I was pleased to see Liza Long’s Guest Opinion Oct. 6 about the conversation we aren’t having: the need for more mental health care. What I found fascinating is the comments from readers that revealed some widespread misunderstandings of the problem of mass murder.
1. The U.S. is not the only industrialized country with this problem. In the last few years, Germany has had several mass murders, including five murdered in Dilligen, and 13 in Albertville, and 17 in Erfurt. So have Switzerland (14 in Zug); France (14 in Luxiol); Britain (12 in Cumbria in 2010); Spain (9 in Puerto Hurraco); and Norway (77 in 2011). Even countries that adopted stricter gun control laws, such as Australia, often only changed the weapon.
Since the 1996 gun confiscation that President Obama would clearly like to replicate here, Australia has had several mass murders by arson (Childers Palace Fire killed 15 in 2000; Churchill Fire in 2009 killed 10; and the Quaker Hill Nursing Home Fire in 2011 killed 21), and still some gun mass murders (the Hectorville shooting rampage killed three).
2. While writing an article for Connecticut Law Review about mental illness and gun control, I was startled to find that not only is there a disproportionate involvement of the severely mentally ill in murder in the U.S., but many other countries as well.
3. What is very interesting is that this mass murder problem seems to have grown from rare to surprisingly unsurprising shortly after the U.S. and Canada started the process of deinstitutionalization, putting substantially greater barriers in the way of committing persons with serious mental illness problems. This policy started in New York in 1964 and in California in 1969. A series of legal challenges by the ACLU in the 1960s and 1970s effectively destroyed the state mental hospital systems in most states. People who in 1960 might have been hospitalized, sometimes under very poor conditions, by 1980 were a majority of the homeless. A large percentage of jail and prison inmates are there for crimes that would not have happened in 1960 because they would have been hospitalized. All those prison cells could pay for hospital beds, if legislators wanted to save money and lives.
4. Professor Steven Segal of UC Berkeley published a paper in Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology in 2011 that studied the problem and found that increasing the number of available psychiatric beds was associated with a 1.08/100,000 people decrease in murder rates. Making commitment laws less severe reduced murder rates by 1.42/100,000 people. This is not surprising. Many of the recent tragedies involved people with severe mental illness problems who could not be committed under the very restrictive laws left over from the 1970s. The Newtown murderer, according to some news reports, had found out that his mother was seeking a guardianship over him under Connecticut’s very tough laws. The psychiatrist treating James Holmes, the Aurora, Colo., shooter, had made attempts to have him hospitalized, but Colorado law is much more strict than Idaho law on this.
5. Mass murder in Europe has become a problem as most European countries have followed the U.S. down the path of deinstitutionalization. Idaho commitment law is actually pretty good. We need more beds. I have talked to legislators with tales of how the shortage of beds causes serious problems when police take mentally ill persons into custody. Reducing mass murder, homelessness and reducing prison budgets: Why is this so difficult?
Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at College of Western Idaho. He is the author of “My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionaliztion of the Mentally Ill” (2014).