Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Guns and Mental Illness - A Recipe for Disaster

It’s happened again. Still another gun massacre. The most recent one was in Pittsburgh where Richard Poplawski is being held for the killing of three policemen in a shootout at his home.

Investigators said Mr. Poplawski, 22, showed no remorse when describing the deaths of Officers Mayhle, Sciullo and Eric Kelly, who were all killed as they responded to a 911 call placed by Margaret Poplawski, the suspect's mother.

Investigators said Mr. Poplawski maintained a cold demeanor as he answered their questions, occasionally yawning.

Mr. Poplawski engaged in a lengthy gun battle with police, firing an AK-47 from his bedroom window and exchanging hundreds of rounds of gunfire with SWAT officers before surrendering.

The gunman later told investigators he had planned for police to kill him. But he changed his mind and agreed to surrender, hoping to go to prison so he could write a book.
The question always comes up afterwards as to whether there was anything in the way of gun control that could have been done to either prevent or lessen the tragic consequences.

In the interest of disclosure, I am not a gun person. I don’t own a gun and likely never will. I don’t hunt and certainly never will. I fired a .22 rifle many years ago at a Boy Scout camp target range and once shot a pistol with some friends in the woods at some tin cans just to say that I did it once in my life. That was enough for me.

Having said that, I can fully understand that firearms are important to a lot of people for hunting, target practice, and protection. The first two are not controversial for most; it’s the thing about protection that causes the most trouble.

Although we have an armed military along with armed civilian police to protect us, they can’t be everywhere all the time so for those who feel they need a gun as protection against those who threaten them, having one is reasonable — as long as the person isn’t mentally deranged like Poplawski obviously is.

It has been said may times by pro-gun people that “Guns don’t kill people, people do”. But clearly it’s both when the ‘people’ who have the guns are mentally insane as argued in
Guns Don't Kill People, Bullets Do which was written after the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007.

Here we go again. We're going to have the tired old debate about whether it was the guns that killed the kids at Virginia Tech or the clearly disturbed guy who used them. The answer is so obvious that I can't bear to go through another round of this debate. Of course, it's both!

A perfectly sane individual isn't going to kill those kids even if you gave them a thousand guns. And that same mentally-ill guy isn't going to be able to kill 32 people with a bow and arrow.
So while we cannot realistically keep all weapons from the mentally disturbed, can’t we prevent or at least mitigate the damage by controlling the most efficient ways for them to kill people?

Weapons range in efficiency from say, the pea-shooter all the way up to nuclear weapons. I don’t think that anybody in their right mind would argue the right for individuals to own and use a nuclear weapon (if that were possible). So that means that we have to draw the line somewhere in between these two extremes.

How about so-called
assault rifles like the popular AK-47 used by Poplawski to kill three Pittsburgh policemen? We certainly don’t need these for hunting and unless one is in a war zone, far less potent weapons would provide adequate protection. So that leaves target shooting. Which is just fine as long as those ‘targets’ are at a shooting range and not people.

So here’s an idea — why not require everyone who wants to own an assault rifle to keep it under lock and key at the shooting range when not in use? I’m sure those who believe in the absolute right to own and control their guns wouldn’t like it. But by making it illegal to even possess this kind of a weapon other than at a shooting range, we can search for (with probable cause) and take away these ultra-lethal weapons from mentally unstable people before they use them on people instead of after a tragedy when it is too late.
Just like combining drinking and driving, combining guns and mental illness is a recipe for disaster. All too often, we find out after the fact that a person had a troubled history like Seung-Hui Cho who killed 32 people and wounded 25 others at Virginia Tech.

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine convened a panel consisting of various officials and experts to investigate and examine the response and handling of issues related to the shootings. The panel released its final report in August 2007, devoting more than 30 pages to detailing Cho's troubled history. In the report, the panel criticized numerous failures—by school administrators, educators and mental health professionals who came into contact with Cho during his college years, who failed to notice his deteriorating condition and failed to help him. The panel also criticized misinterpretations of privacy laws and gaps in Virginia's mental health system and gun laws.

And in a Time article, Boom in Gun Sales Fueled by Politics and the Economy, we have a similar example of neglect.

The mother of the Pittsburgh man who shot and killed the police officers said her son had been stockpiling guns and ammunition "because he believed that as a result of the economic collapse, the police were no longer able to protect society."

Trying to solve this problem with laws alone just isn’t going to work. The more talk there is of controlling guns, the more people are buying guns out of fear of losing them.

More importantly, we also need to get more involved on a personal level with others when we see them having serious struggles with life. It is not a stretch to say that if someone had gotten involved enough with Cho and Poplawski to see that they got professional help, these tragedies may well have been avoided.

So the story has a surprise ending. The best way to try and prevent future tragedies like these may well be to treat this as a mental health issue instead of strictly as a law enforcement/gun control issue. For those individuals with anger issues, depression, or are paranoid, we can either choose the solution of trying to provide these people with professional help (along with doing our best to keep guns out of their hands) — or wait and take the chance that they will choose their own solution by using a gun.

I can only hope that we will start to make the right choices. After all, there are many more disasters like these just waiting to happen!

1 comment:

Ol' Froth said...

And you don't need an AK47 for protection either. Problem with most longarms, is that the bullet tends to go through your target, and potentionally into something, or someone, you don't want to destroy.

Best home defense weapon? A shotgun. AT the ranges use in home defese, you don't have a "spray" problem, the pellets don't over penetrate, and it will neutralize the threat.