Public attention is focused on background check legislation in two states today – Colorado and Washington – but does this push for what many believe is a horrendous privacy invasion deflect attention away from a common denominator in most high-profile public shootings: The mental history of the shooters?
Monday morning saw Mark Kelly, husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, testifying in Colorado in support of that state’s “universal background check” legislation. During the course of his remarks, quoted by the Denver Post, Kelly may have zeroed in on an issue that anti-gunners have carefully avoided.
“The killer from the Tucson shooting suffered from severe mental illness,” Kelly stated, “but even after being deemed unqualified for military service in the Army and expulsion from a community college, he was never reported to mental health services.”
Repeated failures to spotlight people like Jared Loughner, who stands accused in Giffords’ shooting and the murders of several others that day in Tucson, apparently do not make as juicy news as bills to ban guns and add more bureaucratic hoops through which law-abiding gun owners must jump.
James Eagan Holmes, the suspect in Colorado’s “Batman Massacre” which is largely the launch pad for Colorado’s legislation, had reportedly seen Dr. Lynne Fenton, a psychiatrist, who had reported him to a University of Colorado threat assessment team and a campus police officer. But that may be as far as things went because he legally purchased firearms prior to the shooting.
State Sen. Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa) raised the issue during early questioning Monday.
As this column noted, a fatal shooting by police last week in Seattle involved a man with a history of mental problems. He didn’t have a gun at the time he was killed, but he was on the streets, where his behavior indicates he probably should not have been.
An article on how the mental health system has declined, authored by Dr. Kevin Turnquist, sheds some interesting perspective on a complicated and politically sensitive subject. Headlined “Where did the ‘De-institutionalization Movement' take us?” the article makes some hard observations.
“The movement to relocate patients from large State Hospitals back into their communities began back in the early 1960's,” Dr. Turnquist wrote. “Changes in civil rights legislation and the introduction of more effective medications converged, resulting in a massive movement of mentally ill people. It seemed like the most humane thing to do at the time.
“In retrospect,” he continued, “we can see that this decision, however well-intended, left many people in far worse conditions than they had endured back in the asylums. When discharged from the large institutions homelessness, poverty, inadequate treatment, stigma, and social isolation awaited far too many of them.
“Decades later we're still stuck with a mental health system that's grossly inadequate for the task at hand,” he observed. “It's hideously expensive. Waste and inefficiency are constants. Dignified treatment and personal choice are in short supply. The things that the recipients of these programs actually need are rarely provided. More money is spent determining eligibility than on food and shelter. Relieving the emotional suffering of humans with brain problems has become a source of enormous profit for some people but the money isn't translating into better lives for those we're supposed to be helping.”
A background check bill now trying to survive in Olympia has tentative support from Bellevue gun rights advocate Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. However, that support is contingent on certain conditions including the end of the state pistol registry. As this column reported, a police administrators’ lobbying group is opposed to getting rid of the registry.
It seems far easier for lawmakers to infuriate gun owners than it is to tangle with mental health advocates, and to go looking for more money from their legislative colleagues to fix the mental health system.
So, gun owners who are not responsible for the acts of a few mentally unstable people still get penalized. If this issue were about anything other than guns, some people might just call that crazy.