Friday, April 2, 2021


The incident that occurred today (April 2, 2021) at the Capitol was a demonstration that firearms are not the cause of the egregious acts of violence that seem to plague contemporary society. A man rammed his automobile into some Capitol policemen and then got out and began stabbing policemen with a knife. One was killed and another seriously injured before officers armed with firearms put an end to his rampage. In the time immediately after the incident, before anyone involved in the atrocity was identified, the talking heads on a certain 24 hour news station wondered what would cause someone to do something like that. Since only the police deployed firearms, there were no calls to tighten gun control, and I heard no calls for automobile control or knife control. I predicted that the perpetrator would have mental health issues, and as the day wore on, it turned out that his Facebook posts revealed a young man in some form of mental torment who had been spiraling down from bad to worse over a period of years

Which brings us to the failure of gun control. It won't stop violence. England has stringent gun control laws, and those laws didn't stop the random acts of violence. The bad guys switched to knives, and now there is an English movement for knife control. If they get the knives under control, the violence prone can switch to axes. When they ban axes, the next weapon of choice might be the claw hammer. 

What causes gun violence? Not guns. I've been around guns all my life and have shot everything from am M79 grenade launcher (which is fun to shoot) to a single shot, rolling block .22 caliber rook rifle (which is also fun to shoot), and no firearm I have ever handled has inspired me to climb a tower and start shooting random passers by. I have never seen or heard tell of a firearm like the one in Terry Pratchett's science fantasy novel Men at Arms, which took control of its possessor and made him commit murder.

I put my finger on the root cause of gun violence in a blog post that I made in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting back in 2012, SANDY HOOK AND GUN CONTROL. The root cause of gun control is the Supreme Court's decision in O'Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563, 95 S.Ct. 2486 (U.S.Fla. 1975). O'Connor severely limited the states' ability to involuntarily commit the mentally ill. The gist of this opinion was that mentally ill people cannot be locked up unless they are shown to be dangerous. To put it crudely, just acting weird is not enough for involuntary hospitalization. The Supreme Court put it more delicately, but they were saying the same thing: “May the State fence in the harmless mentally ill solely to save its citizens from exposure to those whose ways are different?” Before 1975 we regularly locked up people who were acting weird but who had never harmed anyone. And I believe at that time we had fewer mass murders. Most of the mass killers of recent vintage ( I’m thinking particularly about the man who ran amok at Virginia Tech) acted weird long before they killed anyone. Under O’Connor, they couldn’t be locked up because they hadn’t harmed anyone, or if they had harmed someone, there was a mental health professional who testified that they were all better now and weren't dangerous any more. I vividly remember one case we had where a man kept committing arsons. He'd get arrested, the doctors would say he was mentally ill, but he didn't need hospitalization, and under O'Connor he'd get put back on the street where--you guessed it, he set something else on fire. He finally "burned out" on his hobby of setting fires, and thankfully he never hurt anyone.

Now, I’m not in favor of locking people up merely because they act weird. Most people who act weird don’t commit mass murders. Just as most people who own guns don’t commit mass murders. 

The relevant Florida standard for involuntary commitment, which is pretty much universal throughout the United States is: 

"There is a substantial likelihood that without care or treatment the person will cause serious bodily harm to himself or herself or others in the near future, as evidenced by recent behavior." Fla. Stat. 394.463(1)(b)2. 

I was a mental health prosecutor for several years, and here's what happens in a typical involuntary commitment: The patient is held for 72 hours and released. I never felt more like I was spinning my wheels and accomplishing nothing than when handling a case with a a patient who was obviously nutty as a fruitcake and in need of treatment, but was turned loose because there was "[no] substantial likelihood that without care or treatment the person will cause serious bodily harm to himself or herself or others in the near future...." [emphasis supplied].

We had a man once who took off all his clothes in the middle of the night, got a shotgun, marched naked down the hallway of his parents house into their bedroom, announced that his father was the Devil, and shot him to death as he lay beside his wife. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and shipped off to the state mental hospital, and six months later the hospital wanted to turn him loose because he was cured and there was no "substantial likelihood" he would kill his father again. We were able to keep that one locked up.

Time after time these mass shooters turn out to be people with a history of revolving door mental health issues. The Supreme Court needs to readdress their holding in O'Connor and devise some way to allow the authorities to control the mentally ill who are potentially dangerous. The standard of "substantial likelihood [of causing] serious bodily harm ... in the near future" is too stringent a standard, and it allows dangerous people to go untreated and spiral farther and farther down into the abyss of desire to do violence until they act out and we have another tragedy.

The Justices of the Supreme Court are some of the brightest minds in the legal profession. Surely they can devise some means of protecting the rights of the mentally ill while protecting the public from the mentally ill.