More dangerous than criminals?

Something has been bothering me about numbers.

The whole country is being systematically worked into a lather to "do something" about mentally ill people with guns because a mentally ill man murdered 32 people, and there have been previous similar cases. According to this emerging conventional wisdom, this means that "the mentally ill" should be prevented from having "access" to weapons.

Consider the following two points:

  • 1. The vast majority of mentally ill people are not dangerous and will never kill anyone
  • 2. People with a reportable history of mental illness are already prohibited (by law) from purchasing firearms.
  • What is being proposed is an expansion of this prohibited category, in the hope that the minority of dangerous mentally ill people (the most likely shooters) will be deterred from buying guns.

    By what logic would that be true? Dangerously mentally ill people are what used to be called "criminally insane." This means that in addition to being mentally ill, they are predisposed to commit crimes, right? How is it that not allowing them to buy guns will prevent them from obtaining guns?

    In Philadelphia, 80-85% of the murders are committed by convicted criminals, who by law are not allowed to possess firearms. Laws do not stop them.

    So if they don't stop criminals, why on earth would laws stop the dangerous and violent mentally ill people?

    In logic, of course, the answer is that they won't.

    Of course, simply locking up dangerous mentally ill people to keep them from getting guns and shooting people is an unacceptable solution -- especially if that would solve the problem of these shootings by deranged gunmen.

    Huh? If it would work, then why is it unacceptable?

    Because, dangerous mentally ill people commit only a minority of murders, the vast majority of which are committed by convicted criminals. And if locking up mentally ill people stopped murders by mentally ill people, the next thing you know, people would be suggesting that locking up criminals would prevent even more murders.

    It might occur to them that if 80% of murders are caused by career criminals, then locking them up would mean, well, a potential 80% drop in the murder rate.

    We just can't have people thinking such things.

    Thus, locking up dangerously mentally ill people is just as untenable a proposition as locking up criminals.

    The focus will have to remain on the guns.

    UPDATE (04/23/07): Dr. Helen links this Op-Ed by Dr. Jonathan Kellerman which touches on the the issue I've been trying to grapple with here:

    Penning up and carefully scrutinizing the killer was never an option. Not in Virginia or California or any other state in the union. Because in our well-intentioned quest to maximize personal liberty, we've moved conceptual eons away from taking the concept of dangerousness seriously.

    The best predictor of future violent behavior is past violent behavior, yet we regularly grant parole to murderers, serial rapists, chronically assaultive individuals and habitual pedophiles. Even when we do attempt to segregate low-impulse multiple offenders with effective tools such as with three-strikes laws, liberationist clamor never ceases.

    Talk to anyone who's tried to commit a dangerously violent child or parent for even a few days: A stranger with a law degree will show up at the hearing and paint you as a fascist. So it's far too much to expect anything resembling a decisive approach to those whose level of threat remains at the verbal level.

    "Liberationist clamor" is the problem. Now that mental hospitals are effectively shut down, the new goal is the abolition of prison. Just as mental illness is said to be a "myth," the word "crime" is placed in quotes:
    * Abolition is a political vision that seeks to eliminate the need for prisons, policing, and surveillance by creating sustainable alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.

    * Abolition means acknowledging the devastating effects prison, policing, and surveillance have on poor communities, communities of color and other targeted communities, and saying, "No, we won't live like this. We deserve more."

    * Abolitionists recognize that the kinds of wrongdoing we call "crime" do not exist in the same way everywhere and are not "human nature", but rather determined by the societies we live in. Similarly, abolitionists do not assume that people will never hurt each other or that people won't cross the boundaries set up by their communities. We do imagine, however, that boundary crossings will happen much less often if we live in a society that combines flexibility with care to provide for, and acknowledge, people's needs. To do that, we must create alternatives for dealing with the injuries people inflict upon each other in ways that sustain communities and families. Keeping a community whole is impossible by routinely removing people from it.

    UPDATE: Clayton Cramer links this law review article, with a startling observation about deinstitutionalization:

    ...if you combine both measures and plot them against U.S. murder rates for the period 1928-2000, there is an almost perfect negative correlation: as institutionalization (in either prison or mental hospitals) goes up, murder rates go down, and vice versa.

    There's a lot of evidence that many of those who are currently locked up in prisons are mentally ill. It would appear that the great experiment of the 1960s--deinstitutionalization--simply transferred violent mentally ill people from mental hospitals to prisons, after a few decades of suffering, both by those mental patients, and by the society as a whole.

    Just take a look at Philadelphia's murder rate.

    posted by Eric on 04.22.07 at 01:15 PM


    It's the Silver Bullet Syndrome: something bad occurs, so something has to be done. It doesn't matter whether what's done will work, it just has to be done. We can't just, you know, do nothing, as if we don't care.

    Liberals being liberal will demand that the government solve the problem.

    Conservatives will say to punish the criminals, and blame Hollywood.

    Libertarians will note that it's the government's fault.

    Most people, if they really faced the issue, would say that the world is a dangerous place.

    Socrates   ·  April 23, 2007 5:21 PM

    The fact that these people have adopted the name of the people who fought to end Hereditary Slavery in America and Britain for the means of releasing predators who prey on others makes me ill.

    Phelps   ·  April 23, 2007 6:11 PM

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