Monday, March 19, 2018

Disarming the happy medium

The Parkland school shooting seems to have brought more sustained attention to the gun debate than earlier instances of senseless slaughter.

And because the shooter had a history of mental-health issues that were noted by those around him, it has also provided fodder for the idea that the problem isn’t guns, the problem is our mental-health system.

If only we weren’t so incompetent about locking up dangerous people, if only those stupid bureaucrats would act on the information available to them, we could prevent tragedies like Parkland, and we wouldn’t be talking about limiting the access that responsible gun owners have to the weapons they want.

The problem with this argument is in the implicit notion that it is possible to get the mental-health decision-making “right.”

I saw an observation this morning that our current guidelines for involuntary commitment—our reluctance to lock people up on the basis of mental health—has to be seen in the context of earlier practice, under which we were all too willing to lock people up.

When we finally wised up and stopped doing that, we overreacted, and now we are extremely reluctant to commit people who really are potentially harmful to themselves and others.

I would guess that we can do better at that than we’re doing, but we should recognize that where humans are making decisions based on inevitably imperfect, incomplete information, there will be errors.

No matter where you set the line in terms of policy, once you get actual humans carrying out that policy, there will be people locked up unjustly, and there will be people roaming free who should be off the streets.

We can do better, but never be perfect. Our underlying choice is which kind of error we want to favor.

Since that’s the reality, it makes a lot of sense to greatly reduce the ubiquity of guns in society, so that when the mental-health system makes its inevitable mistakes, the fallout is less deadly.

This “harm reduction” approach makes so much sense, that it’s the only sane thing to do.

And yet we don’t do it.

It’s as if our society as a whole is a danger to itself and others.

Perhaps we ought to be committed.

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