The anti-tea party and -Palin gabfest following the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., seems to be dying down, and we’re moving on to the policy prescription phase. Some ideas are plainly farcical, such as U.S. Rep. Bob Brady’s idea to ban the use of some symbols in reference to elected officials, and U.S. Rep. Peter King’s idea to ban the possession of firearms with a 1,000-foot radius of our ever-moving members of Congress (will the Ministry of Truth alert us to all of their comings and goings so that we can stay out of the way?). You can always count on members of Congress to look after themselves first.
Then there are the ideas that are entirely predictable: the call for tighter gun restrictions.
As a matter of principle, I think any law we enact as a response to a particular event ought to have, at the very least, a clear indication that it would have stood a good chance of preventing said event. And when it comes to mass murders such as the one in Tucson, the unique characteristics of these atrocities make them extremely difficult to avoid by fiat.
At Reason.com, Jacob Sullum explains:
At a press conference on Saturday, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik decried Arizona’s permissive gun laws. “I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances that they want,” he said, “and that’s almost where we are.” Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, echoed Dupnik’s concern, saying Arizona “has almost no gun laws.”
The logic here may be even harder to follow than the reasoning that links the Tucson murders to Sarah Palin. A man bent on assassinating a member of Congress, a man who thinks nothing of gunning down a 9-year-old girl, is not likely to have compunctions about carrying a firearm without a permit.
In retrospect, it may seem obvious that someone like [Jared] Loughner never should have been able to own a gun in the first place. “Why are crazy people allowed to buy weapons in this country?” wondered Time columnist Joe Klein. Helmke complained that “we make it too easy for dangerous and irresponsible people to get guns in this country.” They noted that Loughner was suspended from college for disrupting classes with strange comments and that one of his fellow students called him “very disturbed.”
But Loughner was never “adjudicated as a mental defective” or “committed to a mental institution,” which would have disqualified him from buying a gun under federal law, and his behavior in school, though off-putting, was not violent. There is no reliable way of predicting which tiny percentage of the country’s many oddballs and malcontents will convert weird ideas into homicidal actions. That reality may be scary, but it is not nearly as scary as a legal regime that strips citizens of their Second Amendment rights based on the opinions they express.
I think that’s right. A man who holds a grudge against another person for three-plus years, over the flimsiest of insults, and is calculating enough to purchase a gun two months ahead of time is going to be very hard to stop with restrictions on gun ownership. As Sullum notes, we already have laws intended to prevent the truly mentally ill from buying guns (it’s also worth noting that we have laws against buying all kinds of goods and services, from marijuana to prostitution, that are illegal and yet readily available). Could we go farther? Maybe. But it’s pretty much impossible to prevent a Loughner from buying guns by adding restrictions related to the mentally ill, if the guy is never officially diagnosed and classified as mentally ill. (Let’s acknowledge here that we probably don’t yet know everything about Loughner on this score.)
Similarly thorny are the calls for returning to some form of institutionalization. I’ve heard arguments that a great number of our homeless would not be on the streets if institutionalization were in greater use, and I suppose it just might be possible that a guy like Loughner or the Virginia Tech shooter could have been placed in a mental institution before he killed — although the VT shooter’s medical records don’t necessarily confirm that notion.
But I would venture to guess that any person in the news business — and probably government — who’s had occasion to take phone calls from a publicly listed number has encountered plenty of people on the other end of the line who are not just wacky-sounding but who probably are suffering from some sort of mental illness. How many of them go on to commit violent crimes? If it were even a statistically significant number, I think we’d hear about a lot more Tucson-like tragedies. Back to Sullum:
Even worse is a legal regime that imprisons eccentrics on the off chance that they will commit murder someday. [Time's Joe] Klein regretted that “we no longer lock up the mentally ill,” while University of Maryland political scientist William Galston said civil commitment rules should be changed to “shift the balance in favor of protecting the community.” Such a shift inevitably would mean locking up more people who pose no real threat to others.
A few decades ago, we decided the balance had gotten out of whack in favor of institutionalizing too many people. Perhaps we’ve gone too far in the other direction, but any move to reverse that decision should be made with great care and deliberation — and any new restrictions based on medical diagnoses, not the voicing of strange thoughts and opinions.
– By Kyle Wingfield
Find me on Facebook