Sunday, May 14, 2006

Still Another, Stronger Plea For Common Sense Laws In Virginia

As I promised, I will give you a few more of my thoughts concerning the shooting at the Sully District police station.

First, let’s acknowledge that it will never be possible to prevent all shootings. Critics of gun control who point that out are not wrong. There will always be mentally unstable people who slip through the cracks simply because they don’t have a history of treatment that serves as a prior warning to law authorities. Anybody can become temporarily unstable at any time given the right circumstances, so there can never be a one hundred percent guarantee that we can keep deadly weapons out of the hands of all people with mental or emotional problems.

We also will never be able to keep assault weapons out of the hands of all criminals. By definition, a lawbreaker is a person who is going to disregard the law and do whatever he wants, so those bent on committing crimes aren’t going to be stopped by gun control laws from gaining access to guns.

However, the right laws can make it harder for them. Even more important, a well-written law could also put a gun out of reach of somebody with a history of mental illness and involvement with the police. Somebody like Michael Kennedy.

As I’ve already admitted, we will never be able to prevent all gun related crimes. But this particular one, I think, could have been prevented at several points.

The first is with a more proactive approach at home. I don’t want to blame Kennedy’s parents. They are already grieving a tragic loss. And Kennedy was 18. He was no longer a minor, so his parents’ options as to what to do for their son were limited by the law.

However, one thing they should have done – and I say this knowing full well that hindsight is always 20/20 – is remove the guns from their home. Their home was a small arsenal. In fairness, though, the Kennedys kept their weapons in what they thought were locked gun cases. And they would not be the first people in the world to be gun collectors. People collect all kinds of objects.

But given that their son had been in recent trouble with the police, including one car-jacking for which a court date had been set for July, an incident involving shooting at a pet, during which their son admitted to suicidal thoughts, and the fact that their son was seeking help for mental and emotional problems, they should have gotten their gun collection out of their house and into a storage facility of some kind that their son did not have access to.

Another point in the chain of events leading up to the shoot out, where this terrible tragedy might have been prevented, would have been the elimination of the difficulty in getting help for a mentally ill person if that person does not want the treatment.

This is where there is another real failure of our laws to deal adequately with treatment of the mentally ill. It is incredibly difficult to get somebody committed involuntarily for treatment. This is a point that I make with great trepidation. I am old enough to remember the terrible abuses that occurred in the not too distant past when it was much were easier to get family members involuntarily committed to mental institutions. Sometimes families sought involuntary commitments simply to control rebellious young adults whose behavior didn’t fit the narrowly proscribed conventions of the day or even to have elderly relatives declared incompetent so that those petitioning the courts for these commitments didn’t have to wait to inherit wealth. To be sure, such abuses of the system weren’t the norm, but they occurred often enough, and in some cases were egregious enough in depriving the victims of their rightful civil liberties, that it led to a backlash. Unfortunately, the pendulum swung way too far the other way, making it often impossible to get help for people who desperately need it.

I am always on the side of greater rather than less civil liberties as a matter of principle. But I know something about mental illness too, and so do you if you think about it. Unlike diabetes, cancer, or heart disease, the more serious the mental illness the less likely the person in its grip will be to recognize that he is even out of touch with reality. It’s the old saw that if you can ask if you’re crazy, you’re probably not.

Those who have had a psychotic break are so out of touch with reality that the voices they hear, the urges they have, the thoughts about how hopeless their condition is all seem real. What makes mental illness so difficult to treat is that the patient believes the distorted thoughts he has. And the more out of touch with reality he is, the more he believes them to be true.

So, getting a mentally ill person to voluntarily seek treatment is sometimes just this side of impossible. Michael Kennedy was almost able to get treatment. He was more than part way there when he checked into Potomac Ridge. Then, he walked out.

If there had been some way of preventing him from walking out the very same day that he voluntarily checked himself in, not only might Vicky Armel be alive, but so might he.

With today’s treatment options, involuntary commitment does not mean locking somebody away in the snake pit of yesterday or leaving them to rot indefinitely in the back room of an institution. Most people who go into residential treatment facilities stay for terms of anywhere from a few days to a few months. It is rare for mentally ill patients to be hospitalized for years unless they have committed a serious crime and have been ordered by the courts into treatment rather than prison.

It should also be pointed out that most mentally ill people aren’t dangerous to others. But Michael Kennedy was dangerous to both himself and to others and there was a paper trail of court dates, police records and records from hospitals that showed that. Yet I would guess that even if his parents had tried to get him into treatment against his will, they would have failed. But such treatment might have been short term, and might have consisted of medication, counseling, follow up support, a stay in a half way house, and other options that could have been life saving without depriving him of his civil rights on a long term basis.

Our laws have to change to make it easier for intervention in cases like this.

And finally so must our gun laws change. It is possible for somebody to go to a gun show, give a mental health residential treatment center as his address (many people who are in residential treatment are out patients who are able to come and go during the day), and still purchase a gun. That has to stop. Again, I’m going to make the same plea for some common sense. Isn’t it possible to admit that, even while you support the right of hunters, farmers, and collectors to have guns, some people really shouldn’t have them? And certainly, some people really, really shouldn’t own an AK-47 or a bayonet?

Michael Kennedy was one of those people. And he, as well as Vicky Armel, was failed by the loopholes in all our laws.

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