A Response to the Tucson Shooting That Doesn’t Involve Firearm Regulations

May 9th, 2011

Shortly after the tragic Tucson shootings on January 8, the knee-jerk reaction was calls to impose stringent firearm regulations in an attempt to prevent future such shootings–such as by banning high capacity magazines, and even banning the possession of firearms within 1,000 feet of members of Congress. At the time, I noted that this was a textbook black swan response. It seems cooler heads have prevailed–yet another argument for black swan legislative waiting periods. Calls for restrictions on Second Amendment rights have petered out, and it seems that Arizona is focusing on the real problem–identifying and treating mentally ill individuals who may pose threats to others. Without identifying these individuals, no firearm restriction can keep a weapon out of the hands of a mentally ill–but undiagnosed–person.

From Time:

Unlike the aftermath of similar acts of violence in recent years — notably the shooting on the Virginia Tech campus — there’s been relatively little finger-pointing.

Instead, local behavioral-health agencies have been careful to stress that most people with mental illness are nonviolent and that early treatment is key. They’ve also continued the public discourse on mental health and violence, including a symposium at the University of Arizona last week that was carefully titled, “A Delicate Balance: Creating a Better Post-January 8 System to Protect the Public and Help Persons with Serious Mental Illness.”

How’s this kindler, gentler approach working? Apparently, quite well.

The message seems to be getting out. Some Tucson behavioral-health programs are reporting a spike in the use of their services and a boost in private donations since Jan. 8. Epicenter, a program created last year by the University of Arizona (UA) Department of Psychiatry to identify and treat individuals exhibiting early signs of psychosis, has seen a drastic increase in referrals. “We were getting one referral a week, and since the shooting it’s closer to one a day,” UA assistant professor of psychiatry Nicholas Breitborde tells TIME. The Southern Arizona chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) had record participation at its annual fundraising walk in March and pulled in $146,000 — 40% more than last year’s figure.

There is also a responsibility on each and every one of us to identify those who may pose threats, and take action to make sure they do not harm others.

Indeed, there seems to be some voluntary monitoring of worrisome behavior by some institutions. According to Lieutenant Lisa Sacco of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, since the January shooting, Pima Community College has voluntarily stepped up its efforts to communicate with law enforcement when students are expelled from the school. “They now send a letter to the sheriff’s department,” Sacco says. “We assess the information and check our databases to see if the person has had contact with law enforcement and whether there have been any threats associated or if there’s a pattern of behavior.”

There may come a day when Arizona schools and government agencies are legally required to report behavior that results in expulsions, firings or suspensions to a behavioral-health hotline — the intent of a piece of post–Jan. 8 legislation that Dr. Matt Heinz, a Democratic state representative who’s also a physician and a friend of Giffords, is working on.

Kudos to the people of Tucson, and Arizona for recovering from this tragedy, and taking thoughtful and deliberate steps to make sure it does not happen again.