This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2011 - It usually pays to learn the facts before formulating a firm opinion about them. In the wake of our most recent mass shooting atrocity, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik blamed vitriolic radio and television talk show hosts for creating a climate conducive to extremist violence. As most of the accused hail from the right-wing of American politics, his commentary was immediately embraced by liberals from sea to shining sea.
The sheriff spoke directly to the camera in calm, measured tones. I found his remarks to be thoughtful, provocative and persuasive. Unfortunately, they were also wrong. We now know that the Tucson assailant -- one Jared Lee Loughner -- was, cognitively speaking, several tacos short of a super platter.
Loughner had attended a "Congress in Your Corner" event hosted by shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords in August 2007. During the question and answer period, Loughner asked the Congresswomen, "What is government if words have no meaning?" Apparently disinclined to explore the Zen implications of his inquiry at the public meeting, Giffords blew him off and moved on to the next question.
Deeply offended, Loughner reportedly developed an obsession with Giffords that culminated in the recent Saturday morning slaughter. As the perceived slight took place a year before Sarah Palin's entrance on the national stage and the emergence of the Tea Party movement, neither of those phenomena can be fairly blamed for his pathology. Further, there is no evidence that he was a devotee of talk radio or Fox News, so Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are likewise off the hook.
In fact, to the extent that he could express anything resembling a coherent political ideology, Loughner drifted toward the Marxist left of the spectrum. Before granting strident conservatives blanket absolution, however, we should consider the proximate causes of the tragedy: de-institutionalization of the mentally ill and the ready availability of firearms. The right-wing is at least partially complicit in each.
The gun debate has been waged so often and at such length that I won't belabor the issue here. Suffice it to observe that a gun is a moral chameleon: In the hands of a stable, competent adult, it can be a powerful force for good. That's why we pay cops to carry them. In the hands of a criminal psychopath, it becomes an equally powerful force for evil. Sound public policy thus demands that we do everything possible to keep these deadly instruments out of the wrong hands.
Thanks in large part to the paranoid ruminations of the gun lobby, it has become progressively easier for Americans to buy firearms. In Missouri, for instance, a prospective buyer used to have to acquire a permit from the county sheriff to purchase a handgun. The sheriff had 10 days from the date of application to conduct a background check before approving the sale.
This procedure provided a built-in waiting period and allowed at least the possibility that the unstable could be identified before they were allowed to arm themselves. By interviewing references and neighbors, the sheriff might garner information that a simple criminal history check may not reveal. If the applicant felt he was wrongly denied, the sheriff's decision could be appealed in circuit court.
The permit requirement has since been rescinded. Today, the gun dealer calls an FBI hot-line and has a computerized criminal record check run by phone. The process typically takes less than five minutes.
If the buyer isn't listed as a convicted felon, he's good to go. The determination of whether the purchaser has presented authentic identification documents or whether he is generally fit to own a gun is made by the very party who stands to profit from the sale. Mental health records are confidential and are not reflected in FBI files.
In the months preceding the Tucson massacre, the eventual killer had been expelled from junior college for mental instability, rejected by the military for failing a drug test and had several run-ins with the local police. None of these discouraging developments prevented him from legally purchasing the 9mm semi-automatic pistol and two 30-round magazines that he used to perpetrate his mayhem.
The other factor that helped to once again lower flags to half-mast involves our strategy for dealing with mental illness. During the late 1960s and early '70s, an unlikely alliance emerged between liberal psychiatrists and fiscal conservatives that resulted in a significant increase in the number of crazy people walking the streets.
The liberal shrinks argued that asylums merely warehoused and unfairly stigmatized the mentally challenged. They contended that a new generation of psychotropic drugs would render such medieval tactics obsolete. Lured by the cost savings of de-institutionalizing wards of the state, budget hawks agreed. Regrettably, for this effort to succeed, we had to rely on the insane to be responsible for medicating themselves.
In St. Louis, for example, both the state hospital on Arsenal Street and the Malcolm Bliss Center were eventually closed. These custodial institutions were replaced for the most part by the sidewalk. In the most recent round of state budget cuts, one of the agencies hardest hit was the Department of Mental Health. Reduction in public services and facilities for the mentally ill, incidentally, is one cause of the abiding problem of homelessness in the United States.
Most of the afflicted are just that -- afflicted. They're innocent souls trying to cope with a debilitating condition. But reasonable people would agree that allowing the mentally disordered to acquire firearms is a recipe for disaster.
Bad things happen despite our best efforts, so there's no guarantee stricter gun laws or better treatment of mental disease would have prevented Loughner's murderous spree. But the right-wing's fondness for plentiful guns and its disdain for public assistance combined to make Sheriff Dupnik's hasty comments seem plausible.
M.W.Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.