My parents taught me that the first step in correcting a mistake is investigating what went wrong and then not repeating that error.
Sadly, we are overlooking this rudimentary logic in the wake of the horrific Dec. 14th murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
President Barack Obama moved decisively when he dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to consult with a plethora of experts. However, what happened next was predictable. Gun control proponents demanded tighter controls. The National Rifle Association circled its wagons. Mental health advocates complained about a lack of funding and community treatment services.
Was anyone surprised?
We’ve been arguing about gun control since President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981. Both Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush appointed presidential commissions to study our failed mental health system.
What the White House and federal government hasn’t done is undertake a detailed examination of the Newtown killings and the three other recent mass murders committed by gunmen with mental disorders.
Contrast the White House’s actions with what happened in Virginia after Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people and wounded 17 others on the Virginia Tech campus before killing himself. That April 16, 2007, massacre remains the deadliest mass shooting incident by a single gunman in American history.
Then-Gov. Timothy Kaine immediately appointed a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the murders, beginning with an exhaustive look into the gunman’s past. College administrators and mental health professionals were grilled. The panel’s 127 page report pinpointed specific flaws in how university officials conducted themselves, deficiencies in Virginia’s mental health laws, and failures in community mental health services.
While that panel was conducting its probe, a separate task force created by the Chief Justice of Virginia’s Supreme Court was reviewing the state’s out-dated mental health laws and studying roadblocks that prevent people from getting treatment. As the parent of an adult son with a mental illness, I participated in that group’s retooling of Virginia’s involuntary commitment criteria.
The Virginia legislature used the Virginia Tech investigative report and the Chief Justice’s recommendations to adopt legislation that closed loop-holes in gun purchasing practices, up-dated state mental health laws, and improved community mental health services.
They key to Virginia’s success was that state legislators were made aware of specific flaws that were uncovered by the governor’s panel as well as suggested remedies offered by the Chief Justice’s experts.
I’m not a big fan of federal blue ribbon panel studies but believe it would be worthwhile for our government to thoroughly investigate the shootings in Newtown, Conn., Tucson, Ariz., Aurora, Colo. and then compare those tragedies to the Virginia Tech murders. We need a thoughtful analysis that goes beyond the obvious — that each gunman had a mental disorder and each used weapons capable of multiple shots.
I’ve read editorials that claimed the “dangerous” criteria for involuntary commitment prevented the Jared Loughner’s parents and college officials from forcing the Tucson shooter into treatment. Is that accurate? The alleged gunman in Aurora was seeing a psychiatrist. What kept that doctor from recognizing and reporting that a mass murder was being planned? News reports have claimed the Sandy Hook gunman had a mental illness and he was outraged because his mother was looking for a boarding school where she could send him. Is that true?
Under public pressure, Virginia legislators were able to find common ground after they stopped debating generalities and were shown specific flaws.
The federal government could learn from Virginia’s approach.
Jessie Close raised concerns on Monday about medical privacy. Yesterday, Dr. Dinah Miller pointed out that states were rushing forward with laws that might cause more harm than good. It strikes me that in our hurry to do something, we have put the cart before the horse.