Social Failures

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.

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30 Responses to Social Failures

  1. You wrote: “An event like this will naturally lead to stricter controls over guns.” I don’t know that it will. Were that true, we would have had far stricter gun controls in place for at least the last 20 years.

  2. Sean Carroll says:

    Oops! That was a typo, I just meant to say there would be calls for stricter controls, not that they would succeed. Fixing it now.

  3. Eric says:

    I thought the same thing Christian, and he explained on twitter it was a typo. Looks like he updated it to “calls for”. A bit sad, really.

  4. Ian Durham says:

    Well said, though I agree with Christian that it is unlikely to lead to substantive changes in regard to guns. It most certainly will lead to more draconian security measures that really would have had no affect on the actual event itself were they to have been in place. In other words, the response is likely to be reactionary and not terribly introspective.

  5. Tedra Osell says:

    One big advantage we have now over the 70s is that we have drugs that can actually help a lot of people with mental illness–I’m one of them. I’d wager that we’d have a lot less institutionalization if we had universal mental health care, crisis centers in every community (with good funding and no “waiting lists”), and if we had some kind of strong, non-stigmatized mental health support network for people going through transitions (job loss, deaths, divorce).

  6. Josh Yates says:

    That is a scary trend! I don’t think gun control will become more strict. Maybe security will due to that we are entering the survalience society. The technology is here, but the funds are not. It’s hard to justify where the funds should go even if they were available. My reasoning would be to help people. The issue is that stronger security would have possibly prevented this saving lives. On the other hand, funding for mental health possibly could prevent saving lives also.

  7. Sili says:

    Since nothing will ever be done about fixing this problem, I guess we should be grateful that it was only kids getting killed. At least we hadn’t invested much in them yet.


  8. John R Ramsden says:

    Apologies if (as I suspect) this is simply one of many endlessly rehashed points in the never ending gun control debate, but when the Founding Fathers mentioned the right to bear arms (for a well-regulated militia I might add, not necessarily for civvies) they also obviously envisaged flintlocks and muskets rather than semi-automatics.

    So the full intent of this aspect of the Constitution could be maintained by allowing private possession of only single-loading rifles and hand guns, such as Lee Enfields (or their modern equivalent), with no magazines, and making the possession of semi-automatics and machine guns a felony. Can’t see it ever happening though.

  9. Tony Mach says:

    As far as I know, the increase in the prison rate is the direct result of the misguided “War On Drugs”.

    Not every correlation implies causation, you know.

  10. Jonathan says:

    As above, from Tony.

    Sean says: ” This graph, showing rates of people in mental health facilities and in prisons over time, tells you all you need to know”.

    This is a horrendous tragedy and action must be taken, but it’s no time to be sloppy in our logic. What you see there is a correlation. It may indeed be causative but this graph does not tell you all you need to know.

  11. ix says:

    @Jonathan: While it’s true that this is only a correlation, it’s also fair to consider that something must be wrong with a society where gun-related deaths happen so frequently. I hope you will not try to argue that mental illness is not at least a factor. It’s also apparent there are countries with high gun ownership and much less gun-related deaths, so something more than just the prevalence of guns is going on here.

    In something as hard to measure as sociology, you’ll never have complete certainty (or physics-level certainty, anyway). But considering we know there are two big problems that are correlated, and one of the two is a factor in the other, I think the policy implications are actually quite clear.

    Politicking for a moment, a mental health initiative is also much less political kryptonite than a gun control law in the US.

  12. Craig McGillivary says:

    I think it is a mistake to assume that mental health was the problem in this case. Its an important issue, but there are social problems other than mental health that could cause this sort of thing to happen.

  13. JANMAJAY says:

    This is the biggest tragedy indeed.Immediate attempt for solution is also urgent.But there is need to look the crisis in more general manner for effective solution.For example praise of heroism,glorification of power etc.This is ridiculous we r living in the most civilized era and still realize the need to manufacture ‘THE GUN’

  14. Josh Yates says:

    Everybody is wired up differently. Genetics. I just hate how someone’s self conscience would say the CT is a good thing. I guess you can call it mental health. Pure evil! And I’m atheist.

  15. Jonathan says:

    ix, I agree that mental illness is often a factor in these issues. I also agree that it is likely that there are causative links. I think however, especially when this is such an important issue, we must be careful what we do with ‘evidence’. The comment I was most uncomfortable with was that the graph gave us everything we need to know. This is a dangerous message, in science in general, but especially when there are such high stakes.

  16. Real Deal says:

    Laws cannot change culture. And American gun culture has reached a stage where it is immune to total or no gun control.

    Americans use gun ownership as a measure of personal freedom. The more guns, the more freedom. And any problems due to guns can be addressed by, yes, getting more guns. All those gun murders, about 1 per minute, is confirmation of the usefulness of guns to solve personal problems.

    But there is also another phenomenon unique to America – mass murders. Such acts can only be done with assault rifles, or lots of hand guns, thousand rounds of ammo, good training. Which is why the NRA supports rifles ownership for everybody. Doing mass murders is a kind of ultimate video game in real life. There are lots of video game to practice to perfection. Which is why this 20 year-old in CT did it with such fine efficiency like a SEAL member. America is a culture where it mourns yesterday’s mass murder, then forget about it tomorrow. And before your know it, the gun and violent video game business take off in a surge. The solution to 200 million guns is, yes, 300 million guns.

    In such a overwhelming cultures – gun, drug, money greed, consumerism – no law can have any effect.

  17. Solitha says:

    @John R Ramsden

    Please look up just what a militia is, to begin with.

    To continue, consider how the heck a militia could be properly equipped to deal with ANYTHING it’s meant to deal with when restricted as you suggest.

    To extend upon your argument, the Founding Fathers clearly only intended white men to vote. So to maintain “the full intent of this aspect of the Constitution” we’d need to disenfranchise a whole lot of people.

    The Constitution was meant to be a living document. That means it changes and flexes with the society and state of technology in which it resides. It is not static and unchanging as you suggest, and was never meant to be.

  18. Richard M says:

    Solitha, it took two amendments to the Constitution to bring the right to vote to non-whites and women. Are you saying that the Second Amendment will only apply to 18th-century weapons until we have an amendment that says otherwise?

    If so, you’ll get no argument from me…

  19. 4seer says:

    Yes, this is a heinous TRAGEDY. There will always be events like this as there will always be wars. As mournful as we all are, I think it is important here to remember it affected .00000008% of the population of the “United States”. The crime was perpetuated by a deeply disturbed individual. Do you as an American want gun control laws and policies put forth by “lawmakers” based on the acts of a single deranged individual? I for one do not.
    The value of having a gun available to neutralize evil intent directed specifically at me is immeasurable. Perhaps a good starting point might be to start banning certain violent video games distributed at retail outlets such as “GameStop”. Politicians are ready to jump on this as a show of concern and appeasement; failing once again in their primary mission and showing once again the failure of “big government” to be connected to the REAL issues facing our Country.
    Speaking of appeasement the centrifuges of Iran are whirling faster then ever. Will the next generation see the loss of say the city of Atlanta through a nuclear event put forth by an irrational theogacracy? It would make the loss of .00000008% of the population look like …well choose your word. To be graphic Hundreds of Thousands of entire families wiped off the face of the Earth in seconds.
    Here is a quote from the December edition of Air Force Magazine, Atomic testing in the early 1960s over the Pacific Ocean – Operation Dominic:
    “”The night was smooth but absolutely pitch black, without a light showing anywhere…The pitch black night simply disappeared as the bomb’s blazing heat illuminated the sky from horizon to horizon, far brighter than daylight. It was as if the bomb had destroyed the night. The explosion was not just a flash, but a sustained light that seemed to grow even brighter before it slowly began to dim. As the long seconds passed, the light collapsed in a curious fashion, like a deflating balloon, coming back in from the horizon. And then it was night again.”
    He went on:
    “Our radar/bombardier was a crusty veteran of World War II, better known for his salty wit than his philosophy. As soon as he released the bomb, he hurried up to the cockpit to view the results. When the light finally subsided, he said in a quiet tone, ‘They should make every head of state see this once a year. Then they’d know what they were playing with.’ ”

    So folks as the news headlines continually shift REMEMBER Iran is much much closer to an irrational radical Islamic atomic bomb. Pearl Harbor, 911…just what does it take for you to wake up America ??

  20. Richard M says:

    4seer, I think the proportion of the population *affected* by the tragedy is closer to 100% than to .00000008%. Do you feel unaffected? I don’t. Sean was affected enough to blog about it. You and I and several others were affected enough to read and reply, and multitudes have been affected enough to respond in other ways.

    Also, please try to stay on topic — all that about nuclear proliferation is irrelevant here.

    Incidentally, .00000008% of 311000000 is about a quarter of an individual. Check your decimal places.

  21. Brad says:

    I believe the institutionalization rate dropped so precipitously in part because of the success of new antipsychotic medications. Patients really did get demonstrably better, so it was rational to let them out. Moreover, there was an influential belief among the psychiatric community that schizophrenia was not an illness at all, but actually a more enlightened way of dealing with the world. In fact, the whole concept of mental illness was questioned.

    But all of this is irrelevant to Sean’s claim that if mental health diagnosis and treatment were improved, events like this would be less likely to happen. Maybe. But consider what would have been necessary to detect, diagnose, and confine Adam Lanza before he committed that act. It would have required an egregious violation of his and his family’s civil rights. There’s no test in the world that can predict whether someone will become violent (save the presence of a Y chromosome) with any accuracy. So what would have been the reason for confining him? Would Sean support the involuntary testing of all children that seem “off” or “anti social” or “autistic” or simply “weird” for some amorphous condition that could predict violence? You presently have to be floridly psychotic or deeply malevolent to get the attention of mental health professionals or the criminal justice system in this society. And I think that’s generally how most people would prefer things to remain, including me.

  22. AI says:

    This event seems to be blown way out of proportion by the media.

    Yes, it is a huge tragedy for all those directly affected but not so much on the whole. Roughly 150 000 people die everyday including thousands of kids. Also unlike the victims of this crime, who had good lives and quick deaths, many of those kids conclude lives of chronic suffering and misery.

    This tragic event should simply be seen as just another kind of a natural disaster. It is unavoidable and will happen again (and the media circus only makes such events more common). Yes, the damage can be mitigated to a large extent by gun control but that’s pretty much the only way. The chances of prevention are minimal.

  23. Hamish says:

    I disagree with the idea that gun laws in the US will not change. Demographic shifts are against the gun lobby in the same way that they have been hurting the Republicans. The weakening of gun laws came about as part of the post-Civil Rights Act consolidation of white rural and white southern voters by the Republicans. This powerful constituency is now on the wane — and unless you expect Latinos and other minorities to join the NRA, the gun lobby will follow.

  24. Baby Bones says:

    A report presented on CNN points to the possibility that the shooter in Connecticut suffered from the effects of not properly taking medication. This may turn out to be a key finding.

    A tragedy occurred last year in which my neighbor, a mother, killed one of her children. She was suffering from severe manic-depression but had been refusing to take her medication. The shootings echo back to that night for me and my family. None of us neighbors, not her husband or surviving children, not her doctors, ever suspected she would carry out such an act, but at her trial it was revealed she had planned it for a long time.

    The year before it happened, I was worried about her state of mind. She had said things to me that were very off color, not threats or anything like that, but rather strange stories and wild exaggerations that I never expected to hear. Then, a few weeks later, she showed up on our doorstep, seeking shelter for the night and explaining her new mission in life. The next week, the doctor who had treated her said that she was potentially a danger to herself. This led to her being put in a hospital for a few weeks and released. Despite these warning signs, her subsequent actions a year later came as a surprise to all of us.

    The experts who deal with such tragedies operate on a level that probably makes it nearly impossible for them to translate their observations made in hindsight into effective diagnoses. Even now, the grief counselor who visits the bereaved family said that it would be highly unlikely that a psychologist trained to deal with general disorders could recognize that her behavior could add up to murder.

  25. Tony Rz says:

    There’s no doubt we need more research into physical as well as mental health issues, but how does one remove the hatred that exists in those that kill? With gentle Love especially at the very beginning of birth and throughout their lives, though they are still free to choose to hate, why they would I have no idea.