19 December 2012

Violence and Mental Illness

One angle that media has been decidedly less than shrill about is that of Adam Lanza’s mental illness.  At least New York Magazine has been willing to report that:

 Adam Lanza's mother had been increasingly concerned over her son's well-being in the weeks before the tragedy, telling a friend just a week before that he was "getting worse" and that "she was losing him," the New York Daily News reported. That report makes no mention of Asperger's syndrome, but it cites Adam's uncle who said he was taking an anti-psychotic drug called Fanapt. The Atlantic points out that several diagnoses have been bandied about in the press, including autism, Asperger's, and "personality disorder." [Emphasis added.]

According to both Wikipedia and Fanapt’s site, Fanapt is a drug that’s intended use is the treatment of schizophrenia.  That being the case, we can conclude a couple of things are possible:  a) either Adam Lanza was a schizophrenic and had been misdiagnosed as suffering from an autistic spectrum disorder or b) Adam really was suffering from sort of autistic spectrum disorder but was given an inappropriate medication.*  If the former conclusion is true, then the root cause of the school shooting was not an absence of strict gun control, but the fact that a crazy person was let loose on society.  If the latter conclusion is true, then it is highly likely that Adam was driven crazy by the meds that he was taking because drugs administered to schizos are potent and deeply affect brain chemistry.  In either event, we are talking about a mentally unstable person.

This is a very significant point because psychiatric drugs have a proven link to violence.  People who are on psychotropic drugs are far more likely to engage in violent behavior.  And, as was demonstrated in a prior post, one need not have access to guns to commit violence.  The root problem, in this case, is not guns but mental problems.

Now, here’s the rub:  if anyone is truly concerned about preventing the sort of grotesque and perverse evil put on display last week from ever happening again, we must consider our approach to handling mentally ill people.  The sanitariums of fifty years ago were no picnic.  But by the same token, neither are these school shootings.

Gun control advocates may be well-intentioned in their desire to protect innocent children from harm.  However, it is not clear that more gun control would solve the problem.  In fact, none of the existing gun control laws would have prevented Adam Lanza from acquiring guns:

Lanza brought three guns into the school, all owned by his mother. He killed his victims with a high-powered semi-automatic rifle, but he also carried two pistols, one of which he used to take his own life. Police say he sprayed hundreds of bullets inside the school and had considerably more left over to use.
Shooting his mother while she slept and preloading numerous rounds of ammunition into the gun clips signals that Lanza was on a mission, O'Toole said.

Gun control laws generally look to control guns at point-of-purchase.**  These laws would not, under any circumstances, have applied to Adam Lanza because he stole the guns from his mother, whom he murdered.  He did not purchase any weapons.

The only law that would have applied to him was the provision prohibiting carrying a gun on elementary school property.  As should be obvious, that regulation had little effect on him.

So, to recap, Adam Lanza violated preexisting laws against theft and murder to acquire guns, thereby circumventing the existing gun control laws, and blatantly ignored the law prohibiting him from carrying a gun on school property.  Thus, what we can see, is that more gun control laws focused on point-of-purchase would not have done a single thing to have prohibited this tragedy, and the laws that were supposedly in effect were not enforced (and how would the law against carrying weapons on school property be enforced without the credible threat of violence?).

Gun control advocates, then, are only left with a handful of effective options.  They can recommend straight up banning all guns.  This would mean tracking down every last gun in existence and melting it down, and not leaving any guns for anyone, not even government employees.  Even liberals are intelligent to recognize both the futility and stupidity of this idea.

An alternative to this is to beef up point-of-purchase laws regarding mental health.  For example, states could ban sales of guns to people taking psychotropic medicine.  This probably won’t automatically stop school massacres, but it might reduce them.  Plus, crazy people have no business owning firearms.***

An altogether better approach—which has been addressed before—would be to give teachers guns so that they can defend their students instead of sitting around helplessly in the event that a crazy person decides to shoot up a school.

More importantly, though, the thing to seriously consider is how to deal with the mentally unstable.  These people, to put it simply, have no business in normal society.  Schizophrenics, the severely retarded, the extremely autistic, the ones with multiple personality disorder, and others with extreme mental handicaps are clearly not able to operate properly in society.  And they should not be forced to try. Imagine how difficult Adam’s life must have been, trying to fit in at school, while being mocked, possibly harassed and having to deal with an apparently severe mental illness.  Why subject him to this when he could have been homeschooled, and thereby placed in an environment that was far more conducive to his personal growth, development, and well-being?  Or why not put him in a mental care facility where he could deal with his problems in relative peace?

It takes a sick, possibly evil person to do what Adam Lanza did.  Is anyone seriously suggesting that preventing the next Adam Lanza from going on a rampage is more closely tied to point-of-purchase gun laws than social mental health policy?

Now, I’m not trying to suggest that all social ills can be solved by adjusting how society deals with the mentally unstable.  In fact, I would suggest that we can never cure all social ills in their entirety.  We will always be confronted with the problem of evil, and with the problems arising from random chance.  Only a fool would think that perfection is attainable in this life.  And only a fool would think that more gun control would prevent crazy and evil people from committing murders.

Instead, the best we can hope for is to reduce the amount of evil and the amount of crazy that is permitted to run loose in society.  And even then, this would be subject to diminishing returns.  But if we are going to take some time to reflect on this tragedy and what we can do to reduce the odds of another occurrence, then perhaps we should look beyond increased gun control and take a little bit of time thinking about ways we can prevent crazy people from acting out their sick fantasies on the more innocent members of our society.  Perhaps focusing on the perpetrators might be more effective at reducing violence than focusing on their tools.

* I’m not an expert by any means, but what I remember from studying neurology is that autism and schizophrenia are in different leagues, neurologically, and their treatments are rather dissimilar as a result.

** There are a couple of laws regulating where one can carry a gun and the circumstances of carrying, but the general approach is to regulate/limit the purchase of guns at point-of-sale.  For example, it is legal to purchase full-auto guns, but you have to jump through a lot of hoops in order to do so.  This is an example of point-of-purchase regulation because the regulation of the gun occurs at the point of sale (it’s legal to manufacture and shoot one, but purchasing it requires jumping through hoops).

*** This is actually a gun control measure I support.  I’m generally pretty laissez-faire when it comes to gun ownership, but I do not want convicted felons or crazy people to own guns.  They should flat-out be banned from owning them.  But everyone else should be able to buy as many guns as they please without any restrictions or limitations.


  1. And if the mother told others she was worried about her son's mental stability, why didn't she lock the guns up or, better yet, get them temporarily out of the house? Why was she taking a mentally unstable son to the gun range?

  2. @Carnivore- I don't know about you, but I think I've figured out which parent passed the crazy gene's on to the son.