Thoughts in the aftermath of Tucson

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Now that we’ve had nearly two weeks distance from the shooting tragedy in Tucson, it might be useful to look at how we got here, and what lessons we might take from it. Admittedly, America has had a violent past. For instance, there was a time in America’s early history when dueling on the “field of honor” with pistols was an accepted means of settling political and other arguments. In fact, it’s been said that President Andrew Jackson was buried with a considerable amount of lead shot in his body. Certainly he wasn’t the only one.

In more recent times, several presidents, would-be presidents and other statesmen have been assassinated at gunpoint, with others narrowly escaping the same fate. Virtually without exception, these crimes have been committed by gunmen with troubled pasts — including, in some instances, histories of serious mental and emotional problems. So apparently was the case with Jared Lee Loughner, the alleged gunman in Tucson.

We can theorize all day about whether the toxic political climate in Arizona, or the liberal (in the permissive sense) Arizona gun laws, Sarah Palin’s political map with crosshairs over “targeted” congressional districts, or any other of a dozen or more factors may have contributed to the shooting. But the bottom line is that few either understood or acted upon the signs of mental illness that Loughner was exhibiting in public months or even years prior, and that government support for identifying and treating such illnesses is woefully inadequate in most cases.

In 2009, Arizona’s legislature cut the state’s funding for mental health services by $36 million. This is even more ironic and disheartening when considering that Arizona’s current governor, who signed the legislation into law, Republican Jan Brewer, has endured her own son’s lifelong battle with schizophrenia. In fact, Brewer, upon taking office in 2009, insisted that Republican legislative leaders restore some cuts they had proposed to balance the state’s budget — including $9 million taken from a program to provide mental health services and drug treatment to people who are not poor enough to qualify for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), the state’s Medicaid program, but too poor to afford their own coverage. The governor also demanded that lawmakers restore an additional $2.1 million cut from programs that serve those in that same income category possessing cognitive disabilities, cerebral palsy, autism or epilepsy.

But even if you fantasize that the state’s mental health services were adequate, the ball was clearly dropped when one considers the disturbances Loughner was creating on a regular basis. Pima County Sheriff’s Department records show that Loughner had several run-ins with the department over the past six years, and former classmates at Pima County Community College were fearful about Loughner’s behavior in class. It is conceivable that if Loughner had been ordered to seek mental health assistance, this would have appeared on the background check he later passed to legally purchase his Glock 9 mm semi-automatic pistol last November. As it stands, he was able to purchase both the pistol and the 31-round magazine legally and, in accordance with Arizona law, was permitted to carry the gun concealed with neither a permit nor a license. Putting aside for a moment the constitutional guarantees allowing law-abiding citizens to own and carry guns, it is readily apparent that Loughner should not have been in possession of a firearm, whether legal or not.

It has been widely reported that Loughner and his parents met with Pima County Community College officials on October 4th, when it was agreed upon that he would withdraw from the college, and that on October 7th the college sent a follow-up letter to Loughner’s parents that indicated he could be readmitted as soon as he resolves “…his code-of-conduct violations and obtain[s] a mental-health clearance indicating, in the opinion of a mental-health professional, his presence at the college does not present a danger to himself or others.”

From this and other evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that Loughner’s parents, the Pima County Sheriff’s Dept. and Arizona’s broken mental health system all share in the negligence that contributed to Loughner’s despicable act on that Saturday morning two weeks ago. Those who have sought in one way or another to ascribe political zealotry to this violent attack need, like many Americans, to try and realize that mental illness is a profoundly serious and widespread affliction, and that it deserves the attention, understanding, and yes, funding, that other medical ailments receive.

Christopher Hartman is the author of “Advance Man: The Life and Times of Harry Hoagland”; editor of “Learn Earn and Return: My Life as a Computer Pioneer,” a memoir of Harlan Anderson, co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, and contributor to the Christian Science Monitor newspaper.