Friday, June 17, 2016

Firearms Friday: A Time Of Contradiction

In the wake of the mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando this past weekend I didn't want to simply react to the tragedy but rather take the time to think and give the space to honor the memory of those who lost their lives. This is not a partisan issue, we should all be mourning their loss. After all those people who were murdered were human beings and fellow citizens of this county and should not be assigned or limited to a specific group or label. To me, right or wrong, it really is that simple. While there have been various halfhearted comments, disgusting accusations, and ludicrous statements made to date from a wide variety of groups and individuals, I have found the most succinct responses to this tragedy to be that of The Pink Pistols and that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  

What we should be doing now is not placing blame on any party, person, or group of people unrelated to the actions of the individual who committed this heinous act. These psychotic actions and other mass murders that have become and an unfortunate part of our collective conscious aren’t going to be cured by the rhetoric that is currently being bandied about. We will never truly know why these person did what they did. The fact of the matter is that we are facing an unprecedented crisis regarding mental health in this county.  

Those who wish to ascribe blame on these rampages on firearms are completely off base in their assertions as the PEW Research Center already noted that the “nation’s overall gun death rate has declined 31% since 1993. This total includes homicides and suicides, in addition to a smaller number of fatal police shootings, accidental shooting deaths and those of undetermined intent.” Additionally, nonfatal gun victimizations has dropped from 725.3 per 100,000 in 1993 to 174.8 per 100,000 in 2014. Max Ehrenfreund at the Washington Post noted that “Much of the decline in violence is still unexplained, but researchers have identified several reasons for the shift.” He subsequently listed five very plausible reasons for this decline which included more police officers on the beat, police using computers, decreased consumption of alcohol, decreased exposure to toxic lead, and an improved economy.

However, while overall gun violence has experienced a precipitous drop, the FBI has noted a marked increase in the number of active shooter incidents from 2000-2013 with the average number of incidents increasing from 6.4 from 2000-2006 to 16.4 from 2007-2013. This is in direct contrast to the decrease in the violent crime rate reported by the FBI which noted a 27.1% decrease in violent crime from 506.5 per 100,000 in 2000 to 369.1 per 100,000 in 2013. Consequently, questions must be asked as to why we have such a chasm between the two stats and why the numbers going down with regard to crimes committed with firearms and violent crime as a whole but active shooter incidents and mass killings are on the rise?

The truth is that firearms know no race, gender, age, height, weight, economic status, political viewpoint, national identity, immigration status, or sexual orientation. Firearms are inanimate objects that require the user to impose their will. This is why, despite the aggressive and illogical accusations of some to the contrary, the National Rifle Association’s slogan is indeed true: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Contrary to what many zealots may suggest, the increased frequency of these heinous acts has nothing to do with firearms or the politics related thereof.

The crisis that this country faces is that of mental health which has always been a matter of public safety since the first patient was admitted to the Public Hospital for Persons of insane and Disordered Minds in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1773. The sad fact of the matter is that care for the mentally ill is not a priority in this country today. While a touch dated, the evidence is clear that the mentally ill are not receiving the care that they need because the care simply isn’t available in the United States.

This is in large part due to various deinstitutionalization policies that have been wreaking havoc on the system for the past 60 years. A staggering statistic to exemplify this point is that “in 2005 there were 17 public psychiatric beds available per 100,000 population compared to 340 per 100,000 in 1955” which translates to a 95 percent reduction in the number of the beds in 2005 compared to 1955. For those unfamiliar with the term, The Treatment Advocacy Center defines it in the following way:

Deinstitutionalization, the name given to the policy of moving people with serious brain disorders out of large state institutions and then permanently closing part or all of those institutions, has been a major contributing factor to increased homelessness, incarceration and acts of violence.

Note the last part of that sentence. Further proof of that point in particular can be found in our prison system as a 2004 study, as reported in Mother Jones, suggested that “approximately 16 percent of prison and jail inmates are seriously mentally ill, roughly 320,000 people. This year, there are about 100,000 psychiatric beds in public and private hospitals. That means there are more three times as many seriously mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in hospitals.” Later in that same timeline, it is also noted that “In the aftermath of the Great Recession [2010], states are forced to cut $4.35 billion in public mental-health spending over the next three years, the largest reduction in funding since deinstitutionalization.”

The further reduction in funds has had a significant impact on the mental health system in this country which was noted in a report from The Treatment Advocacy Center titled “No Room at the Inn: Trends and Consequences of Closing Public Psychiatric Hospitals. The reality we currently face is that there was an additional reduction in the number of beds available between 2005 and 2010 by 14 percent with the current per capita falling to a level not seen in this country since 1850 at 14.1 beds per 100,000 with additional decreases having been experienced since then. To put this is further perspective, the consensus target for providing minimally adequate treatment is 50 beds per 100,000 (the ratio in England in 2005 was 63.2/100,000). This has resulted in “states that closed more public psychiatric beds between 2005 and 2010” to experience “higher rates of violent crime generally and of aggravated assault in particular.”

There is plenty of blame to go around, in both political parties, across decades, as to the insufficient mental healthcare system that we have in place today. And, at this point, I would like to make it very clear that while the institutional system is by no means perfect, it clearly makes a difference regarding the evil acts that are perpetrated by the mentally unstable. And the degradation of this system and the care available overall to the mentally ill population is something that we need to address if we are truly motivated to change the climate in which we live. In the end, the slaughter of innocent people was committed by an individual who was clearly mentally ill and motivated, by self-proclaimed during his 911 call, by a group that preys on the mentally malleable. That is where your finger should be pointing.