Saturday, April 21, 2007

Law, Politics, and Alienation

It was good to see multiple and widespread calls for new or strengthened gun control laws in the moments following the tragedy at Virginia Tech. It was a rare case in which proponents of a "liberal" political position were able to frame an event so as to advance their position. Conservatives have been especially good at framing and claiming events for the advancement of their ideology and electoral prospects, while liberals have sought to complicate rather than simplify the public understanding of these same events.

That being said, an article in the Times today complicates the liberal narrative of the VA Tech tragedy prescribing the need for more gun control laws. It indicates that we had the right federal law on the books to stop Seung-Hui Cho from purchasing the guns that he used to kill 32 people. Anyone who has been involuntarily committed due to mental illness is proscribed from buying guns. Cho was ordered by a state court to submit to an evaluation and outpatient treatment after complaints by two female VA Tech students. Virginia's definition of "involuntary commitment" differs from the definition implied in the federal gun control law. Thus, the court-mandated evaluation and outpatient treatment did not prevent Cho from buying guns under state law but it did do so under federal law. There seems to be another gap, perhaps because of that differing standard, in state reporting of the court findings on Cho's mental state to federal authorities for incorporation into the background check database for gun purchases.

It seems that we could deduce the following from this story: (1) no new federal law was necessary to stop the killings; (2) the state either intentionally or negligently failed to report data to the federal government that would ensure compliance with federal law; and (3) (bringing it back to the conservatives) the Bush Administration has failed to adequately implement and enforce a federal law that might have stopped the killings. Political mobilization and subsequent allocation of resources for enforcement and reporting were the essential elements missing in this story.

One additional thought: the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" formulation used by gun advocates is often made fun of by progressives who appropriately see their framing and lobbying as an extensive effort to protect the profits of gun companies. But perhaps progressives ignore the "people kill people" formulation at our own peril; the NRA is not likely to be a strong lobbying force for expanded mental health services in schools. VA Tech, the Maryland sniper attacks, and Columbine are indications of a torn safety net, some reparable by new laws and programs (more likely in the area of mental health than gun control) and others that can only be mended through a broadly felt impulse to befriend and comfort lost souls at the margins of our families and communities. We either don't want to talk about the scapegoating and alienation of outsiders -- because then we would all be complicit in the loss of life stemming from these tragedies -- or we want to outsource provision of comfort and care to government, which presently is unwilling and incapable of handling the natural and man-made disasters in New Orleans and Iraq. What is our responsibility in this environment and how do we plan to fight the alienation of our own children?

1 comment:

lostandfound said...

interesting. i think one thing that could or needs to happen is to create a centralized database for mental health hospitalization records. that would allow a check for authorities to run propsective gun-buyers in a more simple way, akin to checking off a fbi criminal database.

the flip side of that is do we want to allow mental health information to be collected and accessible in that matter, particularly in the hands of authorities. it is one thing to have a criminal records database held by big brother, but a mental health hospitalization database. is there not a risk that the information would be used or leaked for other purposes.

and shouldn't that information be confidential for the persons who had such treatment.

of course, after the shootings, the overwhelming response by people will be no. that the need to do a cross check with persons being committed to mental health institutions is absolutely necessary. and i think i would agree, for this limited purpose of persons attempting to buy guns.

a federal law is necessary to standardize the criteria for gun purchases, and also is necessary to enforce implmentation of the criteria, such as the reporting of the mental health hospitalizations for propsective gun buyers.