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credit: infowars.com

credit: infowars.com

I’ll let the New York Times, the self-style “Newspaper of Record,” frame the debate: 

Last April, workers at Middlesex Hospital in Connecticut called the police to report that a psychiatric patient named Mark Russo had threatened to shoot his mother if officers tried to take the 18 rifles and shotguns he kept at her house. Mr. Russo, who was off his medication for paranoid schizophrenia, also talked about the recent elementary school massacre in Newtown and told a nurse that he ‘could take a chair and kill you or bash your head in between the eyes,’ court records show.

The police seized the firearms, as well as seven high-capacity magazines, but Mr. Russo, 55, was eventually allowed to return to the trailer in Middletown where he lives alone. In an interview there recently, he denied that he had schizophrenia but said he was taking his medication now — though only ‘the smallest dose,’ because he is forced to. His hospitalization, he explained, stemmed from a misunderstanding: Seeking a message from God on whether to dissociate himself from his family, he had stabbed a basketball and waited for it to reinflate itself. When it did, he told relatives they would not be seeing him again, prompting them to call the police.

As for his guns, Mr. Russo is scheduled to get them back in the spring, as mandated by Connecticut law.

‘I don’t think they ever should have been taken out of my house,’ he said. ‘I plan to get all my guns and ammo and knives back in April.’

The Russo case highlights a central, unresolved issue in the debate over balancing public safety and the Second Amendment right to bear arms: just how powerless law enforcement can be when it comes to keeping firearms out of the hands of people who are mentally ill.

credit: Christopher Capozziello/NYT

Mark Russo. credit: Christopher Capozziello/NYT

This is one of the central issues in the current public safety debate.  What constitutes mental illness of a kind and severity that justifies depriving someone of fundamental rights, such as depriving them of their freedom, forcing them to accept treatment, including powerful psychotropic drugs, and depriving them of the right to keep and bear arms?  If one judges by appearances, one might be attempted to put Russo in a mental health lockup and in an enlightened act of penology, throw away the key.  But a closer look reveals one of the most difficult problems facing lawmakers and society; appearances can indeed be deceptive.

The NYT article appears to make a compelling case for depriving Russo of arms, but for the NYT, butterflies, hot dogs, rain, sunshine, global warming, the elections of republicans, and the mere existence of firearms and firearm owners are a compelling case for depriving the law-abiding of arms.  What remains is that Russo has apparently never harmed anyone in any way, and his statement about using a chair is probably nothing more than his explaining that one need not have firearms to hurt others, which is unquestionably factual and rational.  Though schizophrenic, Russo appears reasonably grounded in reality, and there appears to be no specific, imminent threat of harm to him self or others, however, no news article can tell the whole story.

The NYT goes on to decry the fact that authorities have had to return the seized firearms of those thought to be mentally ill after they have been detained, examined, and determined to be no threat.  Obviously, for the NYT, there is no pretext too trivial for the permanent seizure of firearms.

I first addressed this issue for PJ Media on January 31, 2011.  I wrote, in part:

And here is the root of the problem. The issue of involuntary commitment (or IC) has always been one of balancing the need of society to protect the innocent against the right of the individual to avoid unnecessary, unconstitutional confinement. In order to construct an IC law that achieves the correct balance, two elements are essential: the law must allow the immediate IC of those who, due to mental illness, (1) pose a substantial (not imminent) danger to themselves or others, or (2) cannot, due to their condition, care for their own essential needs.

I recommend you take the link and read the entire article.  It provides substantial background information about how we have arrived at our current dysfunctional mental health treatment system.  It’s not pretty, and will be as disgusting as it is surprising.

There are, without question, millions of people who think that anyone that owns firearms is prima facie mentally ill.  It would be worth your time to visit Bearing Arms, where a young New York woman tells–in a less than seven-minute video–about changing her mind about firearms.  She actually was so frightened by firearms, she was unable to be in the same room with an unloaded gun.  Fortunately, she was able to overcome this crippling condition, but there are many who think–or fail to think–the same way.

Ultimately, the issue is also a fundamental issue of governmental power vs. personal liberty. How much power are we comfortable ceding to the government?  In the old Soviet Union, opposition to the views of the state was considered insanity, and people were locked up without trial, their minds and bodies destroyed by drugs.  In contemporary America, the Obama Administration has shown similar tendencies by declaring veterans returning from war zones, Christians and citizens who own guns, oppose abortion and illegal immigration, reject federal authority in favor of local or state authority, even believe in the Constitution, to be dangerous, even terrorist threats.  When many members of Congress are reluctant to pass any law because the current administration cannot be trusted to enforce the law as intended and written, how much power should we want any government to have?

As I illustrated in the prelude to this article, the true story “It’s Not a Good Day to Die,” making an involuntary commitment (IC) is not a difficult matter if the officers involved understand the law and know how to apply it.  In that case, the antagonist, Joe ,was not only a substantial danger to himself, he was an imminent danger to himself.  It was ridiculously obvious.  Had I not taken him into custody, he would almost certainly have climbed back on that ledge and probably would have killed himself.  The danger was due to his mental illness, which was alcohol-related, of course.  Guns were not involved in that case, but there was no question that I was justified in temporarily depriving Joe of his liberty.  My report fulfilled each and every element of the statute, explaining in exquisite detail the evidence of Joe’s mental illness, and why his actions and statements represented a substantial and imminent–which is even better–threat of danger to himself and others.

And Joe had the full benefit of due process.  He was fully and competently examined by mental health professionals within the required time frame–that’s usually within 48-72 hours of incarceration in every state–and because they found that the danger had passed, Joe was released.  Had they found otherwise, a mandatory hearing before a judge would have occurred.  I would have testified, as would the psychologists or psychiatrists that examined him, and the judge would have ordered continued treatment–or not.  This too is the way that the system works everywhere.  Where firearms are involved, judges can order they be seized for safekeeping.

Unfortunately, not in every incident where an IC is possible are the elements of the law so obvious.

Many people have episodes of temporary mental incapacity.  Driven over the edge by debilitating stresses such as divorce, the death of loved ones, PTSD and a variety of other traumatic situations, people can “lose it,” yet after obtaining treatment, live entirely rationally–a danger to none–for the remainder of their lives.  In many cases, time does heal all wounds.  How do we justify permanently depriving them of any of their fundamental freedoms when those best qualified declare them whole, and their own actions demonstrate that they are sane, rational citizens?

Apart from the two essential elements for IC I’ve listed, what else can be reasonably, constitutionally added, particularly if the goal is to keep the genuinely mentally ill from harming others with firearms?  In virtually every state, judges can order firearms seized for safekeeping.  As long as one is under the jurisdiction of the courts due to their mental illness, that may continue.  But our system presumes that one may be cured, and that upon becoming cured, their rights must be restored.  In other words, one’s rights may be infringed only so long as the state has a compelling reason under law.  When those reasons no longer exist, the citizen is made whole under the law.  This is reasonable and proper.  To do more exposes us to the arbitrary whims of judges, and to political whims and prejudices.  Under such a system, we are no longer a nation of laws, but of men, which is very much what some–including arguably the Obama Administration–want.

As I explained in my recent three part series on the Newtown attack, the killer, Adam Lanza, had never been involuntarily committed, despite being examined and treated by a variety of mental health professionals over a period of many years.  He had never been determined to be a danger to himself or others, and while certainly strange and demonstrating a variety of eccentric, compulsive behaviors, was never determined to be a danger to himself or others, or unable to care for his own needs.  He never made even an indirect threat toward others, and particularly not toward schools.  There was never any indication of his intention to attack any school.  Given these facts, how could Lanza have been involuntarily committed?  And considering that he owned no firearms–they all belonged to his mother–how could those firearms have been seized?

The same is true of virtually all of the school shooters in recent history. Virtually none had ever been adjudicated to be mentally ill.  They had not been involuntarily committed, nor had their firearms–if they had any–been seized.  Many passed background checks to buy firearms.  None had made even inexplicit threats of the violence they would eventually commit.  After the fact, some that knew them were not surprised by their murderous acts, but none of them, before the fact, were moved to involve the police or mental health system.  Like Lanza, some of them were known to be odd, even creepy, yet in a constitutional republic, we cannot lock up the odd or creepy, for what is considered odd or creepy by one is merely eccentric, even charming, to another.

As I noted in the PJ Media article, merely having sufficient IC laws is not enough.  The police and mental health assessment and treatment systems must understand the law and must implement policies that allow them to smoothly enforce the law.  They have to work and play well with each other, and that’s not always easy.  In addition, the judicial system must also be well informed and willing to fully and fairly enforce the law with a careful eye toward maintaining the vital balance between state power and individual liberty, also something that is not always easily accomplished.

Understand too that politicians bear a substantial burden.  In many states, the kinds of short–or particularly long–term treatment facilities necessary in such cases simply don’t exist.  This is a matter of will and money.  Where firearms are concerned, President Obama, Vice President Biden, and a variety of politicians are fond of trotting out a rotten old chestnut: “if (insert anti-gun desire here) will save even one life, we have to do it.”  This is, of course, nonsense.  Every year, firearms in the hands of the law-abiding save far more lives than are lost by those using them for evil.  Such arguments are an attempt to sidestep logic and effective legislation in favor of ill-conceived, emotional laws that can’t be passed in any other way.  With a moment’s reflection, we understand that such arguments are fallacious.  We could save one life by doing away with cars–which kill far more than firearms every year–knives, ladders, swimming pools, and the list goes on and on.  Shall we do away with all of these potential dangers despite their unmistakable usefulness?

Ultimately, it is easy to talk a good game and to demand that we “do something” about the mentally ill.  Politicians love to pound the tabletop and declare that by passing a law they did something about a problem, real or imagined.  Unfortunately, all too often, all they’ve done is pound the tabletop, and the laws they passed, the policies they’ve put into place, not only don’t help, they’re actually harmful.

Ann Coulter, in her bitingly satirical way, explains:  

Fixating on guns after a crazy person commits mass murder is like draining the ocean to find a ring you dropped.

Liberals can take the position that crazy people living on the street and filling up our prisons and homeless shelters are a necessary evil that is a consequence of their idee fixe. But then, when one of their pet victims shoots up a movie theater, they don’t get to blame it on guns.

In every one of these mass shootings, there was someone in a position to say before the attack, ‘Trust me, this person is a psycho.’ Try getting Jared Loughner or James Holmes through any mental illness hearing in which they’re required to speak. (Though both might end up being offered their own shows on MSNBC.)

If someone was brought back from the 1950s to today, he’d tell us: ‘I couldn’t help but notice that all the people who committed mass shootings were batsh*t crazy. Why were they not locked up or forced to take medication?’

We’d have to say, ‘Because some people — we call them ‘liberals’ — get a warm feeling of self-righteousness by defending the right of the deranged to crap in a shoebox, carefully label it and put it in a closet.’

Democrats absolutely will not address the one thing that was screaming out from all of the mass shootings: a crazy person committing the crime. We can’t medicate them and we can’t lock them up because the ACLU has handcuffed society’s ability to deal rationally with the mentally disturbed.

Not only will Democrats refuse to address the problem of the mentally ill on their own, but they will fight to the last ditch to protect any crazy person’s right not to take his medication.

Unfortunately, Coulter is wrong about one thing: in these cases, Loughner and Holmes were not so mentally impaired that they were ever examined with an eye toward involuntary commitment prior to their crimes, though Holmes actually did see a psychologist who had some concerns about him, though obviously not enough to involve the police.  It was only in retrospect, after their crimes, that it appeared obvious to some that their mental illness made them a danger to others.

As I pointed out in the PJ Media article, the left–which includes substantial portions of the mental health system–does bear substantial responsibility for things.  Coulter agrees:

At some point in the 1980s, not being ‘judgmental’ became the highest form of virtue — although the left is plenty judgmental about things they don’t like, such as white males, smokers, Christianity, Wal-Mart, Fox News, talk radio and NASCAR.

Liberals are so determined not to stigmatize anybody that their solution is always to make all of society suffer instead:

— To avoid hurting Muslims’ feelings, everyone has to strip to his underwear at the airport.

— So no one feels excluded, we’re not allowed to say ’Merry Christmas!’

— To avoid singling out gays, the government and media lied to Americans for a decade about the coming explosion of heterosexual AIDS. (We’re still waiting.)

— To stop people from noticing patterns, the media bend over backward to avoid telling us the race of dangerous criminals on the loose.

— To prevent hurt feelings, everybody gets an ‘A.’

And to avoid ‘stigmatizing’ the mentally ill, society has to live with the occasional mass murder.

These anti-stigmatization rules don’t even help the people they claim to be protecting. But defending ridiculous rules that ruin things for everyone else makes liberals feel heroic.

Coulter brings up a very important point: we are prevented from effective action in a variety of ways by political/cultural differences.  To whatever degree those differences prevent constitutional and effective laws from being enacted or enforced there are consequences.  To whatever degree those differences prevent effective mental health treatment of the genuinely dangerous there are consequences.

Men and women of good will can surely agree that those who are genuinely dangerous by virtue of mental illness should be prevented from harming others and treated until they are no longer a danger.  Steps such as keeping potentially dangerous weapons for safekeeping until the mentally ill are once again fit to have them, or ensuring that they take necessary medications, are inherently reasonable.  Affording full due process under law in these matters is absolutely necessary.  Wherever these responsible steps are not in effect, they must be put into effect.

But there is a frightening, irresolvable problem: we’re not perfect.  Even if we lived in a dictatorship (I know: some might not unreasonably observe that we do), no one can guarantee that a madman will not kill school children–or others–anywhere at any time.  Even in states where proper IC laws are in place and the police, mental health and judicial systems efficiently work together, people like Adam Lanza will always exist.  There will always be people who one day decide to kill others, having given no prior warning of their intentions.  Even if Lanza’s mother’s guns could have been taken away, Lanza could have killed innumerable children on a playground with a car, or could have constructed explosives; he had at least one book that provided such recipes.  Signs proclaiming schools explosive free zones or car free zones would have no more deterrent or protective effect than signs proclaiming them gun free zones.

We don’t have millions or billions to spend on feel good measures.  We never did.  We can’t implement policies that might save one life.  As much as such statements might make some feel morally superior, in the real world, cost-benefit assessments matter.  We are, in all probability, not capable of stopping people before they attack, but we are able to do it when they attack.  Unfortunately, in much of the nation, we lack the political will and common sense to make that possible.

By all means, ensure that every state has constitutional and effective IC laws.  Demand and ensure that police officers, mental health professionals and judges work well together everywhere.  But understand that when a killer–mentally ill or otherwise–is seconds from entering a school–none of that will be capable of stopping him and saving lives.

UPDATE:  Friday is the day the Obama Administration (and many others in the past) use to try to sneak under the door policies and news they don’t want the public to examine too closely.  So it was with several new proposals relating to mental illness and background checks for the purchase of firearms.  By all means, visit Fox News for the story.