Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tragedy in Tuscon - gun violence, politics, and mental illness

It's taken me a few days to try and process my feelings about the violence that erupted when 22 year old Jared Loughner opened fire in a grocery store parking lot on January 8, 2011, wounding 14, including Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who remains in critical condition, and killing six.

This is such a complex issue. Whether politics was to blame, both the right and left are using this as a springboard to either deny any responsibility for the hateful rhetoric being cast around or to point fingers and lay blame. People for and against tightening of gun laws are using this tragedy to "support" their arguments. And many people are asking "why was this obviously mentally unstable young man not somehow treated and prevented from doing what he did?".

I'll try to tackle these three issues as best I can, but it's just not as cut-and-dried as we'd like, to be honest.

Politics, Rhetoric, and the Social Climate We Live In Today

While it's true that just because someone like Sarah Palin has targets over the politicians with whom she disagrees on her website, it's also true that she didn't actually commit this heinous crime personally. Glenn Beck spouting his beliefs doesn't equate to someone acting violently. However, when a person in a position of power (a politician, a television or radio personality, a popular musician, and so on), they MUST remember that words have an impact. Words have POWER. The Becks and Palins of the world have got to understand that they have a responsibility to not just their fans or supporters, but to the society as a whole.*

What good can possibly come from anger, from fear-mongering, from putting all of this negativity out there about our fellow Americans, our fellow human beings? Why not use those public voices to truly try to build bridges rather than tear them down, to work together for the good of the entire country and its citizens? Maybe they all just need to read and adhere to the concepts of this article, and learn how to fight in a way that actually accomplishes something, solves something.

When Rush Limbaugh uses this tragedy to say things like Democrats seek to profit from the shooting and that Jared Lee Loughner has the "full support" of Democrats, I have to wonder if anyone truly even WANTS to make things better, or if they just thrive on the drama and the chaos, the American public be damned.

Furthermore, while they are not directly responsible for the actions of one individual, they should at the very least have the decency to apologize for the possibility that their words or deeds might have influenced anyone to commit a violent act. Instead, some of them seem to fall back onto more finger-pointing, more rhetoric, more incendiary speeches and actions.

* I realize that both sides do this. It just happens that with the current political situation it's the right's turn to create this chaos.

The Right to Bear Arms

Gun ownership is another hot-button issue, with strong feelings of what's right and fair. In the aftermath of these sorts of violent events, the whole gun control conversation heats up. Some call for restrictions on certain types of guns or ammunition. Some call for tighter control over who can legally purchase a weapon. You may hear comments like "we should all have guns so we can take out guys like these", calling for what is essentially vigilante justice. You also might hear "only cops, soldiers, and other such people should have guns". There are plenty of variations on the theme from one extreme to the other.

Apparently, reacting in fear among gun buyers that changes in the current laws may be coming, gun sales in Arizona and other states have increased dramatically. Meanwhile, people like the folks at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence are actively working on making it more difficult to obtain and carry firearms in an effort to reduce gun violence.

While our Constitutional rights must be protected and upheld, it's hard to argue against tightened security measures for gun sales when you look at 9 year old victim Christina-Taylor Green, who was interested in becoming a politician herself one day. 

Mental Illness, Personal Rights, and the Law

As we learn more about Jared Loughner, it becomes apparent to many of us that he was an increasingly mentally unstable young man. The community college from which he was suspended has released records that highlight the troubles he had while attending. According to friends from his youth and neighbors, his home life was one that became isolated over time. Even strangers on a message board urged Loughner to seek help.

It's important to note that not all violent people have mental illnesses, and not all people with a mental illness are violent. It's easy to say "he's clearly crazy, so why wasn't he locked up?", but it's much more of a complex situation with a much more complicated solution. Should we really consider locking people up because they might one day "snap"? Isn't that a slippery slope to start down?

Everyone, including the mentally ill, have rights. The law is such that an adult cannot be involuntarily committed unless it's determined the person is an immediate danger to himself or others. Once upon a time, the mentally ill were stashed away in institutions. Nowadays, there are laws to protect civil rights - laws that can be frustrating when trying to have an adult involuntarily committed.

This sort of violent act leads to the question of whether, and how, should mental health care practices change. During a time when so many people are without jobs, when many insurance companies refuse to cover mental health treatment, and budget cuts from the local to national level limit the resources available to this segment of the country, it's hard to see how we can keep people from falling through the cracks. We must address the fact that we don't currently have adequate resources.

As a side note, I feel it important to mention that the National Alliance on Mental Illness not only functions to advocate for the mentally ill and their families. NAMI also provides information and support to individuals and families dealing with mental illness. If you or a loved one is struggling, please contact them.

Now What?

We, as a nation and as individuals, have some thinking to do.

What do we want to do in terms of our future as a country? Do we really want to keep on going down the path we're on - one of suspicion and vitriol, one in which nothing seems to get accomplished aside from a lot of fighting and not a lot of moving towards something better? Do we want to support the people who seem to want nothing more than to stir things up?

In terms of gun ownership, do we want more or less restrictions for those who want to purchase a weapon? Do we want to allow just anyone to have certain types of ammunition, or to restrict it to police and the like, or to ban it altogether? Do we want to require not only background criminal checks, but also checks for any history of personal or mental health issues? Do we want to insist that gun safety classes be a requirement for owning a weapon?

As for mental illness, do we insist on more funding, more resources and more afford-ability for everyone who needs treatment? Do we accept that some of this funding might necessitate a hike in our taxes? Do we lobby to have the rights of the mentally ill destroyed so that we can more easily have them forcibly institutionalized?

Ultimately, this is OUR country. Yours and mine. Ultimately, it's OUR voice, OUR support, and OUR money that decides the future of this nation. The big question is, will we strive for a better tomorrow by addressing the issues of today?

Our current President Barack Obama has encouraged civility in the wake of this tragedy. Will we be civil as a nation, or will we continue to up the rhetoric ante on both sides until we self-destruct?


  1. Nice write up, Tonya. I can tell you put a lot of thought and effort into this and have a passion about our country and what is happening. I share your passion.

    I agree with most of what you have addressed and how you have addressed it. Very thought provoking!

    I personally think that, as far as guns go, we all need the right to own whatever guns we want to have. This may sound way out there to some, but, I believe that if you have restrictions, the criminal minds or whoever will still find a way to get the guns they want and the law abiding citizens will end up empty handed.

    As far as our voices are concerned, with corporations having more rights than "we the people", I'm not confident that "we" have much of a voice until we tackle removing those rights from corporations and get the power back.

  2. Carla, in the case of corporations essentially having the run of things, our power then comes in the form of our money. And let those corporations know why you're taking your money elsewhere - it can't hurt.

  3. Tonya,

    I don't think it's as easy as all that. Corporations have more rights than we do and this has been a process that has been happening very perposely over a long period of time. I took a weekend course on dismanteling corporate power. There are laws in each of our counties that most people are apperantly not aware of concerning corporate charters and what rights we still do have to fight corporate takeover. It's very complex.

    I'm trying to learn what I can with what little extra time I have but admit I am not meeting with any group at this time dealing with these issues. There have been some big wins in some states like Virginia where the people have taken their rights back and won on issues such as corporate pollution, etc. There is a group in Bellingham that is diving into this arena.

    I have a link I will post if you are ever interested in taking a look. I'm not very good at explaining this issue. The man we took the workshop from has had a speech of his aired on several public supported radios. Paul C. I will post the link and his full name spelled correctly later.

    Thank you.


    Paul Cienfuegos


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