The predictable flurry of accusatory op-eds, name-calling, and general bad feeling began before the dead were counted in Newtown, Connecticut this week. One of them was the work of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez. You can always tell the pundits who know little or nothing about guns and gun owners. They obsess over the instrument itself, marveling in horror over technical wonders they find foreign and scary—high capacity magazines, black, military-looking rifles. Sometimes politicians get carried away with the emotion of it all, too. Lopez laments the recent failure of California state Sen. Leland Yee. Earlier this year Yee tried to pass a law making criminals out of thousands of Californians who own modern sporting rifles, still misleadingly called “assault weapons” by gun control activists. These are the black rifles modeled after military rifles but not capable of machine-gun fire. They are immensely popular among Americans for sport, hunting, and home defense. Of course Yee’s attempt to demonize these Californians met with determined opposition, and his bill went nowhere, even in gun control-crazy California.
If he were some fresh-faced reporter new to the gun debate in America, Lopez might be forgiven for his snippy article, in which he marvels at a sporting goods store’s customers taking numbers “like you do at a deli.” An inexperienced reporter might even be cut some slack for the last sentence of the article, in which Lopez slurs California gun owners: “When I left the gun shop in Pasadena, I noticed that right next door is a place called My Gym, a children’s fitness center.”
We’re left with the not-so-subtle implication that any of the shoppers in the store could grab a gun, run next door, and mow down little children. Lopez has been around long enough to know better than to write nasty stuff like this. But logic and facts don’t register with people amped up on adrenaline after a very public disaster like a school mass shooting. People can say and write vicious things when emotion clouds their ability to think clearly.
With all the furor over guns, most observers have overlooked the obvious—mental illness in the shooters. The typical mass shooter is a young male in his early twenties with psychological problems that were evident before the shooting. Virtually all suffer from severe psychological imbalance and social maladjustment, and some are overtly psychotic. They follow an arc of psychopathology well known to mental health professionals. And in all cases, efforts to get psychiatric treatment for them fail, if they were made at all.
It remains a zealously defended principle of law that psychotic people must be allowed their freedom at all costs. The only exceptions are spectacularly insane people who pose an immediate threat to safety, and the law allows only for 72 hour detention at most. The garden variety chronic schizophrenics and bipolar-afflicted are left to roam free on our skid rows or wherever they can find a niche on the streets. We allow them the freedom to be terrorized by their own delusions, as well as victimized by street criminals.
Young men like Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, and other mass shooters are of the age when schizophrenia has its onset. The last two have been shown to be floridly psychotic at the time of their mass killings. Increasingly it appears the Newtown killer was similarly unhinged. Young lives are derailed just as they are reaching adulthood, often as careers, relationships, and dreams are being launched. Some die at an early age of their disease, which robs them of the ability to see the world as it is and to deal with it appropriately. Some are looked after by their families. But families can do only so much when their disastrously sick loved ones are allowed by law to follow their delusions to the mean streets, to prison, and all too often to an early grave.
We must look to the source of the problem of mass shootings to effectively deal with it. And the source of the problem is not the 80 million Americans who own guns. It’s time to reexamine our views about severe mental illness and what constitutes humane treatment. Early identification and aggressive treatment of budding schizophrenia must once again become the standard of care. And that care must include the power to hold obviously disturbed people against their will when necessary to prevent injury to themselves or others.
But trying to blame sane and responsible gun owners again, expecting different results, is itself one definition of insanity.
Timothy Wheeler, MD is director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, a project of the Second Amendment Foundation