Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Nuts can be dangerous

The vast majority of the mentally ill are in no way dangerous, but some clearly are. Sadly, we were reminded of this again this past week when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot and severely wounded and several others were killed. Of course the mainstream media moved quickly, along with the local sheriff, to blame the right - specifically the tea party and Sarah Palin. They were also quick to call for new gun control laws.

In this case, the sheriff may have good reason to blame others. Three things have become abundantly clear in the last few days: The shooter (Jared Loughner) clearly is mentally ill, his politics (such as they are) are left wing, not right wing and local law enforcement could have stopped this from happening had they simply done their job.

We know that the shooter is almost certainly mentally ill because almost every civilian who came in contact with him observed behavior that caused them to both question his sanity and consider him dangerous. Numerous people interviewed by the media have testified to this and we have learned that the local Community College expelled him and required a mental health clearance before he could return. No question, this guy is more than troubled - he is nuts.

Second, we know that his politics were much more left than right. ABC News reported Saturday night that Loughner had identified among his favorite books "The Communist Manifesto" by Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler's National Socialist work "Mein Kampf" and the fiction classic "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" -- hardly the reading list of a Palin supporter. His rants against the government that have surfaced on the Internet don't suggest he had a conservative perspective on big government. Instead Laughner's MySpace featured a photo "showing a close-up picture of an automatic handgun sitting atop a book or paper titled 'United States History.'" Another video shows a masked man burning the American flag. For further information see this article.

Third, we know that local law enforcement had in excess of 12 contacts with the Jared Loughner - most of them as a result of his bizarre behavior - yet they never sent him for mental health evaluation. In my years as an EMT and paramedic, I transported hundreds of people on 5150 mental health holds. We know that Loughner came to the attention of the campus police at least six times - and that his behavior was bad enough to warrant expulsion - yet they never sent him in for mental health evaluation. He had additional contacts with other local law enforcement, including a traffic stop on the day of the shooting - a day in which he was acting out so severely that the first clerk he tried to buy ammunition from refused to sell it to him.

Why is this so important? Simple: Had he been sent for evaluation, he almost certainly would have been committed for further treatment. Hopefully, the treatment would have helped Jared Loughner gain a degree of sanity - but even if it did not, it would have prevented him from buying a gun over the counter. Since 1968, it has been a Federal crime for those who have been committed to a mental heath facility to buy or own guns. After the Virginia Tech shootings, the NRA joined with gun control groups to get mental health commitments added to the National Instant Check System database. Assuming the database was up to date, Loughner would not only have been prevented from buying the gun he used in the shooting, he would have committed a Federal crime buy lying on the application form. With any luck, he would have been in jail or a mental hospital instead of out on the streets killing people.

In the next few months, I expect we will see many calls for new gun control laws. When that happens, let's remember that in this case, the laws we have now were not enforced. It is possible that even if Jared Loughner had been committed, he would have purchased a gun on the black market. He had ready access to Mexico - where in spite of some of the toughest gun laws in the world, illegal guns are readily available. We will never know for sure what might have happened if law enforcement had done their job, but chances are the shooting would have never taken place.