A school shooting in Connecticut has left 18 elementary-school children dead, as well as nine other people, including the shooter. An event like this will naturally lead to calls for stricter controls over guns. Which it should! There’s no reason why we can’t protect the rights of responsible citizens to own guns, while making it difficult or impossible for the kind of person who might walk into an elementary school and open fire to easily obtain weaponry. (Earlier this week in China, a disturbed man walked into a school and began … knifing. It was a tragedy, but nobody died.)
But our inability as a society to enact sensible gun rules is nothing compared to our massive failure when it comes to dealing with mental illness. We don’t know whether the Connecticut shooter actually was mentally ill, but it’s hard to imagine that the massacre was the act of someone calmly contemplating alternatives and coming to a rational decision. This graph, showing rates of people in mental health facilities and in prisons over time, tells you all you need to know. Around 1970, a combination of well-intentioned campaigns to clean up horrific conditions in mental health institutions and a desire on the part of governments to cut costs led to a huge number of people being dumped out on the street without the ability to really care for themselves. Combine that unfortunate situation with our bizarre drug laws and incarceration policies, and many of those people end up in prison, with little or no treatment for their conditions.
From an even bigger-picture perspective, modern secular/cosmopolitan society faces an enormous challenge over how to take care of its less fortunate citizens. We no longer live in a world of small towns and rural hamlets where people know each other and neighbors take care of those who are less fortunate. (I’m not sure we ever did, but there is undeniably less neighborly cohesion now than there was when communication and transportation was much more primitive.) It’s easy for “institutionalization” to be a scapegoat, and I have no doubt that conditions in mental health facilities were and are often very deplorable. But doing little or nothing is not the right alternative.