USA Today Assails 'Lock 'Em Up' Reaction to the Navy Yard Tragedy

NYAPRS Note: Here’s some powerful and much appreciated pushback by USA Today to the unfounded assumptions that link violence and mass murder with diagnoses of mental illnesses and to the increased calls for forced mental health treatment that now regularly follow terrible tragedies like the Navy Yard murders.

Such calls can now be counted on to come automatically from the gun lobby and the Torrey-Jaffe forced treatment crowd, the source of the unsubstantiated but often quoted byte that links 1,000 murders each year to people so diagnosed (


Should 11 Million Mentally Ill Be Locked Up? Our View

The Editorial Board, USA TODAY September 26, 2013


The awful mass killings this month by a delusional shooter at Washington's Navy Yard provoked familiar demands to fix the nation's mental health system. Polls show most Americans believe shoring up the system could help stop the carnage.


If only it were that simple.


There's no question that the nation's mental health system needs improvement. Ask almost any parent who has tried to get help for a severely troubled child. The number of psychiatric beds today is less than one-tenth the 500,000 available in the 1950s, and the overburdened, underfunded system fails to treat millions of people with severe mental illness. They and their advocates have long lacked the clout that gets funding for other diseases. If concern over mass shootings helps propel a fix, good.


But the idea that this will end mass shootings is extremely naive — or politically convenient. "If we leave these homicidal maniacs on the street," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, "they're going to kill. ... They need to be committed."


Getting Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis off the streets surely would have saved lives, but the demands by LaPierre — who obviously wants to deflect attention from new restrictions on guns — are far more difficult to meet than he makes them sound.


For one thing, mental health professionals agree that predicting which person with mental illness will turn into a "homicidal maniac" is difficult or impossible. The overwhelming majority of such people are more dangerous to themselves than to anyone else.


Though estimates vary, Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., a psychologist and an advocate for fixing the mental health system, told Congress recently that there are 11 million people with serious mental illness in the U.S., about 2 million of whom aren't being treated, and that people with mental illness commit a thousand homicides a year. That's frightening. But it's also a rate of only 1 in 11,000 people.


Should 11 million people be locked away to prevent those homicides — or even 2 million?


The idea would prove wildly infeasible, legally impossible and hopelessly expensive.


Until the 1970s, snatching people with symptoms off the street and committing them to an institution was permissible.

So was keeping them there, no matter their mental state. But a string of court decisions changed the rules by recognizing that the mentally ill have civil rights, and by requiring strong evidence of imminent danger to themselves or others before they can be committed against their will.


This helps explain why police didn't just lock up the Navy Yard shooter when he told them he was hearing voices about a month and half before his rampage. At that time, he had committed no crime, and he posed no apparent danger.


Reducing gun violence will require much more. Mass shootings get most of the news media attention, but people are killed on purpose and by accident by firearms every day in ways that sensible gun restrictions, such as universal background checks, could lessen.


Mentally Ill Doesn't Mean Murderer: Column

Mass Killings Calls For Focus On Mental Health For Wrong Reasons.

By James Alan Fox   USA Today September 24, 2013


A new Gallup poll taken after last week's tragedy at the Washington Navy Yard reveals that Americans fault the mental health system for mass shootings, even more than inadequate gun laws. Apparently, according to Joe Public, guns don't kill, psychotic people do. The NRA's Wayne LaPierre echoed these sentiments on Sunday: "If we leave these homicidal maniacs on the street ... they're going to kill," he said.


Notwithstanding a few high-profile defendants — such as James Holmes in Aurora, Colo., and Jared Loughner in Tucson, Ariz. — whose mental health issues are well-documented, no clear relationship between psychiatric diagnosis and mass murder has been established.


Mass murderers generally do not hear voices or suspect that they are being followed. More typically, they are miserable, but not to the point that they'd be hospitalized or lose their ability to purchase guns.


Based on a review of mass shootings in the past four years, the Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that mental health concerns were raised for only four of 56 perpetrators before the tragedy.


Rush to make a link

After mass killings, politicians often rally to address the needs of the mentally ill. "Given the connections between mass violence and mental illness," said Sen. Kelly AyotteR-N.H., "improving mental health training for those who work in our schools, communities and (as) emergency personnel will give them the tools they need to identify warning signs and help individuals get treatment."


However, the presumed telltale indicators are generally not obvious until after the blood has spilled.

Adam Lanza in Newtown, Conn., for example, had mental health problems and withdrew to the sanctuary of the basement. Although his mother was increasingly concerned over his downward slide, neither she nor anyone else could have anticipated his violent rampage.


Unintended benefit

It would certainly be a fitting legacy to the tragedy of mass murder if mental health services were expanded and improved. However, greater access to treatment options might not necessarily reach the few individuals on the fringe who'd seek to turn a school, a theater or a military facility into their own personal war zone. With their tendency to externalize blame and consider themselves victims of injustice, mass killers demand fair treatment, not psychological treatment on demand.


The post-massacre effort to aid the mentally ill is the right thing to do, but for the wrong reason. For example, during a speech in Hartford, Conn., delivered months after the Newtown shooting, President Obama urged Congress to respond: "We have to ... help people struggling with mental health problems get the treatment they need before it is too late." We should help the mentally ill out of concern for their well-being, not just out of concern for the well-being of those they might kill.


We must resist the urge to equate mental illness with mass murder. Proposals to correct the flaws in the system exposed by mass murderers tend to stigmatize the vast majority of people who suffer mental illness. We might not only fail to prevent mass murder, but we will make it less likely that those most in need will seek appropriate treatment.


James Alan Fox, Lipman Family Professor of Criminology at Northeastern University and co-author of Extreme Killing, is a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.