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Atty. Ralph D. Sherman

130 West Main Street • New Britain, Connecticut 06052

tel. (860) 229-0213 • fax (860) 229-0235 • e-mail


Legal Opinion

October 1999

The problem that everyone ignores

On September 20, a homeless man allegedly murdered Paul T. Laffin, a shelter staff member who was one of the kindest friends that homeless people ever had in Hartford. Police said the crime was committed with a kitchen knife.

Many of my friends and clients own firearms and are concerned about the future of the Second Amendment. So I have heard many comment on the murder by saying, cynically, that they notice that no one is talking about banning kitchen knives. These friends and clients make a good point; the gun-ban crowd is myopic in its obsession with one particular tool that may be misused for evil, and indeed no one is talking about banning kitchen knives.

But I don't hear anyone talking about mental illness, either.

Instead, after highly publicized tragedies like Columbine High School or the mass murder at the Texas church, the usual talk is about making it harder to purchase guns or treating crime more severely or being more vigilant against evil. All these remarks miss the point.

Restrictions on firearms ownership don't stop people who are intent on wreaking havoc; the Columbine and Texas murderers also experimented with bombs made from common materials. More important, research shows that public mass shootings occur least often in states that allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns. (That's because the public mass murderer commits his crime for attention and is deterred if he believes his crime is likely to be stopped before it begins.)

As for criminal punishment, criminologists say that people who commit public mass murders are not deterred by penalties. Public mass murderers expect the crime to end with their own death, either by suicide or by police intervention. Dead men don't do time.

And as for comments like Gov. Bush's remark about a "wave of evil" sweeping the country, they also offer no constructive suggestions.

It seems to me that if you want to talk about improving public safety in light of these cases, then you have to talk about mental illness. It seems few people want to do that.

For example, in cases like the murder of the shelter staffer, one has to wonder whether this incident was the long-term result of the 1980s movement to remove mentally ill people from institutions and put them on their own, often with little or no assistance. This kind of talk is uncomfortable for people who argued that institutional life was undignified. But many others are unconvinced that homelessness has been an improvement.

The suspect in the Laffin murder had been prescribed medication for mental illness but often quit taking the medication, his sister told a reporter. That means a doctor somewhere was aware of the suspect's mental health; the doctor may also have been aware that the suspect did not make new appointments to get the prescription refilled. The sister, who said the suspect's condition was "so obvious," claimed she didn't know she could have asked a probate court to commit her brother to a mental hospital. Maybe the doctor could have told the sister.

In cases like Columbine High School and the Texas church, one has to wonder whether a history of violence against others is the only valid predictor of future violence. In both cases, the murderers had no record of violent crime. But in both cases the murderers exhibited warning signs that mental-health professionals could surely agree on - e.g., self-destructive behavior, explicit and graphic threats against others, a gross lack of self-control, and in the case of the Columbine murderers, tangible evidence like gun parts and bomb components that don't belong in children's bedrooms.

I do not advocate making it easier for a court to order involuntary commitment to a mental hospital. But we might, for example, consider how to identify mentally ill people who are prone to violence. Perhaps we could also find better ways to persuade such people to accept treatment voluntarily. I know enough about mental illness to realize that voluntary treatment seems like a practical impossibility in many cases. But major breakthroughs won't happen unless we try.

We've already had many breakthroughs. More and more, serious mental illness seems to be treatable with medication that corrects a chemical problem in the brain, if only the problem is diagnosed and the medication is made available. Such diagnosis and medication ought to be part of our discussion of public safety.

To make that discussion make sense, we should be asking mental-health professionals for their ideas. They may have more to offer than anyone who now dominates the discourse.


Copyright 1999 by Ralph D. Sherman

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