- - Tuesday, December 9, 2014


Two years ago this month, a young man who killed his mother and took her guns walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and began firing. When the smoke cleared, Adam Lanza, 20, had shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children, in the five minutes between the time he shot his way into the school and the time police arrived. He then shot himself dead.

After a lengthy investigation, a Connecticut Commission concluded there was “no clear indication” of why young Lanza killed either his mother or the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He wasn’t on drugs, but he was inevitably described as “a loner” who had observable behavior problems and had professed to admire mass murderers. He studied previous school shootings and planned his shooting rampage and subsequent suicide at some length before that Friday morning.

The young man, like every school, mall and mass shooter before him, both here and in Europe, was “mentally unbalanced,” or what most would call “crazy.” Teachers and others had been troubled by what they saw in him and his father later said he thought there was reason to believe that he was slipping into schizophrenia. Those who suggested that it was his “mental condition” — like the mental condition of the earlier shooters in Colorado and Virginia — that policymakers should look to for “a clear indication” of why he did what he did were dismissed by others who think such incidents can be prevented by restricting the ownership of guns.

Those who think that, and who ignore the fact that young Lanza took guns from his dead mother, further dismiss the fact that the perpetrators of every one of such incidents over the past two decades were not criminals but young men with severe mental problems.

There was nevertheless hope that the nation’s mental health system might be reformed to make it easier to identify and treat the dangerously mentally ill to minimize the danger in future. While Democrats in Congress focused on guns, Republicans undertook a yearlong attempt to draft legislation to address the reality that the nation’s mental health care system had been dismantled, and was no longer capable of dealing with the dangerously mentally ill, either as outpatients or in hospitals.

Many are homeless or in jail or prison, where they get little if any treatment. They are estimated to account for a thousand homicides every year and several thousand suicides. It’s not that Americans don’t spend money, and a lot of it, on mental health, but that most federal and state spending is directed to helping those who may have had a bad hair day, not those who really need real help.

With few exceptions, two years later almost nothing has been done to deal with this problem. Dozens of states last year actually cut funding to mental health care. Congress punted. Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, continues to spend from his many millions to restrict ownership of guns, when he could be spending, and advocating, something that would actually do something good and effective: the rebuilding of the nation’s mental health system. This could actually save lives. Feel-good gun control fantasies won’t.

If politicians and those to whom they listen want to pay real tribute to Adam Lanza’s victims on the second anniversary of their deaths, they could tackle the difficult but possible job of creating a mental health care system capable of identifying and getting treatment for people like Adam Lanza before they kill.

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