Murder and the mentally ill

It took liberals in Congress just weeks after the mass murder at a Connecticut school to come up with a list of 157 pistols, rifles and shotguns they want to restrict in the United States. Sale of such firearms to individuals would be banned.

Meanwhile, what has been suggested to deal with the cause of that tragedy – people who are mentally ill in ways that prompt them to become homicidal?

The full extent of action suggested on that concern has been general agreement that … it’s something we should think about.

No one really wants to suggest government at any level should have more power to lock up potentially dangerous people. To the contrary, we’ve been moving in the opposite direction during the past three or so decades.

Now, no reasonable person would disagree with safeguards against institutionalizing people merely because their behavior is considered odd. After all, “odd” may be in the eye of the beholder.

The overwhelming majority of people with behavior disorders are not dangerous to themselves or others. But though some members of Congress seem to think they’re capable of defining the types of guns mass murderers prefer, it’s clear we’re not very good at identifying people who may decide to go on killing sprees.

In terms of predicting behavior that may be harmful, consider the Hartley class action lawsuit in West Virginia, decided in 1981. In essence, the Hartley program required the state institutionalize fewer people with behavioral health problems. Providing them treatment facilities so they could live out in the community was better, the courts determined.

It wasn’t better for Ella Mae Hartley, for whom the program was named. After the decision named for her became the law of the land, Hartley was in and out of institutions for the rest of her life. In 1990, a Huntington State Hospital employee took her out of the facility for a doctor’s appointment. She slipped out of the physician’s office, walked down to the Ohio River – and drowned.

So much for us being able to predict when people are dangerous to themselves or others.

Gun rights advocates have pointed out that banning certain types of firearms will not prevent mass murders. An “assault weapons” ban from 1994-2004 did no good in that regard.

Besides, Second Amendment defenders note, mass murderers don’t have to use guns. The worst massacre of school children in U.S. history occurred in 1927, in Michigan. There, a man used a bomb to kill 45 people, including 38 children, in a school.

Precisely – but not just in the way gun rights advocates use the story.

In 1927, there were virtually no safeguards for the mentally ill, or even folks who were just a bit eccentric. The authorities could lock them up and, in effect, throw away the key.

But no one did that to the man who bombed the school in Bath, Mich.

It has been suggested people like the young man who killed the children in Connecticut or the fellow who opened fire in a Colorado theater ought to have been sent to mental institutions. But though some in their communities thought they were unbalanced, I’m aware of no one who worried they might be planning mass murders.

So who do we lock up in mental institutions? And are we ready to spend billions of dollars building new ones?

Banning certain types of firearms won’t prevent mass killings. We don’t know enough about mental illness to isolate potential murderers and get them off the streets. And banning violent movies and video games isn’t going to work, either.

Politicians don’t want us to understand there are some problems they can’t solve. That might prompt us to demand they pay more attention to the concerns – such as government spending – they can deal with.

So, just so they can claim they did something, they talk about bans on “assault weapons.” And many voters fall for it.

Instead of shooting first and asking questions later, so to speak, perhaps violence in America is something we actually ought to think about.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at