Like many of you, I had a disturbed weekend a couple of weeks ago: one filled with TV images of butchery and the psychological and emotional tumult from the events at Newtown, Conn. Anyone who hasn't been asleep surely knows that 20 children and six adults, not including the apparent 20-year-old "suicided" perpetrator, were killed in the town of Newtown in the latest episode of rampage murder in America.
It's the signature movie meditation on rampage killing: Elephant is a 2003 film edited, written, and directed by Gus Van Sant and inspired by the 1999 Columbine High School rampage. Van Sant's little-watched movie is packed with long shots, enigmatic pans, and shuffled time lines and is sited in the fictional Watt High School, in one of the rim towns of Portland, Ore. The movie begins before the ultra-violence gets underway, and tracks the lives of a small set of students and their parents, in and out of the school: all, save for the perps, are clueless about the lethal spasm about to roll over them. Van Sant and his producers have been savaged by some critics because like the "instant consensus" formed shortly after Columbine, the film is built around "fundamentals" that were simply not true. Specifically the two teenage killers, the real ones, were not trench coat mafia kids, weren't unpopular, didn't seem to have been bullied at their high school, and weren't addicted to video games or so called snuff movies. The film is intense and makes one's views evolve rapidly from the pack views big media and their "go to" sources put out early in the Columbine crisis, the thinking that the perpetrators were simply a bunch of traumatized, deeply alienated weirdoes. Too bad it's not so simple.
So Here's the Brain Dump
There're lots of ways of thinking about this problem from hell: one locally popular meme is to embrace economist/analyst John Lott's notion that everyone, perhaps even children, should have a gun. Lott has written for both academic and popular audiences and is a Fox News commenter. His imaginative and very strange book, More Guns, Less Crime: The Bias Against Guns, is really popular in right-wing and libertarian circles. Lott argues that "bad guys" would be deterred if we all had guns and if all barriers to gun ownership disappeared. What sense this makes in the scheme of things, given that we already have between 280 and 310 million guns in circulation in America, according to a range of sources, is beyond me -- actually beyond my imagination. We already have for all practical purposes a largely unregulated gun ownership regime at play in the United States. Virtually anyone can get a gun. So Lott's notion and the mindset it represents, which I've heard with astonishing frequency in Tulsa, strikes me as an impossible blend of irrelevance and insanity.
In contrast, this recent trauma means that the president and Congress will almost certainly be taking a serious look at a new ban on assault weapons, high-capacity ammunition drums, and accessory devices: reviving the '90s legislative ban. A ban, for the first time in almost 18 years, might get congressional approval -- but would this and a whole bevy of tougher new gun purchasing and background checks do any good?
Another avenue that Congress may take up -- what some call gun safety on steroids: biometric/fingerprint activation technologies and related systems to ensure that only the registered owners of weapons can fire them, would forestall thousands of injuries and deaths that comes simply as a consequence of accidental firings and it might dampen the impulse element that drives gun spawned "retail" and mass killings.
Much of the analysis on our modern era rampage killers is focused on their mental state.
But it is morally critical, essential really, to remember that most people with mental illness are not violent characters. Best estimates suggest that 25 percent of the adult American population has had a mental illness or some kind of mental impairment at some stage of their lives. Also, the same body of evidence indicates that 95 percent of American adults with serious mental illnesses are nonviolent, that is: they never engage in assaultive behavior of the kind that either calls attention to themselves or provokes attention from the authorities.
According to some experts, a huge element of what's needed -- part of what's required to forestall rampage killing, is an aggressive, even intrusive, psychiatric support and soft monitoring initiative: one directed particularly at young people of every description -- the best broad brush description of the people who are at risk of committing violence. In T-Town, this would look like a metro-wide effort designed to identify, but not stigmatize, young people who may have some potential for violent activity. That's the kind of initiative pushed by people like David Cullen, the amazing Columbine writer and a gamut of other researchers and public policy people. And, in fact, there are small-scale initiatives of this kind underway here in Tulsa, led, according to T-Town health and social services pro Russell Burkhart, by Family and Children's Services.
The City-County Health Department and the wonderfully inventive, about-to-expand OU School of Community Medicine are well suited to take the tent pole position for an expanded initiative, perhaps with lots of help from the Mental Health Association in Tulsa and the in place network of social service/in school health providers already being managed by Family and Children's Services. A greatly augmented local mental health effort for kids, and adults also, would have enormous general benefits as well.
Quashing the Stigma
Lots of observers and local resource people say that seeking treatment for mental illness or getting caught up in an episode that leads to treatment often means having a Hester Prynne-like badge on your sleeve. It often means having a neon sign on your head: complicating school admissions, employment, securing housing, even gaining commercial credit. That is highly problematic.
Judge Teresa Drelling, a veteran Tulsa attorney and a state judge in Tulsa, believes there is a critical need to remove the powerful, even vicious, stigma associated with mental illness. She told me that working to bust up this heavy stigma might encourage people to seek help and might empower loved ones to be more aggressive in seeking help for troubled kids and young adults. She also talked about the need to bust up the terrible asymmetries between coverage of mental and physical illnesses by insurance providers: interestingly, this issue is partially addressed in the Affordable Care/"Obamacare" legislation.
Fortifying Schools -- More?
Some local observers and national analysts are calling for a new clamp down on access to schools. Indeed, as I'm writing this, Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett is convening an area wide summit on augmenting school safety with Tulsa Public/Union system officials and the Tulsa Police Department. The stuff is all well and good, but haven't we been through all of this before? Creating ever more fortress-like school campuses is what some see as part of the solution to the problem given the "easy" way the Connecticut killer entered the Sandy Hook school last week. But if you have a child or you've been to many of the public schools in the Tulsa area, you know that there is already a blizzard of such safeguards, measures that were also in place at the Newtown school: how much more of this can we actually do without turning schools into penitentiary-like spaces?
Hard to know, isn't it?
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