No Easy Answers

In the wake of the Tucson shooting, we are being bombarded by solutions for how to prevent the next one. And it was a remarkable event — some of the solutions are for things that I didn’t even realize were problems.

We still don’t know for certain precisely what set off the shooter (whose name I will not, and never will, mention). That he is profoundly mentally ill seems clear. That he had a history of fixating on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is undisputable. And that many of those who knew him — even casually — thought him potentially dangerous and feared him.

We all wish Saturday had never happened. We all want to find the “silver bullet” (if you’ll pardon the violent metaphor) that will identify the factor or factors that set off the shooter, and help prevent another such atrocity.

But the measures being considered have some serious issues of their own. These “cures” very well might be worse than the “diseases” they purport to treat. One does not treat a hangnail by amputation.


]]>< ![CDATA[We need to tone down powerful, inflammatory rhetoric. As someone
who uses words a great deal, and is very careful about which words I use
and in what context, I sometimes get frustrated with the “amateurs” who
overuse the words of power. Usually, it’s profanity that sets me off,
but the “Nazi” and “socialist” and “communist” tags are also overused to
the point of dilution.

The problem here is, we are catering to the lowest common denominator.
“I need to watch what I say because some schizophrenic somewhere might
find a message that could set him off.” Nuts will ALWAYS find something
to set them off; it’s their nature. Charles Manson ordered the slaughter
of innocents based on the Beatles’ “White Album.” Mark David Chapman
read “Catcher In The Rye” and assassinated John Lennon. John Hinckley
watched “Taxi Driver” and shot President Reagan to impress its star.

It’s
the same mentality that drives the push for censorship — even
self-censorship — in books, music, television, movies, video games, and
so many other things. “Think of the children.” “What if a child were to
see or hear this?” Because some people might not be able to handle
certain ideas and concepts, we should all be protected from them.
Because some of us are children — or childish in some way — we must
all be treated as children.

We need to limit access to weapons, or types of weapons, or accessories for weapons.
The gunman in Tucson used a
very popular model of handgun, and had several clips of very high
capacity. The clips had fallen under the now-lapsed and laughably-named
“assault weapons” law (more properly called the “Scary-Looking Guns
Law,” as very few of the attributes used as criteria actually had much
to do with how well they aided the criminal use of the guns in
question), which banned the manufacture of large-capacity magazines. Not
the possession or sale of such, but merely the manufacture — which
means that the 31-round magazines the shooter used were, in all
likelihood, perfectly legal. Some gun experts denounce such items, as
they are less reliable (the springs break faster under the increased
pressure of the extra rounds), they make the weapon heavier and more
cumbersome, they throw off the balance of the weapon, and they make it
much more difficult to conceal or carry comfortably. But they are
perfectly legal to possess and sell, and their use is purely a matter of
personal choice for each shooter.

So, should we pass a law that, in theory, would have kept the Tucson
shooter from being able to obtain the gun, ammunition, and magazines he
used? Should we loutlaw the gun he used, the magazines he used, restrict the ammunition he used? Should everyone be deprived of access to them, because he misused them? It’s the “lowest common denominator” approach again; because one or some misuse something, we all must pay the price. The whole must be punished for the sins of the few.

Further, both approaches run afoul of the Constitution — namely, the First and Second Amendments of the Bill of Rights. And while it might be fashionable to only cite Franklin’s aphorism of “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” when one’s party is out of power (it was the watchphrase of the left during the Bush administration, but now they sneer at it; the right picked it apart then, but embraces it now), it’s almost always worth keeping in mind.

We need to reconsider how we deal with those we suspect, or believe, to be suffering from mental illness. For years we’ve been told, over and over again, that we need to stop stigmatizing the mentally ill, that mental illness is just like any other type of illness. This was the mentality that led to the de-institutionalizing of the mentally ill in the 1980’s — a drive born of compassion and advances in the understanding of mental illness.

Which has left more and more people who probably could — and should — have benefited from institutionalization free to inflict their madness on the innocents of the world. The rights of the mentally ill — to be free from involuntary confinement without a criminal conviction — have been deemed superior to the rights of society to be free from the potential harm they might cause. And, in general, that is a good thing — to deprive someone of their physical freedom is a tremendous step, especially in the name of what they might do. We should be tremendously leery of granting the government such power — that was the rationalization the Soviet Union used for imprisoning so many of its political enemies (after all, only the crazy would reject the glorious benefits of Communism, right?), and they were hardly the only government that did such things.

We also run afoul of the principle of self-determinism and self-governance. Whenever we are insisting on coercing others to do things for their own benefit, we are insisting that we know what is better for them than they do themselves. We are trumping their rights to make their own choices — which includes the right to make wrong choices. Of course, we also have an obligation to care for those who cannot care for themselves, which includes those so mentally disturbed that they genuinely cannot grasp their own best interests (or even reality) — but where do we draw that line?

And more importantly, who decides when that line has been crossed?

We have no “absolute” rights. Every right is curtailed when it infringes on the rights of others. What we do is figure out just where the lines are drawn.

The Tucson case gives us a chance to look back in hindsight, and see where something could have been done to head off the shootings. There were several opportunities for someone — very specific someones — could have said or done something that would have gotten the shooter the help he needed, and spared us all the tragedy he inflicted on us.

And at each step, there would have been people who would have argued against the interventions, citing the shooter’s rights and challenging the authority of those who would force their idea of “help” on to him against his will.

People of noble intent, of good will, with arguments based on sound principles and respect for the individual’s rights.

In many cases, they would be right. In this case, they would have been tragically wrong.

Which we only know thanks to the miracle of hindsight.

There’s no magical formula, no crystal ball that will let us distinguish the next psycho shooter from the guy who is just having a string of bad days, and will eventually snap himself out of it. There has to be some kind of compromise, some way of getting some control over the truly dangerous (to others, themselves, or both) without infringing on the rights of others.

And we certainly shouldn’t compromise the rights of all others for the sake of catering to the tiny minority that can’t take responsibility for themselves. I might not know what will work, but I’m absolutely certain that certain actions will make things worse.

Sarah Palin weighs in on the Tucson shooting...
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