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Mona Charen / September 20, 2013

Mass Shootings: America’s Psychosis

After every mass shooting, I write a variant of the same column. Perhaps I’ll republish this one when the next attack happens. The increase in mass shootings over the course of the past several decades is not imaginary. In 2000, The New York Times analyzed 100 mass shootings between 1949 and 1999 and found that 73 of them had happened since 1990. Since 2000, according to Mother Jones magazine, there have been 33 more, including the recent massacre at the Navy Yard. The majority of the killers have untreated mental illness.

After every mass shooting, I write a variant of the same column. Perhaps I’ll republish this one when the next attack happens.

The increase in mass shootings over the course of the past several decades is not imaginary. In 2000, The New York Times analyzed 100 mass shootings between 1949 and 1999 and found that 73 of them had happened since 1990. Since 2000, according to Mother Jones magazine, there have been 33 more, including the recent massacre at the Navy Yard. The majority of the killers have untreated mental illness.

A significant portion of the political and journalistic worlds pretends that the solution to mass shootings is gun control. It would be too much to call this response insane, but it is doctrinaire, barren thinking. For good or ill, guns have always been readily available in the United States. That has not changed in the past 50 years. The number of gun deaths has actually been declining quite steeply over the past two decades. Pew Research on Social and Demographic Trends found that the firearms homicide rate was 49 percent lower in 2010 than in 1993.

Following the latest mass attack, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank decried the “loss of hope for gun control.” Sen. Jay Rockefeller demanded: “When will enough be enough?” These “repeated incidents” of “tragic, senseless violence … demand our attention.”

Yes, they do, but defenders as well as opponents of gun rights in America need to lift their eyes from their prepared talking points and look at what is staring them in the face.

The guns-blazing mass attack has become the American psychosis.

Every society has mentally ill people. But the way mental illness gets expressed varies tremendously by culture. In China, Malaya, Indonesia, and parts of India, patients suffer from a variety of fertility-related phobias called “genital shrinking” anxiety. Among the Japanese and Koreans, doctors often see a morbid fear of giving offense by one’s appearance. In the 20th century, many parts of the third world saw a pathological startle reaction that led to wild, dissociative behaviors called variously “running amok,” “Lapp panic” or “latah.”

Anorexia nervosa spread throughout the developed world in the latter part of the 20th century when thinness became the fashion ideal. Culture shapes behavior – even, or maybe especially, among the mentally ill. Extreme behavior like anorexia is the distorted response to a real stimulus.

American entertainment is steeped in gun violence. Most young men who spend hours playing first person shooter games and watching endless gun violence in movies and television will never hurt anyone. But it is reasonable to wonder whether this menu of mayhem is distorted into implied permission by unsteady minds, particularly those without the guiding hand of a father at home.

Twenty-first century America prizes fame indiscriminately – to the point that the word infamy must soon disappear. We have no use for the idea it expresses. Elliott Spitzer, John McCain, Paris Hilton, Bill Gates, Aaron Alexis – they all belong to the famous club. It doesn’t matter what they did to gain admission.

Shoot a lot of innocent people and you are guaranteed to enter the club. You may die in the act, but everyone will know your name.

We have betrayed the mentally ill by drastically reducing the availability of treatment. America has roughly 5 percent of the psychiatric beds it had in the late 1950s. When Aaron Alexis called police in Rhode Island last month and complained that he had moved to three different hotel rooms in a single night to elude the “voices” in his head and the “people who were sending vibrations to his body” with a “microwave machine,” he ought to have been taken to a psych unit for evaluation. Instead, police told him to avoid the “people” who were bothering him and went on their way.

Like many states, Rhode Island has only a fraction of the beds it needs for psychiatric cases. That’s why the mentally ill comprise 400,000 of the nation’s 2.2 million prison inmates. That’s why they account for one third of the nation’s homeless. That’s why the number of mass shootings continues to climb. In many states, even if the family members of paranoid schizophrenics beg police and medical authorities to commit someone for short-term evaluation and treatment, civil commitment laws forbid it.

With modern drugs and “Assisted Outpatient Treatment” as championed by the Treatment Advocacy Center, long-term commitment for the mentally ill is not necessary. A few simple reforms of involuntary commitment laws and mental health treatment could relieve a great deal of unnecessary suffering and avoid more awful tragedies.

Alternatively, we can continue our sterile and irrelevant gun control spitting match.

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