A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 14, 2011
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Jared Loughner was able to legally purchase the gun he allegedly used to kill and wound people in Arizona. As with every such incident, people are wondering how he was able to legally purchase a gun.

The obvious answer was that he was legally able to purchase a gun because apparently nothing had been legally done to ensure that he did not do so.  While he had apparently been removed from the community college because of his behavior, his apparent instability was not reported to the relevant authorities. In any case, even if he had been diagnosed as being mentally ill, this would not have prevented him from legally buying a gun. By Arizona law a person has to be ruled mentally ill by a judge before he can be denied the right to purchase a gun on the grounds that he is mentally ill.

While Jared Loughner was apparently removed from school, he was never ruled mentally ill by a judge. As such, when the background check was conducted, nothing was amiss and he was able to legally purchase the gun.

Since it seems reasonable to keep guns away from people who are mentally ill, it seems reasonable that there needs to be a change in the laws or with they way they are currently enforced.

On one hand, the laws seem to be adequate. After all, people who are judged mentally ill cannot legally buy guns. It seems reasonable to require that a due process be followed before people can be ruled mentally ill and that this process should offer suitable protections to people to avoid abuses. After all, ruling someone mentally ill is not something that should be done lightly and we should be careful to sacrifice rights for the hope of greater security. Naturally, no laws are perfect and terrible things will happen. To use an analogy, people who legally get licenses sometimes get drunk and cause terrible accidents-even when people know that they are drinkers.

On the other hand, repeated incidents of mentally troubled people getting guns legally and then shooting people does show that there might be a serious problem that needs to be addressed. One factor worth considering is that there needs to be more communication between schools and the legal authorities in regards to troubled students.

Of course, this raises concerns about privacy and also the practical matter of how to fund the sort of bureaucracy that would be needed to handle these situations.

Another factor worth considering is that the system for background checks probably needs to be improved to ensure that the information is accurate and up to date. This is, of course, a practical problem that requires adequate funding as well as adequate competence. Folks who are skeptical about the state’s competence will no doubt be worried that people who should be excluded from buying guns will not be on the list and folks who should be allowed to buy guns will end up on the list by error (as happened a lot with the no fly list). However, this is a reason to be careful about the information and not a compelling reason not to use such information.

One matter of great concern is, of course, the fact that gun ownership is a constitutional right. As such, impinging on this right is a serious matter. Of course, people have argued that it is correct to impinge on other rights so as to ensure safety. As such, the sort of arguments used to justify violating or impinging on rights to counter terrorism could be re-tooled a bit to argue for restricting gun ownership. In my own case, I am inclined to be wary of sacrificing rights in the name of security-a position I consistently hold whether it is a matter of privacy rights, due process rights or gun rights.

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on January 14, 2011 at 9:24 am

    Good post. People of good will should be able to intervene in these cases, and at least get the potentially unstable person to meet with a psychiatrist.

  2. Greg Camp said, on January 14, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    I’m disturbed by the comfortable certainty that psychologists present about their knowledge. There is too much risk of abuse and error in designating a small group that will rule on the sanity of the rest of us. Recall the Soviet system, in which anyone who did not comply with communist doctrine was considered criminally insane. Recall that homosexuality was a mental illness, and then it wasn’t. I respect those psychologists who are working to help people in need. Things go awry, though, when we forget Lord Acton’s saying. What group do you want to trust with absolute (or even great) power? Yes, we could have a system for appealing any ruling, and that’s fine until I’m the one having to fight the case. Lawyers and expert witnesses are expensive, and a person who has done nothing criminal (making threats is criminal) shouldn’t have to spend thousands of dollars and many hours in a court just because some official doesn’t like him.

    My fear is that it is too easy to create a view of what is normal or sane and then to decide that anyone who doesn’t obviously conform must be brought under the thumb of the prison system, the psychiatric system, or whatever other system we care to institute. When people clamor for programs that sound a lot like what paranoids fear, the whole world ought to be afraid.

    I’m much more comfortable judging a person on his actions. What the shooter did was a gross violation of morality. That he may have done it because of some mental instability is a matter for the court to resolve. But the fact is that these events are rare. We give them so much attention precisely because they are far outside the norm. Taking away the rights of unusual individuals to own guns because a vanishingly small number of crazy persons do bad things with them is the equivalent of limiting what professors can say in classes because a few advocate violence in the name of religion.

  3. erik said, on January 14, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Echoing your sentiments (mostly):
    I, too, am much more comfortable judging a person on his actions.” I become much less comfortable, and more eager to preempt his actions,however , as his potentially destructive actions come closer and closer to me and my loved ones. I’m less concerned about the legal expenses of a potential serial child rapist than I am about the welfare of my children.That’s normal, I believe. I know it’s goes against the whole “innocent until proven guilty concept”, and I wouldn’t want to be the person caught up in that kind of situation, but I’m human (a claim that’s open for judgment by the appropriate judging body). Having a child molester register with local police is, on one hand, judging a person by his actions. On the other hand, it does inhibit an individual who’s served his time from living a productive life.

    Problems—deciding who’s crazy and who’s not. Who’s normal and who’s not. What’s artistic inspiration and what’s madness. What’s art and what’s junk. What’s porn and what’s not. What’s the right interpretation of a law and what’s not. Real problems, because, depending on where you stand, until some nearly indefinable line is crossed, everyone’s right and no one’s right.

    With laws, we have courts to decide how laws should be interpreted. But not everyone agrees with the results. Art critics decide art and not-art to a resounding chorus of disagreement. For some the Bible tells us who’s normal and who’s not. And we argue while the “normal/abnormal” ones suffer.

    Ideally we would like a sensible way of separating the sane from the insane without destroying the one or the other or both. I’m not sure psychologists are the answer. But I’m not convinced they’re not part of a solution. For my part, I believe we should continue seeking a solution. Get past the gun rhetoric and the political rhetoric (and the ‘cost’ rhetoric) and down to the problem:
    What kind of system could we put in place to identify,separate out, and humanely treat the dangerously deranged in our society?

  4. Asur said, on January 14, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    I think describing what makes insanity dangerous goes a long way toward defining insanity itself, and thus sanity as well.

    The basic model of action is that we 1) perceive things about the external world, and then 2) react to those perceptions. This neatly divides the two (and there are only two) distinct kinds of insanity — there are many different things that can go wrong with the mind, but all of them are describable through these two divisions.

    The first is where people perceive things about the external world that do not exist (these are errors of sensation, not reasoning about sensation): I perceive you to be pointing a gun at me so I shoot you first, except that in reality you were doing no such thing, etc.

    The second is where people perceive the external world correctly, but interpret those perceptions in bizarre fashion (these are errors of reasoning, not sensation): The tea you’ve just served me is in a cup with a blue rim, therefore I know that you are planning to steal my car tonight, etc.

    #2 is somewhat testable and can reveal itself in logic and situational reasoning assessments, but the trouble is that some people are irrational only in regards to limited situations (teacups, anyone?), and these are the people this sort of testing will miss. I know of no reliable way to standardize a test for #1.

    The best test for #2 (and the only test for #1) is conversation with a mental health professional trained to look for the subtle and not-so-subtle indications such people tend to give in extended discourse.

    Worries that this transfers too much power to such professionals are absurd; someone has to fill this role in society, and these are the people we’ve trained to do it! The only legitimate question is whether we’ve trained them adequately — and even if not, reason dictates that we start with the best tool currently available while we craft a better.

    • erik said, on January 14, 2011 at 8:27 pm

      May I alter one clause? In “. . .someone has to fill this role in society. . .” insert “an advanced civilized” before “society”.

      Certainly, societies throughout history survived without the aid of mental health professionals-== they did, for example, not have psychologists. Neighbors, family members, etc. would identify an afflicted person, casually apply terms in common use (“brain dead” “he’s got a screw loose”,” gone in the head”) to the problem, there would be shaking of heads and tsk! tsks!, and the sick individual would be kept at home isolated from society or placed in an asylum. Everyone else would go on about their normal lives. If ignoriong or misidentifying the problem resulted in death or injury to anyone, including the individual in question,such negative impact was generally limited to the local area.

      But our understandings of the human mind have advanced far beyond the level of witchdoctors using spells to cast out demons. And as a society, it would be good to believe that we make every attempt to be as humane as possible in our treatment of those with serious mental problems.

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