Jared Loughner: Refocusing the debate

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.

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6 thoughts on “Jared Loughner: Refocusing the debate

  1. Hear, hear. I mean, you know I agree with you on this sort of thing, but… that Time article was really offensive.

    Honestly? Yeah, people who are having breakdowns probably shouldn’t be allowed to own guns, and I’m not necessarily opposed to make it a little more difficult for someone with a mental illness to get a gun, especially if they’ve exhibited violent behavior.

    However. Dude, the mentally ill are LESS likely to be violent against others, not more. Half of why I feel the way I do about guns and mental illness is because they make it so much easier to kill yourself!

  2. Hell to the no. We DO NOT need to refocus the debate into “how do we make sure the mentally ill get treated”. For a lot of us, treatment encourages thoughts of violence, because it is forced. Because it is abusive. Jared Lee Loughner was expelled from college because he refused treatment–another form of coercion. I’d rather not be allowed to own a gun than not be allowed to walk the streets–and let’s be clear, that’s what those who say “don’t let people like this fall through the cracks” after an act of violence like this one REALLY mean. This blog post says it better than I could:

    http://autisticcats.blogspot.com/2011/01/conversations-we-should-and-shouldnt-be.html

    • Look, I was diagnosed with a mood disorder at the age of fifteen and I’ve been in treatment for it ever since. Has that treatment often been less than awesome? Hell yes. Has it also saved my life? Quite possibly.

      The issue of consent is vital, I agree. But if an individual is clearly violent, then I believe that he or she must be treated. Then and only then do I support involuntary commitment. And when I advocate for reform to America’s mental health care system, I mean that I support community-based treatment, not institutionalization.

      • Treatment for me ranged from unhelpful (therapy and drugs) to seriously traumatic (forced hospitalization). But I know that many people benefit from therapy and drugs, and even hospitalization if it’s completely voluntary. People have forcibly locked me up because they thought I was going to become violent. I think that’s wrong, we supposedly have a US constitution that protects people from being locked up without having actually committed a crime. I think people who commit violence should be punished with fixed sentences. That being said, I wasn’t trying to down you in particular; it’s just that so many people call for attention to mental health issues only after someone they deem mentally ill commits a murder, and that creates a context where we’re ignored except when we’re feared, and increases the likelihood that the services we get will be coercive, because the mentality behind giving them is one of fear rather than empathy.

  3. I do see your point. But I think the answer is an increased emphasis on educating the public about mental illness. Exhibit A: my new employer, who became concerned that my new job would be “too stressful” after she reviewed my medical records and discovered my diagnosis. I had to explain bipolar disorder to her. She didn’t even call it by the right name; she referred to it as “bipolar disease.” And I’m sitting there, fuming, thinking I am not diseased, I am not broken, there is nothing wrong with me. And yet I have to sit in this chair and remind this woman that I recently completed an undergraduate thesis, lived and worked on my own overseas, and have never committed an act of violence that was not in self defense. I had to validate myself as a human being because of a diagnosis I’d received at the age of fifteen.

    That is wrong. It should not have happened to me, and it should not happen to anyone. A diagnosis should not invalidate a human being’s independence. That ignorance is based on fear, as you’ve mentioned. I think it would be beneficial to have mental health care clients weigh in preventative measures. Those measures directly affect us, and it’s been my experience that the patient often knows more than the so-called doctor.

  4. Your employer should not have the right to review any of your medical records. It’s completely unnecessary unless you are going into the military. I may be wrong, but I have never had an employer ask for my medical records. Those are private documents. Much different than a criminal record. If you had a criminal record of violence, that would be a different story.

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