On the other hand, if we look at the solutions that have been demonstrated to work — such as increasing the number of psychiatric beds available per capita and making emergency involuntary commitment statutes less restrictive (as discussed in Prof. Segal’s paper) — we can reduce murder rates regardless of weapon type.
However, because these involve state law changes, they must be the subject of state legislation, not congressional action. Congress can shine a bright light on the problems that the well-intentioned policy of deinstitutionalization caused, but state legislatures must take principal responsibility for solving these problems.
There has been considerable discussion of the problems of mentally ill offenders not ending up on the national firearms background check system. As an example, Massachusetts has supplied one such name to the national background check system since 1999 (as a test), apparently because the state’s mental health law prohibits such disclosures. Fourteen states have submitted less than five mental health records during that time.
While it would certainly be good for the states to submit records of involuntary commitments and adjudications of mental defect to the national background check system, this alone will make only a small difference because so many states do not involuntarily commit persons who clearly are severely mentally ill. As an example, Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Rep. Giffords and killed six others in Tucson, was expelled from college because of his bizarre, frightening, and obviously mentally ill behavior. Yet because he was never involuntarily committed, his name was never submitted to the national background check system, and he was able to purchase a firearm without restriction. Similarly, Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, because he was not involuntarily committed for his bizarre, frightening, and obviously mentally ill behavior, was able to purchase a firearm as well. (He was ordered to undergo outpatient treatment, but did not do so, and fell through the cracks.)
The core problem is that states are failing to provide involuntary mental health services to persons who are clearly too ill to recognize that they are ill. In 1960, it was possible to pretend that leaving such persons to their own devices was only an individual tragedy. Today we have too many examples to pretend that this zealous protection of the right of the mentally ill to die of exposure or by their own hands does not also have horrendous consequences for the larger society.
Let me emphasize that this problem of mass murder by the deinstitutionalized mentally ill is not unique to the United States. My Engage article gives examples of many such mass murderers in Europe as well, and at rates not so terribly different from us, in spite of Europe’s generally stricter gun-control laws.
What is this going to cost? Perhaps nothing at all. Enclosed please find a draft of a paper I prepared for the Independence Institute after the Aurora shootings last year: “Reforming Colorado Mental Health Law.” My estimate, based on figures put together for a Colorado task force looking into this problem, suggests that the states are spending about $3 billion a year in current and future costs prosecuting and incarcerating mentally ill murderers. Costs for prosecution and imprisonment of other severely mentally ill felons are likely on a similar scale. You can provide a lot of mental health services, both inpatient and outpatient, for that kind of money without even considering the other social costs that deinstitutionalization has produced.
The United States is at something of a crossroads here: we can remain focused on gun control, or we can look at the root cause of not only the random acts of mass murder, but many other serious social maladies. The deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has played a destructive role not only with respect to crime, but also with the degradation of urban life, and with the barbarous degradation of mentally ill people, who are a large fraction of the homeless in our country.