Thoughts on the Arizona gunman and his gun

Brian Cook, press secretary to Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, posted this on his Facebook page earlier today, saying we should all take Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ words to heart; I thought it deserved re-posting here:

Agreed. But…

From all the media reports I’ve seen, this shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, is mentally ill. I do believe the violent incivility in our national discourse could have influenced him, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a clear cause and effect; this guy was clearly sick, and might well have found his inspiration to kill elsewhere. While I believe we need to tone down the rhetoric, I don’t think we can predict how what we say will guide the already unbalanced.

What I’m much more interested in is how someone who was clearly so mentally ill managed to go out and buy a handgun. The New York Times reports:

Most of the reports, according to Paul Schwalbach, a college spokesman, were about how Mr. Loughner was “acting out” in disruptive or inappropriate ways. By last fall, officials at the college had learned about an Internet video that Mr. Loughner had prepared citing Pima College and claiming that it was in some way illegal or unconstitutional.

The college had its lawyers review the video and decided at that point to take action, drafting a letter suspending Mr. Loughner, which was delivered to his parents’ home in northwest Tucson by two police officers on Sept. 29.

At a meeting in early October at the college’s northwest campus, where he attended classes, Mr. Loughner said he would withdraw. Three days later, the college sent him a letter telling him that if he wanted to return, he would need to undergo a mental health evaluation. “After this event, there was no further college contact with Loughner,” the college said in a statement.

And, according to another Times article, about two months after police had to convey the message that this apparently unbalanced individual was no longer welcome at a public college:

A few days after Thanksgiving last year, Mr. Loughner turned up at the Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson and bought a Glock semiautomatic gun, with serial number PWL 699.

Is it good public policy to let potentially violent, mentally ill people who’ve been brought to the police’s attention go buy guns? Also, as NPR reports, Arizona has some of the nation’s most lenient gun laws, so Loughner needed no additional permit to carry it concealed (not that a law would’ve stopped a mentally ill person bent on murder from doing so anyway).

I’m sure some commenters will say it would’ve infringed upon Loughner’s constitutional rights to deny him a handgun unless he’d already been committed or arrested, and perhaps that’s true. But I wonder whether, if his mental state already had necessitated police conveying him a message barring him from a public institution, perhaps there should be a legal mechanism in place to keep guns out of his hands. Should a mentally ill person’s Second Amendment rights outweigh the Creator-bestowed, unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness stolen from 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green and his other victims? Apparently our nation is OK with waging war to pre-empt terrorists’ violent attacks upon our populace; why not do all we can to minimize threats both foreign AND domestic?

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Elwood

    I believe the standard in most states is whether or not the person wanting to buy a gun has been institutionalized or adjudged insane by a court.

    The Tucson shooter, although obviously as crazy as an outhouse rat, meets neither of those criteria.

    Barring that, who decides who’s crazy and who isn’t and who gets to buy a gun?

  • Josh Richman

    Agreed, Elwood, and thanks for going with “outhouse” instead of the more colorful, more traditional word.

    I guess it just seems a shame that someone deemed unstable and potentially dangerous enough to be barred – with police involvement – from a public college can’t be deemed unstable and potentially dangerous enough to be prevented from buying a firearm.

  • Michael Moore

    Elwood and Josh, you both raise terrific issues. Who is supposed to decide the sanity of the citizen? Are those whose actions or speech are that which you do not like those of the insane?

    I for one hope that we do not devolve to the state where what I think or say deprives me of basic liberty. My unpopular statements do not mean that I am insane or inhuman. It means you do not like what I had to say. America is founded on my right to speak and to act within reason. Clearly the assassin in Arizona acted beyond reason, but his thoughts are not insane, just not propular with those of us who do not like his actions.

    Getting angry does not mean that you should be deprived of your basic American rights as determined by law and guaranteed by the Constitution. If you are advocating that all people who have been arrested or stopped or suspected of a crime shall not have the right to own a firearm, then I support your right to say so, but I do not agree with you.

    Being arrested by the police is not a mark of instability or even malfeasance. It merely means that the police are enforcing what they think is right. We have the right to speak out against tyranny.

    The tone of your comments sounds an awful lot like censorship, as is seen in China and other repressive nations. Do not fall in to the trap of giving up Liberty for Safety.

    Liberty is far too important.

  • Josh, excellently said. And his application was also denied admission to the armed forces, apparently because he failed the drug test. There were so many red flags the “instant” background check missed.

    I’ll say it again: We’ve created a recipe for disaster. We’ve put ourselves in the dangerous position of having gun laws so ineffective that the mentally ill can easily obtain them, and then irresponsibly incite actions like this with the violent rhetoric all around us every day.

  • RR, Uninvited Columnist

    It’s the culture, folks, not the gun laws. There has been plenty of incitement from both Left and Right extremists and people closer to the center who should know better. As for the gun laws, “sane” chaps in Oakland manage to kill a few relatively obscure people every month with illegal firearms obtained in the street.

  • Elwood

    “PHOENIX – Jared Loughner, head shaved, a cut on his right temple and his hands cuffed, stared vacantly at a packed courtroom Monday and sat down. His attorney, who defended “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, whispered to him. It was the nation’s first look at the 22-year-old loner accused of trying to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.”

    Let’s hope the attorney does as good a job for Loughner as he/she did for Kaczynski.

  • Amy Lamb

    Good article, Josh. Unfortunately, as mentioned by a previous poster, unless he’s been “in the system” as a mental health patient, I don’t think anyone would know he’s a nutjob who should be denied a gun. The police who delivered the letter suspending him from college probably weren’t aware of its contents. Were they campus police or Tucson police?

    Police interact daily with mentally “weird” or unstable people. There’s no way to know who’s dangerous and who’s not. And certainly no way to have them officially in a searchable database unless they get arrested and are then part of the system. I don’t even know what the current background checks include — criminal past, or medical/psychological past, as well? I don’t see how that wouldn’t violate HIPAA laws. And what would be the determining factor — a specific number of visits to a psychiatrist, dianosis of depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, alcoholism?

    I definitely favor stricter gun laws, though, just not sure what they should look like.

  • This guy was known to the police and had a history of issues. There is no way this guys should have been able to buy a gun. What a country we live in, half the population seems to think giving guns to guys like this is just okay.

  • ralph hoffmann

    Use of terms mentally ill, insane, instabliity and unbalanced such as Josh or Michael Moore used are appropriate for civil discourse. Use of terms crazy, nutjob or weird are inappropriate and hateful and the equivalent of calling someone in the LGBT community a fag or queer. “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” … Benjamin Franklin, 1759.

  • RR, Uninvited Columnist

    Ralphie, you’re weird.

  • rosa

    It would be interesting to know if Loughner had actually proceeded with the mental evaluation and had been prescribed any medication. The difference in appearance between the photo of him volunteering at a book fair and his mug shot seems consistent with the changes in appearance–such as weight gain–caused by some medications, especially those that are often prescribed for people who then carry out violent attacks like this or commit suicide.

  • Elwood

    I find the word “crazy” to be the best description of Loughner.

    It is perfectly appropriate.

  • RR, Uninvited Columnist

    No.11: The depth of your insight is impressive, Rosa. I suggest you diagnose Truthie and Ralphie for signs of adverse side-effects.

  • ralph hoffmann

    A. There is no such thing as perfect mental health.
    B. All medications, whether for mind or body have adverse side effects.
    C. Things taken orally that make one feel better are also addictive, such as food, pain relievers and anti-depressants.
    D. People are foremost individuals, defined by their personalities, etc. not their diagnoses.
    E. In short, you are what you eat, what you write, what you speak, what you have done in your life.

  • RR, Uninvited Columnist

    Ralphie: Thanks for pointing out food is addictive; I’ve had a diet on my back for years.
    You’re still weird.