Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Off topic: How to respond to the Arizona massacre?

Like many people, I was stunned by the massacre in Tucson, Arizona last Saturday. Since then, many people have tried to understand why it happened, and how to prevent future massacres from happening. I claim no expertise in the subject whatsoever; these are simply my thoughts about how we can move forward.
  • Jared Lee Loughner is clearly mentally deranged, and there was ample evidence that he was a threat to others from his behavior at Pima Community College, as well as from his YouTube videos. Frankly, the students and faculty at Pima were very lucky that he didn't stage his massacre there, rather than at the shopping center.

    Over the years, many, if not most of the massacres and assassinations in the U.S. have been staged by clearly deranged individuals (and in the case of Columbine High School, two deranged students.) Most of these tragedies end with the shooter committing suicide, unless they're prevented from doing so by others. The Discovery Communications hostage incident last September, which luckily resulted in the death of only the gunman, was staged by James J. Lee, who was clearly disturbed and had staged protest events at Discovery's headquarters before the hostage-taking incident.

    We have poor methods of identifying people who are potential threats to themselves or others, and equally poor ways of getting them into treatment. At least in the cases of people who have demonstrated that they represent a threat, we need better ways to compel them to undergo qualified psychiatric evaluation. We also need to both increase and improve the treatment options for such people. In many area of the country, mental health facilities are so overcrowded and have such long waiting lists that people who represent a threat can't get into treatment for days or weeks.
  • Even if Loughner had been identified as a threat to himself or others, and even if he had been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, he still would have been able to purchase the Glock 19 and ammunition that he used in the massacre. Under Arizona law, the only background check that gun stores can use is the Federal "instant" database, and Arizona isn't keeping the Federal database updated. Participation in the Federal database is voluntary by states; gun stores must use it, but each state can decide whether or not to participate, and how often to update its information in the database.

    Participation in the database by states should be made mandatory in order to receive Federal funding, and states should also be required to keep the database updated in a timely manner. This is especially true if the state doesn't require any additional checks beyond the Federal database.
  • We may have to go back to some form of the assault weapons ban that was in place from 1995 to 2005. Loughner used an extended 30-round magazine that was illegal during the assault weapons ban. He was stopped only when he ran out of ammunition in his first magazine and had to reload. Had he been forced to reload after 12 or 15 shots, the carnage could have been stopped sooner.
  • There's a tremendous firestorm of charges and counter-charges as to whether heated political rhetoric, including direct and indirect references to guns and gun-related symbols, contributed to Loughner's actions. There's little evidence that he was influenced by mainstream political movements on either the right or left. There's no mention of conventional political rhetoric in any of the videos that he left behind, or in his statements in class at Pima Community College.

    Nevertheless, this is an excellent time to tone down the references to violence in our political rhetoric. Politicians and commentators who advocate or demonstrate violence need to recognize that their authority and celebrity can help unstable individuals to rationalize violent actions. We can disagree with each other without demonizing each other.
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