Now that Jared Loughner’s tragic assassination attempt appears to have been driven by mental illness, not political extremism, there’s been a predictably hyperbole-laden debate over mental illness and gun ownership. Time magazine demands to know why the mentally ill are allowed to arm themselves at all: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2041448,00.html. As SE Smith reported in her excellent piece in The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/jan/10/jared-lee-loughner-gabrielle-giffords), The LA Times provides readers with a handy guide to violent crime committed by the mentally ill (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2011/01/gabrielle-giffords-jared-loughner-assassinations.html). Comparisons to the tragic massacre at Virginia Tech simply reinforce the erroneous perception that mentally ill=violent.
Jared Loughner is very likely mentally ill. He also happens to be violent. The two traits can exist independently of each other, and to conflate them may be easy, but it is also illogical and discriminatory. It also obscures the reason behind Loughner’s tragic actions. Six people are dead not because Loughner was able to purchase a gun, though a review of Arizona’s gun ownership laws is hardly remiss; nor are they dead because Loughner is mentally ill. They are dead because he never received treatment for his illness. They’re dead because Jared Loughner slipped through the cracks and no one bothered to stop his fall.
This is a failure of the mental health care system more than it is a failure of gun control laws or even the vitriolic, often violent rhetoric employed by certain politicians. It’s a tragedy on several levels and not one of them should be ignored in favor of an eye-catching headline. And the problem won’t necessarily be resolved by tougher gun control laws or by forbidding gun ownership by the mentally ill. If you believe that the Second Amendment guarantees American citizens the right to bear arms, then you cannot advocate for that right to be removed from someone because of a health condition. That measure should be reserved for cases of documented irrational behavior, and that is hardly unique to the mentally ill.
So let’s not confuse the debate. The best way to prevent another Jared Loughner from pulling the trigger is by improving access to quality mental health care.