In the aftermath of the Florida school attack, President Trump made the mistake of suggesting it a good idea to look into making our mental health laws and treatment more effective. Of course, since Mr. Trump suggested this—others have as well—it is entirely inappropriate, because Trump, as ABC News explains:
Mental health professionals welcome more resources and attention, but they say the administration is ignoring the real problem — easy access to guns, particularly the kind of high-powered highly lethal assault weapons used in many of the most recent mass shootings.
‘Even for those who manage to survive gun violence involving these weapons, the severity and lasting impact of their wounds, disabilities and treatment leads to devastating consequences,’ American Medical Association President David Barbe wrote in an online column after the shooting.
‘We are not talking about Second Amendment rights or restricting your ability to own a firearm. We are talking about a public health crisis that our Congress has failed to address. This must end,’ Barbe wrote.
Actually, restricting Second Amendment rights is exactly what they’re talking about. They don’t want to take your guns away, they just want to restrict your access to guns, a distinction without a difference. In March of 2015, a mental health commission established by Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy issued its post-Newtown report. I wrote about the issue for The Truth About Guns:
The report, on pages 5-6, makes clear its true purpose: It is an anti-gun hit job from beginning to end, but a hit job that is careful to exonerate the mental health profession. In fact, the largest part of the report focuses on mental health issues, and states, again and again, that the mental health establishment cannot identify or predict who will commit violence in the future, nor can it be held responsible for that lack of ability. Even so, it recommends enormous expenditures for the establishment of massive bureaucracies, and, of course, the destruction of liberty [emphasis mine].
The report also notes no one saw any danger signs in the killer, but mostly, suggests all manner of anti-liberty/gun legislation while claiming it does no such thing. One might wish to take the link to the article, which also clearly reveals the loopy ideas of the 60s live on in the mental health profession.
There is one law relating to mental health issues that might have some effect on mass shooters: involuntary commitment. That is not an easy process, nor should it be. The Soviet Union was notorious for governmental abuse. Anyone disagreeing with the state might be declared mentally ill, because who could possibly disagree with Communism unless they were insane? Under the guise of treatment, psychotropic drugs destroyed their brains, which is precisely what the state wanted. Fortunately, the Constitution offers protection against such abuses, though there are those that would gladly ignore or abolish any part of it that gets in their way.
Involuntary commitment laws generally give police officers the authority to take people into custody as long as the officer can clearly explain that the person is, under the definitions and elements of the statute, mentally ill, and due to their mental illness, cannot care for their essential needs, or are a present danger to themselves or others. This custody is commonly strictly limited. The person must be examined by a qualified psychologist/psychiatrist, commonly within 24 hours, and if not then in need of continuing treatment, must be released. If they are in need of treatment, they must promptly be taken before a judge who will decide if continuing treatment is justified. The process slightly differs from state to state, but all such processes must adhere to due process of law under the Constitution. Neither the police, nor a doctor, can simply seize someone because they’re a little odd, make some people uncomfortable, or they think they might possibly be dangerous at some point in the future. This is just the way we want it, unless we prefer to live under the joys of socialism/communism.
The inadequacy of our mental health system is hardly new. It has been deteriorating for decades, beginning in the early 60s, that countercultural heyday. In her fine book, Do Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help (And The Rest of Us), the invaluable Mona Charen speaks to the atmosphere of the time. Thomas Scacz, author of The Myth of Mental Illness, “popularized the idea that mental illness did not exist but was merely a label that a rigid and intolerant society placed upon those who were nonconformists of any stripe… Mental illness was a social construct, a prejudice, not a diagnosis.” Charen notes Erving Goffman wrote an influential book called Asylums. He argued all mental treatment institutions were essentially alike, and not for the better. Goffman “insisted that that most of the symptoms of mental illness displayed by residents of mental hospitals–raving, hearing voices, paranoia–were responses to being locked up, not evidence of illness…” Enormously influential too was British Psychoanalyst R. D. Laing. Charen writes: “Laing argued that modern society itself was twisted and unnatural…Laing taught that society’s coercion alienated human beings from their instinctive, natural, and intuitive selves. The people society called mentally ill were merely attempting to recapture the ecstatic and intuitive parts of their souls. Who were we, he asked, to label them insane when society itself was so sick?”
These enormously influential theories, heard today, sound utterly idiotic to just about anyone but Progressives: The mentally ill aren’t really sick at all, but have a supernatural sense of perception, perhaps even a more evolved consciousness than the rest of the God and gun clingers, about whom Progressives are so contemptuous.
Mental hospitals were closed with the promise of more local, mental health “centers,” but states only too glad to shutter large facilities as a cost saving measure often decided to save even more, and all but abolished in-patient treatment facilities. Many “community mental health centers” focused on social issues rather than the less glamorous treatment of the seriously mentally ill, which is expensive, difficult, and often, dangerous. The most dangerous effect was the watering down of involuntary commitment laws, which almost uniformly empowered the individual and restricted the power of the state. One result is that a great many of the “homeless” (who tend to disappear when Democrats hold the White House) owe that condition primarily to their mental illness rather than the cruelty of an uncaring Conservative society, or because TRUMP.
Now we arrive at the contemporary problem. The issue of involuntary commitment (hereinafter referred to as “IC”) has always been one of balancing the right of the individual to avoid unnecessary, unconstitutional confinement, with the general safety of the public. In the aftermath of school attacks in recent years, many have suggested such laws be changed to make it easier to seize the mentally ill. Unfortunately, so doing with states that allow IC under the circumstances I’ve outlined, would invariably violate the Constitution, but there are surely some states whose IC laws could be made more effective within the Constitution.
The example of the Sandy Hook killer is a case in point. He was known to have a variety of personality/mental health issues, and saw a wide variety of psychologists and counselors over many years. Prescribed a variety of drugs, he refused to take them. Everyone that knew him knew him to be odd. But not a single mental health professional ever though him dangerous, and none thought for a moment he might be a school shooter. He owned no guns, but his mother did. He murdered her as she slept with a .22LR, bolt action rifle, and took her guns. No mental health law, no gun control law, would have identified, deterred, or stopped him. My three part series on Newtown is available here.
Let us assume, gentle readers, our state has the most effective IC law allowable under the Constitution. That does not solve the problem.
Police officers are averse to making mistakes. They are expected to make decisions that would give Solomon pause, make them in seconds, and be 100% correct. As a result, officers tend to enforce only familiar laws. Neophyte officers tend to focus on enforcing traffic laws, as traffic statues tend to be brief, easy to understand and apply: either Mr. Smith was traveling at 55 MPH in a 40 mile zone as determined by a properly calibrated radar device, or he wasn’t. Officers tend to avoid lengthier, more convoluted laws to avoid mistakes.
Unlike popular mythology, most police officers are careful not to make false arrests as such mistakes are professionally embarrassing, and costly in many ways. Accordingly, most officers avoid dealing with IC laws. Using unfamiliar forms (which they probably don’t have or have no idea where to find–you’d be surprised at the profusion of forms officers have to use, all of which must be perfectly completed) make mistakes more likely. Most avoid making arrests under unfamiliar, specialized and seldom used statutes.
During my police patrol days, I was recognized as the local police expert on IC law and procedure. The local mental health lockup called me “the A team.” I earned that designation simply because I read, understood and correctly applied the IC laws, carried the appropriate paperwork, and knew how to properly complete it. I also worked hard to be kind to everyone, and even the mentally ill respond to kindness.
Take the case of “Karen,” a 17 year-old known for being crazy. One bright summer day, Karen was wandering around the downtown area taking random potshots with a bow and arrows. Fortunately, she didn’t hit anyone. Taking her into custody was no problem—I was fluent in crazy–and it was off to the state mental hospital for Karen.
Within a week, Karen was back on the street, having removed her clothing from the waist up, and was standing on a street corner smearing mud on her breasts. Cops and doctors will certify most people look better with their clothing on. I got the call and made a rapid IC. I called the state mental hospital and had–as Dave Barry says: “I am not making this up”–this conversation:
Me: “This is Officer McDaniel of the **** Police Department. May I speak to the doctor who most recently treated Karen **** please?”
Doctor: “This is Doctor Screwluse.”
Me: “Doctor, last week we sent Karen **** to you on an IC, and today I find her back on the street, half naked and smearing mud on her breasts. Why isn’t she still there with you?”
Doctor: “We can’t handle her; she’s crazy.”
Me: (after plucking my jaw from the floor and replacing it on my face) “What do you mean you ‘can’t handle her, she’s crazy?!’ You’re the state mental hospital!”
Doctor: “Well, she has a character disorder, and our programs really aren’t set up to treat character disorders, and…”
The conversation went downhill from there.
Police officers, who are the front line in such matters, really don’t like to make IC arrests. They’re not comfortable with them, know they’re not psychiatrists, and don’t want to make false arrests. It’s one thing to arrest someone for committing a clearly delineated crime, but calling someone crazy? Local mental health professionals often have less than kind opinions of the police, and aren’t shy about making those opinions known. Officers often see dangerously mentally ill people released back to the street, commonly within hours of taking them into custody. Why should they take risks when people that think they’re idiots will undo their work anyway?
It’s easy for people who might actually intend harm to pretend they have no such intentions. Police officers may have multiple contacts with someone, but never quite develop the probable cause under their IC statute to take them into custody. It’s very easy, with hindsight, to say: “the police were at his house 25 times in five years! Why didn’t they do something?!” The police did do something. They went to his house 25 times and handled whatever problem was present at those times, but there was never sufficient probable cause for an IC.
This may be what happened with the Douglas HS shooter, or perhaps, on one or two occasions, there might have been sufficient PC, but the officers were unsure, untrained, and didn’t want to take away someone’s liberty without being absolutely certain. If that’s the case, the very people who claim officers are too quick to arrest will surely attack them for being too slow to arrest. All too often, the police can’t win.
Perfect IC legislation, no matter how brilliantly written or well intentioned, always has unintended consequences. The constitutional balancing act involved is always difficult, and the entire system has to be well considered, trained and practiced—to say nothing of being willing to work and play well together–if the intended positive effects of these, or any other statutes, are to be realized.
Ultimately, where the mysteries of mental illness are concerned, it’s impossible to accurately diagnose everyone 100% of the time, and even if a potential school shooter is properly taken into custody and “treated,” they’ll be out again in a relatively short time. They’ll be more careful and private in the future. No IC law will catch every potential school shooter, many of who are not mentally ill, or whose mental illness does not meet the definitions of any statute. That doesn’t mean statues shouldn’t be improved or updated where needed, but IC statutes alone won’t prevent all, or even most, school attacks.