We can’t go on this way in America, with people meeting their congresswoman in a parking lot, attending a Sikh temple, seeing a movie in a theater, shopping at a mall, or young people in a college or elementary school classroom being gunned down by homicidal maniacs.
We Americans send our best, brightest and bravest to dangerous places around the world to keep us safe, spending hundreds of billions a year on national security — more than all other advanced industrial nations combined. We spend billions more on law enforcement at all levels of government.
What good is all that risk, sacrifice and expense if we — innocent men, women and even children — are so clearly vulnerable to individuals in our society who are so mentally ill or emotionally damaged they can become mass murderers at any time?
Now, in the aftermath of a horrific massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, there is serious talk among congressional Democrats of banning semiautomatic weapons like the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle Adam Lanza, 20, used to murder his mother at her home, then 20 children and six adults at the school. President Obama has spoken twice in three days of seeking tighter gun control and addressing mental health problems.
Both measures are long overdue and absolutely necessary — especially meeting mental health care needs. For the fact is, no amount of gun control will prevent these tragedies if people like Jared Loughner and Adam Lanza aren’t identified as needing help, and given the help they need, before they go completely haywire and start killing.
Sure, guns are these killers’ weapons of choice. But someone with Lanza’s reported intelligence can easily commit mass murder with a few bottles, rags, some gasoline and matches.
This inescapable conclusion about meeting mental health care needs isn’t something public officials want to deal with. That’s especially so now, given the state of our economy and current obsession with debt reduction. We’ve cheapskated mental health care needs for a long time. Short-term, lick-and-a-promise outpatient mental health care is hard to come by and afford for most Americans. Longterm, definitive outpatient care is beyond the reach of most. That goes double where full-time and perhaps longterm hospitalization is required.
Providing necessary mental health services to all in need of it is an expensive undertaking. But even if officials were suddenly prepared to fund adequate care and taxpayers were willing to pay the tab, it would take years to make this happen.
A study of national needs vs. resources, if done, will show we don’t begin to have enough mental health care professionals, clinics and hospitals.
As a result, America’s jails and prisons are obliged to take up the slack. A huge percentage of the incarcerated are where they are due to substance abuse and crimes committed under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. But behind that fact lies a rarely discussed reality: many of them become drug users and alcoholics because of serious unaddressed or inadequately treated mental and emotional problems.
America entered World War II with a woefully inadequate military. In four short years America had the strongest, best-trained and equipped military the world had ever seen. And our enemies, Germany and Japan, lay vanquished and in ruins. That happened because of total commitment to meeting a mortal threat.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy called for an all-out effort to put a man on the moon. Again, our full commitment made that happen, in 1969.
Now, we need an all-out commitment to make America safe from an enemy within. Yes, we need more and better control of guns. But most of all we need to identify those with serious mental and emotional illnesses and deficits, and see to it they get the care they need, whatever it takes. For some, that will mean expensive longterm care as outpatients or in hospitals.
If we refuse to make this commitment and pay its cost we will have ourselves to blame as the number and severity of mass killings grows. There is no quick, cheap, easy way out.