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The gun numbers

Posted Jan 19 2014 10:28am

from the archives


26 people, most of them children,  died in the massacre at Newtown.  This brought the total to 151 deaths in mass shootings in the United States this year.  The awfulness of this is on the minds of many this Christmas season.

It is the awfullest of awful things.  26 innocent people slaughtered by someone. Rather he was evil, mad, sick, ill or whatever term you use it was horrible and ultimate responsibility is on the head of Adam Lanza.  But how…… Why?……All of those things are being debated and perhaps will always be debated.

Much of this has been layed at the feet of those with mental illness and we have been assured that if we had sufficiently coercive procedures in place we can “lock them up before they hurt anyone.”  Some say AOT (forced outpatient treatment) is the answer.  “You dont need to lock them up, but you do need to make them see a therapist.”  Never mind that psychiatric hospitals dont seem to be much of a blessing even to those who are not violent.  Never mind that no therapist in the world will tell you that he would risk the lives of his children on his ability to stop a killer.  There is another problem….the problem of numbers.

Mental illness affects 1 of 5 adults we are told.  One study I saw said that 1-2 people out of a million have the potential to be mass murderers.  If mental illness explains the 1-2 how can it explain the rest of us.  Something that explains those that do something and those who dont do it is not a sufficient explanation of either.

What about the other numbers?  What about everyday violence?  31,224 people were killed by guns in 2011.  66768 were wounded.  That adds up to 97992 victims of guns….268 victims each day….11 victims each hour…..1 every 5 minutes or so.  That was our level of everyday violence.  Everything exists within a context.  I cant help but wonder within the context of the everyday violence that we live with whether or not disasters like Newtown have become more likely or not.

Guns are involved with 67% of homicides, 43% of robberies, and 21 % of aggravated assaults.  When I see the stat about robberies and aggravated assaults what I really wonder is how many times a gun was used, not by a “professional criminal” but by someone who just got mad at someone else for some slight or perceived injury and decided to teach them a lesson.  I dont know how you would get such a statistic, but I would hazard a guess that the frequency might be more than anyone would like to believe.

When someone feels justified in getting back for an injury or hurt, when they feel like in fact that using a gun is the option that makes the best sense, when they feel like the have the capacity and ability to do so and the only consequences will be that the guilty person will get what they deserve and that people will be impressed with what they do— and when all this occurs in a context of a high level of everyday violence and easy access to guns– when all this true– how surprised can we be when someone dies at the hands of a gun?

The mental health system does fail.  And maybe it failed with Adam Lanza.  But it has failed with many more people, on a level equally serious, that has little or nothing to do with violent people.  It, for many people,  offers few really effective options for help.  Program cutbacks are very real.  Many people have no way to get very real needs met.  Many of the services available arent always the most effective.  40% of the people who go to psychiatric hospitals return within a year.  20% within a year.  And that doesnt even consider the trauma the experience is for many.  They cost as much or more than any community programs and in many states dont even serve a tenth as many people.  On virtually every level the need is great and the resources are not.

If you do not create a system that is easy enough to access, with options that really help in an environment that does not ridicule or stigmatize those who use those services then you will always fall short. People who do not emotionally invest in the system dont tend to use it.   We fail on all these grounds.

But none of this really makes this a more violent culture.  The research has shown conclusively that mental illness is not a predictor of violent behavior.  People do fall through the cracks.  People live in the cracks.  The mentally ill can get violent because people can get violent.  Nothing about their condition makes them so.  Actually research says that being young, male, and a substance abuser does connect with the likelihood of violence.  But no one is ready to lock up the young male beer drinkers.

Violence is a human issue.  As long as we have the capacity to justify our need and efforts to hurt others and live in a culture that celebrates and makes easy guns the violence will often be at the end of a gun.  Before you let anyone tell you this is strictly a mental health issue have them explain the rest of the numbers…. not just the 26 and the 151, but the 31224 or the 66, 768.

Newtown was awful.  It will be for many a perspective changing event.  I hope so.  We are in need of better sight.

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