Details are still coming in of the terrible events at Sandy Hook School, Newtown, Connecticut, but it’s already clear which way the subsequent political debate will go. Gun control is a hot topic in the US, with passionate advocates both for and against. I hope the furore that surrounds it won’t drown out the few writers pointing to another possible factor in such killings: the lack of support for people with mental health problems, including those whose conditions are said to be severe.
Now, I don’t believe that every multiple murderer can be diagnosed with mental illness. Too often, that’s a handy mollifier ushered in by the defence lawyer – the only mitigation for crimes which most of us find hard to comprehend. Nor are the majority of those with mental health problems inclined to be dangerous. But some are, and I worked with a fair number of them in the UK. Many had committed terrible crimes while ill, frequently against family members. Luckily, by the time I got to them, they were usually a lot better, living in a safe place with 24 hour care and appropriate medication. So long as adequate support remains, I doubt that any of them will re-offend. Many were personally likeable, several of above-average intelligence, and a few possessed considerable talent in art or music. My job, as part of a team, was to help them rebuild their lives and regain whatever level of independence they were able to handle.
However, there existed a very small number, treatment-resistant but still functional, whom I could easily believe capable of a Newtown-style shooting. Each was different, but they shared common qualities: narcissistic, unstable, and quick to blame others for their own shortcomings. “If I kick off today, it won’t be my fault,” one tellingly warned me. Another, after a brief but savage attack on a female member of staff, breaking her arm in several places, complained that she was “winding him up” and that staff on the ward were “weak”. Within moments of the attack, he was sitting in the smoke room with a cigarette, as if nothing had happened. Zero remorse, zero responsibility. These same people could, on the other hand, be very pleasant and easy to get on with, often for long periods. It smacks of Minority Report-style profiling, but I hope they are never, ever released into society (and this is hard to say, for someone who worked mostly in rehab).
The mentally ill are among the most vulnerable in society. They’re unlikely to organise into pressure groups, as those with physical disabilities can, and unlikely to be taken seriously if they do. Governments ignore them; there are no votes to be gained, and it’s an easy budget to cut when times get hard. The mentally ill are more likely than the rest of us to be victims of crime, and some will perpetrate crimes themselves. The UK system has many problem areas – dwindling rehab services, forced incarceration, a reliance on medication which, while often effective, carries a freight of unpleasant side-effects – but at least there is an opportunity for those in need to get help and support, regardless of health insurance, status, and – more to the point – whether they want it or not (an ethical issue which I don’t intend to touch on here). One wonders if, in the case of Newtown or any of the other recent shootings, a little intervention at a crucial moment might have sent the killer’s life in a different direction and saved so much bloodshed and heartbreak.
“Guns don’t kill people. People do.” That’s indisputable, but leaves the big question unasked: what, then, can be done about those people?
In a country the size of the US, it’s unlikely gun control could ever be effective. Even in the UK, where laws are stricter, it’s relatively easy to purchase an illicit firearm, or slip through the checks designed to keep guns out of the hands of those who would misuse them.
People kill people. As William Burroughs put it, “Nobody owns life, but anyone who can pick up a frying pan owns death.” The difference is that no-one bludgeons thirty people to death with a frying pan. Guns enable you to kill more people, faster, and turn what might otherwise have been a small domestic dispute into a tragedy which has devastated a community and appalled a nation.
I don’t know what provoked the Newtown shootings. These things are complex, a combination of long-term factors and immediate trigger events. But my thoughts go out to the defenceless children murdered, to the teachers who died trying to protect them, and to those left, who will spend the rest of their days trying to live with the aftermath.