As Alan Dershowitz points out in his recent New York Times Op Ed, there has been an interesting dichotomy in the reactions to Jared Loughner’s recent Arizona rampage (I choose not to use “alleged” in this case as many media outlets seem to feel is necessary). On the one hand, you have a debate over the role of heated political rhetoric and the availability of guns. The Left accuses the Right of using violent imagery and demagoguery to vilify political opponents and their ideas. Additionally, those on the left claim that it was far too easy for Mr. Loughner to get access to the guns and ammunition he needed to carry out this heinous act. Many commentators, however, particularly those on the right, see things differently. To them, this atrocity was the result of the actions of one deranged madman, who was not motivated by any amount of public discourse, and who would not have been deterred by any amount of gun control. To some it is anathema to limit access to guns or tone down the rhetoric because we can’t alter our society to fit the unpredictable needs of someone who clearly was mentally unstable. Jared Loughner has been declared mentally ill in the court of public opinion and that should be the end of the discussion.
At the same time, it seems that those on the right are only willing to declare him insane in the court of public opinion, not the actual court room in which he will stand trial. After John Hinckley was successfully able to invoke the insanity defense for his attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, Congress and legislatures around the country responded by making sure that defense was unlikely to be successfully used again. All of the evidence that has turned up that Loughner was fixated on Giffords and had planned this attack for some time, instead of being evidence of a mental illness, is seen as evidence of pre-meditation. Despite the wave of evidence coming out from the testimony of family and friends, online posts, videos, etc, it is now so difficult to plead insanity that even someone like Loughner is unlikely to be able to invoke it. The state of Arizona, where Loughner will likely face charges for the non-federal victims, doesn’t even allow a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.
It seems to me that there are two ways to address this apparent inconsistency, though both solutions are probably off the table for Mr. Loughner. First, we could implement a system of laws and regulations that controls access to weapons by the mentally stable and unstable alike. This is clearly the fear of some gun enthusiasts who have driven an increase in gun sales since the massacre. This approach does nothing to stop people like Jared Loughner from being violent, but may limit the amount of damage they can do. The second approach is to have a system in place that makes sure that people like Jared Loughner have access to mental health care. This man had every red flag possible, and yet nothing was being done to prevent just such a tragedy as occurred. As the House looks to cut federal programs by as much as a third, spending on mental health care by governments is not likely to increase any time soon.
We need to make a commitment to stop violence such as this from occurring in the future. That commitment can be to provide affordable, possibly free and mandatory, mental health care to those who need it, or it can be a commitment to restrict access to the kinds of weapons that allow massive violence to occur. Either way, we can’t say insanity was the only cause, and then that criminal punishment is the only answer.