Monday, December 17, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: There is more to the Sandy Hook tragedy than guns

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
December 17, 2012

Nine month ago I wrote about the tragic shooting at Charon High School outside Cleveland, Ohio.  Today, we mourn the loss of 26 lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The nation is in an uproar over guns. There is no question that America needs to have a dialogue about easy access to guns by those who have no legal right, or simply no business, possessing a gun. But, there is more to this tragedy, and other tragedies like it, than guns.

There is a common thread that seems to run through places now synonymous with senseless violence. Since 1997 we have heard the harrowing stories of Pearl, MS; Paducah, KY; Jonesboro, AK; Springfield, OR; Columbine, CO; Red Lake, MN; Virginia Tech; Chardon and now Sandy Hook.

Let’s not forget the 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords and eighteen other people in a supermarket parking lot near Tucson, Arizona. Six of those victims died;  Or Aurora, Colorado where this summer a gunman slipped into a midnight movie premiere and methodically walked up an aisle firing, killing 12 people and wounding 58. The alleged shooter met with at least three mental health professionals prior to the massacre; Or Oak Hill, Wisconsin where this summer six people were gunned down at a Sikh Temple.

Pittsburgh has not been immune from similar tragedy. In 2000, Richard Baumhammers went on a racist rampage shooting five men to death and paralyzing a sixth. His lawyer at the time described him as deeply troubled psychologically and under medication. ''He clearly has an extensive history of mental illness,'' said his lawyer.

In 2009, George Sodini walked into a Pittsburgh gym and pulled two guns out of his bag and started shooting. The police said he fired 35 times killing three women and wounding nine other women before killing himself.

The thread that weaves through many of these stories is mental illness. A dozen years ago a team of New York Times reporters and researchers, compiled a detailed database of 100 mass shootings over the previous 50 years.

The most common factor was serious mental health problems. About half had received formal diagnosis of mental illness, often schizophrenia. More than half made threats, and a third had histories of violent behavior. Many never received treatment for mental disorders or were not monitored to keep them on their medication. Most of their rampage attacks were not sudden, impulsive acts but the culmination of years of rage, depression and mental illness. Often the failure of families, co-workers and even therapists to deal with warning signs led to catastrophic consequences.

A change in policy nearly half-a-century ago has complicated access to mental health treatment. During the 1960s, policymakers across the country decided to close mental health institutions in favor of community treatment. In 1955, there was one psychiatric hospital bed for every 300 Americans.

Today, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a Virginia-based non-profit dedicated to the treatment of severe mental illness, there is one psychiatric hospital bed for every 3,000 Americans.  There are 20 times as many people with mental illness in jails and prisons as there are in psychiatric hospitals.

With that said, there are four million people in the United States with severe mental illness. Only about 40,000, or one percent, are dangerous. Even then, the violence is usually minor -- a punch or a shove, according Duke University professor Jeffrey Swanson.  That comes as little consolation -- we have learned all too often in this country, one trouble individual with easy access to guns can do a lot of harm.

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