Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Terrible Dilemma: Freedom -vs- Slaughter

Yesterday, when the news of the Virginia Tech shootings came out, I said to my wife "Whoever did this has a lot of history...people should have known this could happen with him."

Today the story came out - the story that his English class writings were so bizarre that a teacher informed the school administration and, when they did nothing, informed law enforcement. Still nothing happened to stop this disturbed person from legally buying guns. Carnage and 32 dead were the result.

How did I know that this was going to be the situation? Easy. I work on the ambulance a lot, and many of our calls are for potential or actual suicides, violent family situations, or persons acting strangely. There are more messed up people out there than the average person could ever imagine. And people who go over the edge almost always have left plenty of previous evidence that they are headed in that direction.

So, what is the dilemma? The dilemma is that in many cases nothing - absolutely nothing - can be done to intervene with people who don't want to be helped. That means that ambulance people, police, employers, and counselors have virtually no power to stop someone who has not yet committed a violent act, no matter how obvious their symptoms.

In New York we have a law that allows for a "mental health arrest". This is not a criminal arrest, but rather a way for law enforcement to get a person admitted to the emergency psyc ward where they can be held against their will and evaluated for three days and maybe longer depending on the assessment. The "wrinkle" is that the person has to be found in such a state that it is obvious from their behavior that they are likely to be a danger to themselves or others. Usually the "MHA" is employed in the case of suicidal persons.

In the case of the Virginia Tech shooter there were no violent predecessor acts, only bizarre writings that said nothing about guns or killings. From my experience, the chance of getting an intervention based on these writings would be exactly zero. In fact, if the person was brought in by law enforcement the police could be charged with unlawful imprisonment. In the case of us ambulance people, we could be charged with kidnapping. Consequently, there is an absolute aversion to restrain these people unless there is hard evidence of violence or a threat of violence. Just writing bizarre words on paper hardly qualifies. This is why the Virginia Tech people were so careful - they could be sued in a heartbeat. Especially at a university, people are allowed to be bizarre.

So, there you have it. Our laws are tilted in the direction of personal freedom - the freedom to be odd and different. You can't be arrested or detained for being odd or different, even though your words, or words on paper, may scare some people silly. If someone does detain you, you are likely to be a bit wealthier after they settle your lawsuit.

No doubt there will be plenty of spears thrown at the "incompetent" Virginia Tech administration and the local law enforcement for not intervening with this raging shooter before he did the incomprehensible. But guess what? If you had been in their shoes, having to cope with all the regulations that surround any kind of restrictions on non-violent individuals, you would have done the same things they did. And all those people would be dead...

Got any ideas about changing these "crazy" laws? Remember, it could be you that someone says is acting strangely.


Dave said...

I have a good friend that's a twenty-five year police veteran. He's said much that you write about.

What he doesn't say, but sometimes implies is that front line people, in extreme circumstances sometimes creatively intervene. That might involve interpretation of what they've seen or heard. It might involve some fabrication of some facts.

A recent story he told me, that I won't repeat, because it might come back to bite someone, involved a policeman wracking his brain to find a way to help a very messed up citizen. As the story was related, what was done was very matter of fact. What wasn't said was that none of what was done was by any stretch, part of the job description.

Life just isn't easy. Yes, I dearly want the shooter to have been discovered before yesterday. I also dearly cherish our country's promise of freedom. Just isn't easy.

Nice post.

ThomasLB said...

Sometims it's pretty obvious: Unabomber Ted Kazynski went from being a respected university professor to living in a carboard box. I don't think many would have faulted authorities had they taken a closer look.

I think families have to be involved somehow. Most people want their loved ones to get help, and would take advantage of mental health care if was available.

(I realize that's pretty non-specific, but it's all I've got.)

ThomasLB said...

PS- I linked to this post on my blog, and people are leaving comments over there instead of clicking over to here. You might like to come over and see what they had to say.

American Crusader said...

This guy left a trial of bread crumbs that even a blind man could have followed.
There were several interventions including required counseling.
Still..without any direct threats, I don't see what the University could have done.
I'm interested in your second amendment perspective and if you are against gun control..should noncitizens also be allowed to purchase guns?

Ron Davison said...

Hmm, and I'm just thinking out loud here, but what if we had a law that required anyone buying a gun to have a therapist and required that they buy the gun through the therapist. If your therapist doesn't trust you with a gun, you can't buy one. Yeah. That's an idea that I'm sure would be embraced by the NRA.