Gun Control and the Definition of Insanity
The aphorism everyone knows -- “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” -- is cute, but it doesn’t have anything to with mental illness. Or does it? The gun control fanatics who dominate the media keep pushing for passage of the same laws again and again, with almost no success. Maybe it’s time to try something different?
The attack at the Navy Yard on Monday was first considered to possibly involve “three active shooters,” then two, then one. As the number decreased, so did the probability of it being a terrorist attack. The likelihood that a mentally ill killer was on a rampage rose.
The first reports claimed at least one of the shooters had an AR-15. Then there were reports of an AR-15 plus a shotgun and a handgun. CNN posted an article -- obviously one prepared ahead of time for such an occasion -- about the evils of the AR-15 and the arguments for banning guns like it. The article was soon edited with a peculiar opening added: no AR-15; the shooter arrived with a shotgun and acquired two handguns by killing law enforcement officers responding to his attack. But CNN left the remainder of the article up: “Regardless, the massacre pushed the AR-15 back into the gun-control debate.”
Even the shotgun that the shooter bought turned out to be a rather ordinary hunting shotgun (although many police departments use a version of it as a riot gun). Nor did the killer have an unusual or “arsenal” quantity of ammunition; he had only purchased 24 shells. What law could a gun control fanatic come up with to push following a crime like this? A ban on pump-action shotguns like the Remington 870 would struggle for 15 votes in the House. Perhaps a limit on shell purchases somewhere arbitrarily below 24?
Yet gun control fanatics speak up after each one of these tragedies, peddling laws that are slight variations on the same ideas: ban private sales (even though the vast majority of these mass murders involve stolen guns, and the guns used in Aurora, the Navy Yard, and the Giffords shootings were legally purchased from licensed dealers); and ban “assault weapons” (irrelevant at the Navy Yard).
The enduring idea behind these efforts is that the core problem is some guns. Yet they continue to avoid addressing the logical question perhaps because the answer might be painful: what are the common characteristics of the people committing these crimes?
The Navy Yard shooter was suffering from some kind of mental illness involving paranoia, sleep disorders, “voices in his head,” and bizarre fears about people trying to send vibrations into his body through motel room walls.
The Aurora shooter -- whose psychiatrist was concerned enough to contact police before the murders -- suffers from schizophrenia. The man who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords suffers from schizophrenia. The symptoms ascribed to the Navy Yard shooter are a close match for schizophrenia.
Indeed, schizophrenia or similar psychoses appear to be a factor in most of these mass murders.
Compared to a focus on guns in the hands of ordinary people who are not particularly dangerous, a focus on the common characteristic of these mass murders -- severe mental illness – is the more logical approach. If gun control fanatics want to affect a real reduction in these quite rare but horrifying crimes, they should start identifying specific actions to take regarding mental illness and firearms. They would have no problem getting support from everyone besides the ACLU.
More mental hospital beds are important. Professor Steven P. Segal’s 2011 study demonstrated that you can reduce murder rates simply by making more psychiatric beds available.
Making it easier to involuntarily commit people with serious mental illness problems matters even more: 27% of the state-to-state variation in murder rates can be explained by this difference alone.
Fixing the broken system for reporting of involuntary commitments would help a lot. Most states are still not reporting involuntary commitments to the national background check system, or are reporting so few that they might as well not bother. Someone who is involuntarily committed in, say, California can no longer pass the background check system there – but this person can simply move to another state. The national background check system will not know about that involuntary commitment in California.
Unfortunately, some of the most fiercely anti-gun states -- like Massachusetts and California -- are dragging their feet on a reporting requirement. This matters, because people with serious paranoia problems seem to move around a lot.
What was the last success the gun control movement had at the national level? Reforms to the current background check system relative to mental illness passed in 2007 after Virginia Tech, with the support of the NRA.
If the gun control movement really wants to do something about these tragedies, why do they keep banging their head against the wall with proposals that cannot seem to pass even with a monstrous, heart-wrenching tragedy like Newtown in play?
They should focus on the core problem here: people with serious mental illness who need hospitalization, even if it is involuntary.