On July 20, 2012 12 people were killed and 58 wounded in a shooting rampage at a theater in Aurora, Colorado. Immediately thereafter, police apprehended James Holmes at the scene. He has now been charged with multiple counts of murder, and is being held in custody under tight security pending trial.
The predictable political controversy regarding the lessons to be learned from this tragedy began almost immediately and continues to rage. From the left come the familiar calls for tighter gun control and accusations that the "gun lobby" is somehow responsible for the deaths of innocent theater patrons. From the right comes the equally familiar, and equally tired, argument that, in fact, the shooting was proof that we actually need less control over guns. If only a few individuals in the cinemas had been "packing", Holmes would have never managed to kill so many.
Almost totally absent from the dialogue is any examination of the real issue, which is not gun control, but the state of the mental health system in this nation. Holmes did not kill and wound dozens of people, because he was acting in furtherance of some political or ideological purpose. He did so, because he is, in layman's terms, crazy. And, if the evidence trickling in already is to be believed, he has been coming unraveled for sometime without triggering any kind of response from mental health professionals.
Last month, Holmes apparently applied to join a gun range in Colorado but was rejected by the owner. Holmes submitted his application via email, but when the owner called back to follow up on the application, he got a Batman-inspired voicemail message so bizarre that he immediately characterized Holmes as dangerous and unsafe around firearms. The owner was so unnerved that he instructed the staff of the range not to allow Holmes in if he showed up on his own.
Law enforcement officials have already determined that Holmes began amassing weapons, chemicals and ammunition at least two months ago. Over that time period he received at least fifty deliveries of these items and materials to his home and to the school where he was enrolled. None of this appears to have triggered any scrutiny.
John Jacobson, supervisor of the neurobiology lab at the Salk Institute where Holmes worked for a time, found Holmes excessively difficult to work with and unable to accept direction. He attempted to engage Holmes and to encourage him but found him literally incapable of making conversation. "It was really hard for him to say anything. You had to ask yes or no questions," said Jacobson.
That jives with information coming in regarding Holmes' overall behavior since he moved to Colorado last year. He lived alone. He spoke to no one and ignored the greetings of those who tried to speak to him. He kept his curtains drawn. "No one knew him," said a neighbor. "No one." About six weeks before the theater shootings, Holmes withdrew from the grad school where he was enrolled for as yet unspecified reasons. Recent reports suggest that he was abusing Vicodin, a powerful prescription painkiller, which can significantly alter a user's mental state.
We have seen this same picture many times before.
In 2007 Seung-hui Cho, an English major at Virginia Tech, killed 32 people and wounded 17 at that institution. Numerous individuals over a period of years commented on the difficulty of communicating with him. He was so withdrawn that even in class he often refused to respond when spoken to. As early as high school he was talking about wanting to recreate the massacre at Columbine High School. His poetry professor at Virginia Tech had him removed from her class because of his violent, obscene poetry and her fears that he was a danger to others in class. He introduced himself to girls on campus as "Question Mark" and was involved in at least three stalking incidents in the months prior to the shootings.
Cho had previously been diagnosed as having a mental disorder and even underwent a court ordered psychiatric assessment. He was never involuntarily committed but instead was referred for outpatient treatment.
On January 8, 2011 Representative Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen other persons were shot at a public meeting in Arizona. Arrested at the scene was a young man named Jared Lee Loughner.
Loughner dropped out of high school in 2006. Around this time his personality underwent a serious change. He began to keep to himself. He stopped responding to others. He was fired from his job at a restaurant. He volunteered at an animal hospital for a period of time but was eventually asked not to return. His supervisor at the shelter found that Loughner was seemingly incapable of following direction and appeared not to comprehend what was being said to him. High school classmates noted that at some point in school he began to abuse a wide variety of drugs including marijuana, LSD and psychedelic mushrooms.
Loughner attended Pima Community College for a time after high school. While at the school he was involved in at least five incidents, which required the intervention of campus police. He eventually withdrew when he was asked to obtain a mental health clearance. No action was taken to force him to get treatment or to commit him.
The truth is this. Beginning in the 1970's, concerns regarding unjustified involuntary commitments prompted us to effectively dismantle the existing mental health system. Decisions by the courts and statutes created by state legislatures granted all sorts of new protections and rights to individuals that made it virtually impossible to force an individual to seek mental health treatment.
Much lip service was paid at the time to a supposed move toward out patient treatment and a more humane approach to dealing with the mentally ill. Funding shortfalls and competing priorities, however, prevented most of that from becoming a reality. Nothing of substance materialized.
In short, we dramatically reduced the number of involuntary commitments, and we turned significant numbers of mentally ill people lose to fend for themselves. We did not create an alternate system to deal with the problem. Nor did we somehow magically enhance the capacity of mental health professionals to see into the future and predict who would and would not become a danger to themselves and others.
We have been paying the price for these changes for years. People in our midst disintegrate and spiral out of control. Their behavior becomes increasingly erratic and unusual. We watch, we wait and we do nothing until such time as people die and lives are shattered. Then we step in.
Holmes will now be subjected to extensive mental health examinations, and, regardless of the outcome of his trial, he will likely receive mental health treatment for the rest of his life. And, yet nothing at all was done to intervene in time to prevent the murder of 12 innocent people and the wounding of 58 others.
Now, that's crazy.