and she went to a police station in Lynn to report the theft. The policeman realized that she was not thinking clearly. He reached out to her and asked if he could take her somewhere to get her help. She broke his arm. A boyfriend taught her to drive and she obtained her driver’s license, but I never let her use my car and eventually made her turn in her license for an identity card. Most difficult, she had two children that she was not allowed to keep and I have raised these boys with her help. She agreed to have her tubes tied so that she would not have more children who would have a chance of inheriting her awful disease.

    So I know that the disaffected and the diseased do sometimes do horrific deeds. I know that we need to care for the different people among us. But I also know that saying that it happened because someone was “paranoid schizophrenic” makes no sense. Kristin is not a “paranoid schizophrenic” . She is a person suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. You would be appalled if a “Little Person” did a crime that hit the news and every Little Person became suspect. Peter Morales would too.

    1. Mike Benedict

      Obviously there is gross overreaction taking place across America right now. Schools are going into lockdown mode, which will be useless of course, unless communities are willing to spend billions on bullet-proof windows. What are they going to do next, surround the Little League fields with the National Guard?

      The biggest victim is our freedom. It’s like 9/11 all over again.

      Millions of Americans suffer from various mental diseases. Very few — an almost unmeasurable percent — ever harm anyone but perhaps themselves. Interestingly enough, the suicide rate in Australia dropped 55% after that nation outlawed guns and launched a massive buyback program. Guns do kill people. Who knew?

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