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A lifesaving idea

by Dana D. Kel­ley Guest column | January 5, 2020 at 3:00 a.m.

Two years ago in Texas, we saw one of the worst-case church-shooting scenarios when a gunman slaughtered 26 people in a sanctuary where no one else was armed.

On Sunday we saw probably the best-case church-shooting scenario in Texas when a volunteer security team member shot and killed a gunman six seconds after his attack began.

Undoubtedly the change in Texas law between the two shootings -- which permits congregants to carry guns in church -- completely changed the outcome in Sunday's incident. Nevertheless, that law is still essentially a reactive measure. It cannot and does not proactively prevent an attack; it simply enables people in church to better protect themselves if an attack occurs.

Which is exactly what happened. But even in Sunday's best-case outcome, two innocent people still died. Neutralizing a murderous man with a gun in less than six seconds is about as good as anyone can hope for (police didn't arrive for two minutes), but it was still enough time for a couple of trigger pulls.

The larger legislative question is what can be done to actually prevent such a mass-shooting scenario at all.

We will probably never know precisely what motivated the shooter to do what he did. What we do know is that the gunman, like most other mass shooters, had previously exhibited signs of mental illness. He also falls into the roughly 25 percent of mass shooters officially diagnosed as mentally ill.

Psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals are quick to cry foul and "false narrative" when discussions linking mental health and gun violence arise. It's true that most people with mental illnesses will never shoot anyone. Neither will most people without mental illness.

That fact reinforces the notion that it's fruitless to focus on most people, which is a huge amount of folks, and instead dial in on the much smaller number of those like Sunday's shooter -- who was not only well-known to be mentally troubled but also frequently in trouble with the law over violent activity, sometimes involving firearms.

That guy should have been involuntarily institutionalized years ago. And that's the problem: Our mental health system isn't set up to forcibly separate deranged people with dangerous disorders from general society.

The mental health community rightly worries about stereotypes and stigmas; historically, prejudice toward people struggling with mental illness has been unwarranted, and fostered unjust biases and discrimination. It's a fine and delicate line to differentiate between harmless and dangerous mental disorders, but it's still a line. The difficulty associated with the task of identifying the two shouldn't mean we don't even try.

Especially since in some cases it's easy and obvious. The shooter on Sunday is a prime example.

Senseless and inexplicable mass shootings are nothing like the typical crime that comes to mind when we think of lawbreaking and criminal justice. Most normal crimes make very good sense, and their purposes are easily explained: a robber wants money, a burglar wants loot, a jealous husband wants vengeance, a car thief wants wheels, and so on.

Because those same outcomes can be achieved through legal means, normal criminals can be deterred or turned from their lawless ways and still get what they want. They can fear punishment more than they value criminal gains. They can work to earn money or buy a car rather than stealing it.

But for a person battling demons, as Sunday's shooter was described by himself and those close to him, the voices in his head can become beyond the reach of deterrence, reason and alternatives.

A person for whom a normal day might be setting fires around town using oil-soaked tampons, or illegally toting a shotgun around on a bicycle while trespassing and taking pictures at a refinery, needs more than help -- he needs protection from himself. Society also needs protection from him.

Sunday's shooter left a legacy of arrests and convictions from coast to coast, including California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma and New Jersey. His charges over the past 20 years (most of his adult life) include assault with a deadly weapon, battery, theft, unlawful gun possession, arson and domestic violence. His wives, sister, family and others knew he was mentally unstable.

Had there been a program in place to involuntarily commit that guy to a mental institution after his first violent weapons charge as a public threat, it would have been a no-brainer decision -- and ultimately a lifesaving one for both him and his victims.

This isn't about "bringing back the asylums." It isn't about looking backward at all. It's about effectively confronting a modern reality, while also addressing valid concerns about mental health stereotyping.

Mental illness by itself falls way below any "predictive" threshold for criminality. The only time involuntary commitment should come into consideration is when mental illness becomes coupled with documented violent behavior, especially involving guns.

We can continue trying to keep all the nation's firearms away from the few violent mentally ill people, and we will continue to fail.

Or we can start keeping those individuals away from society. And oftentimes, since many mass shooters also commit suicide, the lives saved would include their own.

Dana D. Kel­ley is a free­lance writer from Jones­boro.

Editorial on 01/05/2020

Print Headline: A lifesaving idea


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