Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The illusion of doing something

Personally, I don't object to a law banning the high-capacity magazines for guns, but let us not deceive ourselves that such a ban would do much of anything to prevent mass-murders such as what happened at Newtown. As Jacob Sullum writes, Obama and politicians like Michael Bloomberg calling for stronger gun laws are showcasing "the magical thinking of gun controllers." There is this urge to do something, anything and calling for gun bans is the easy way even if there is no evidence that such gun-control laws would have stopped Friday's massacre. The gun Adam Lanza used was legal under the assault weapons ban that is Connecticut's law and which is quite similar to the federal law which expired in 2004.

But as long as there are all these calls for a national discussion of laws that may or may not do anything to prevent future massacres, let's throw into the mix a discussion of other elements that contribute to such mass shootings.

David Kopel looks at the statistics counting the rate of random mass shootings in the United States and finds no correlation with the times when we had federal gun-control laws or didn't. Perhaps one of the factors leading to an increase in such mass random shootings can be traced to the way that the media cover such massacres with 24/7 coverage. Or maybe the increasing violence in movies and video games is a contributing factor. We have a rather nonchalant attitude towards such coarsening of our culture. I don't see politicians making calls for limiting the pervasive atmosphere of violence that young men can steeped in from their music, video games, and movies.

Kopel also beings up the dilution of deinstitutionalization of the violently mentally ill. We don't see people accusing the ACLU of guilt whenever there is one of these massacres because they worked to weaken such laws.
A second explanation is the deinstitutionalization of the violently mentally ill. A 2000 New York Times study of 100 rampage murderers found that 47 were mentally ill. In the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law (2008), Jason C. Matejkowski and his co-authors reported that 16% of state prisoners who had perpetrated murders were mentally ill.

In the mid-1960s, many of the killings would have been prevented because the severely mentally ill would have been confined and cared for in a state institution. But today, while government at most every level has bloated over the past half-century, mental-health treatment has been decimated. According to a study released in July by the Treatment Advocacy Center, the number of state hospital beds in America per capita has plummeted to 1850 levels, or 14.1 beds per 100,000 people.

Moreover, a 2011 paper by Steven P. Segal at the University of California, Berkeley, "Civil Commitment Law, Mental Health Services, and U.S. Homicide Rates," found that a third of the state-to-state variation in homicide rates was attributable to the strength or weakness of involuntary civil-commitment laws.
Rich Lowry points to the weakness of the laws we have for treating the insane.
We may never know what the dynamic was in the Lanza home. For too many parents of the mentally ill, though, it goes something like this: Their child becomes withdrawn, delusional, and erratic. If they call the mental-health system, they are told to bring the child in for an appointment and the sick child won’t go. If the parents call the cops, the cops show up and say the child doesn’t appear to represent a threat to himself or others and they leave. If they take him to the hospital, he is quickly released back to the parents even if he is admitted. The choice might become living with a deteriorating child increasingly out of his mind or forcing him out of the home and into the streets.
Yes, this is 21st-century America. Where we have better means to treat mental illness than ever before, but choose to let the insane people decide to get it or not. Where we supposedly deinstitutionalized the mentally ill by closing down psychiatric hospitals, and then reinstitutionalized them behind bars. The number of psychiatric beds on a per capita basis is back at 1850 levels, and there are three times as many seriously mentally ill people in jail or prison than in hospitals, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. Where we let sick people sleep on the streets. About a third of homeless men and two-thirds of homeless women are seriously mentally ill. Imagine the national outrage if people with Alzheimer’s were permitted to wander around the streets uncared for. But, by some perverse logic, it’s considered okay for schizophrenics.
So, by all means, let's have that national conversation that people are always calling for. But let's open it up to the full spectrum of possible contributing factors to the increase in such terrible massacres.