Wednesday, January 12, 2011

One Overlooked But Pertinent Fact About The Arizona Tragedy

Being home sick today, I've had hours to read through all the news, speculation, and political squabbling about the horrific mass murder in Tucson last Saturday. Pretty much all of it is useless.

The on-line statements and videos posted by Jared Loughner give no clue about his motive except than that he exhibited disorganized, disrupted, thinking. He plainly was not influenced by any particular type of politics, or even a conspiracy theory, because he would have been unable to follow any coherent line of thought whether left-wing, right-wing, or what have you.

I am no more impressed by gun control arguments now than I ever was before. They are easily evaded, mainly affect the law-abiding, and are futile in the case of the suicidal or with spree killers and mass killers such as Loughner.

Increasing security measures for members of Congress could be helpful, if that means something like having local police attend special events in public venues, and not some unrealistic and unworkable new law.

But then, amid all this crap, I came across a terrific article on NPR about the
missed chance to intervene with Loughter under Arizona's existing mental health laws.

Jared Loughner could have been involuntarily admitted for evaluation under Arizona's progressive mental health laws long before he allegedly showed up at a Tucson grocery store parking lot with a semi-automatic pistol, mental health professionals say.

Whether or not Loughner is mentally ill is unclear. But what is known is that friends, relatives and teachers watched as Loughner's behavior apparently became increasingly erratic, including outbursts in class, isolation and bizarre Internet postings suggestive of someone in the least disturbed and at times incoherent.

Arizona allows for family, friends or even acquaintances to petition a local court for a mental evaluation, said Suzanne Hodges, chief compliant officer at the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, the group that provides mental health treatment for Pima County, where the shooting occurred. The court would have then sent someone to interview Loughner and determine if he needed treatment — even if he was not an imminent danger to himself or others, as most other state require.

Being in such treatment would have prevented him from purchasing a handgun, according to Arizona's gun laws.

-- snip --

Neither officials, students nor his parents sought to have a court-appointed counselor interview Loughner. Such a failure to intervene, [Dr. Alan J. Lipman, director of the Center for the Study of Violence] said, is a common scenario among friends and relatives who are unaware of available local resources, and colleges dealing with thousands of students, some of whom, like Loughner, are only enrolled in one or two classes and bow out quickly.

"There was no one single individual to point the finger at," Lipman said, "but it is true that when he was engaging in these bizarre behaviors at the community college, there may have been an opportunity to guide him to treatment. This lack of information about mental disorders and when to intervene and how to intervene is a very serious problem."

This is remarkable news, especially coming on the heels of about a hundred interviews I've seen with people in Loughner's circle who believed - incorrectly - that they had no recourse when he behaved in bizarre and vaguely threatening ways. The college administrators who barred him from campus, the local police who busted him for minor drug possession, his parents, neighbors, and his dwindling number of friends, any of them could have petitioned for a mental observation. Based on what we know of Loughner, any judge or mental health worker who saw him would most likely have concluded that he needed to be committed, and that commitment would have legally disqualified him from later buying a gun.

Most state laws on involuntary commitment are more restrictive than Arizona's. In most states, you can't do anything about someone who is acting out bizarrely until his behavior escalates to violence. You can't do anything, until he does something.

My personal take-away from the tragedy in Tucson is that I'll look into my own state's laws and community mental health resources, and if they aren't as good as Arizona's, I'll ask my state representatives why not.

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