Opinion: We Aren't Learning the Lessons of Jared Loughner - and other Crazed Gunmen

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jared Loughner lately. Not because I’m one of those basement dwellers that collects spree-killer memorabilia, but mainly because he’s an upright and breathing symbol of a lot of things that are wrong about America.

There have been quite a few mass shootings since Loughner’s, so for those of you who are having a hard time keeping track, he was the guy who took out his Glock with the extended magazine and started blazing away at a “Congress on Your Corner” event in Tucson, Arizona.

He managed to get bullets into 18 people, which isn’t surprising considering his magazine had 33 rounds in it. Thirty three round magazines for pistols exist, I guess because when guys go to the range the idea of having to switch magazines after 15 shots or so is simply exhausting.

Of the 18 who were shot, six died, one being a Federal judge and another one being a 9-year-old kid. Another notable casualty was Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head at point blank range and somehow survived.

Jared Loughner recently plea bargained a life sentence, and there are two reasons he was given that as opposed to the death penalty. The first is that the prosecutors wanted to spare the survivors and the victims’ families a multi-year ordeal of a trial while everybody figured out whether or not Jared Loughner was crazy, and the second reason is because Jared Loughner is obviously crazy. You might as well have a multi-year investigation on whether or not Lady Gaga might be interested in publicity and theatrics.

One of the things that makes the water muddy when it comes to cases like this is the legal definition of insanity, which covers a lot of pages in a lot of state and federal law books, but if you could sum it up, the definitive question would be this: Did the perpetrator of the crime know what he was doing?

Jared Loughner knew exactly what he was doing. He was trying to put an end to the life of the agent of Congress, which was a key part of the vast conspiracy that was destroying his life by way of putting selective language into the Constitution, newspapers, magazines, restaurant menus and the phone book, which was affecting everyone subliminally, and he was the only one who could see it, and everybody else was willfully blind and ignorant. And don’t even get me started about all the mental manipulation that Congress had going on through the radio waves that were going directly into Loughner’s brain. When you look at it that way, it’s all perfectly reasonable.

The question of whether or not a schizophrenic “knows what he’s doing” is very much beside the point. The homeless guy urinating on the front steps of the elementary school at 9 AM knows what he’s doing. He’s preventing the aliens from the planet Zoltar from having a place to land. The pitch-perfect, crystal- clear voices in his head told him that doing so would mess up the landing pad. If you can’t see that, then you must be part of the Zoltarian conspiracy yourself.

There were lots of people who had sustained interaction with Jared Loughner, and they all knew he was crazy. When you break out into a screaming fit in the middle of Creative Writing 101 at the local community college, those around you get clued in to your mental state pretty quickly. So if everybody knew he was crazy, why didn’t anyone do anything? Why didn’t the guys in the white coats with the butterfly nets come rolling in, put a dart in Jared’s neck and take him away?

You should consider that in a lot of states, it’s easier to get into medical school than it is to get state-ordered psychiatric care. If the dart-in-the-neck guys came for Jared, he would have eventually been brought before a judge or a panel, and he would have been asked if he was crazy, and Jared would have said “No,” because as far as he was concerned he was the only sane guy on the planet, and the odds are that they would have let him walk out the door.

Asking a crazy guy if he is crazy is about the limit of how much most states are willing to get involved in rounding up the buggy ding-dongs among us and getting them treated. In most states, the only way a mentally ill adult can get put away for treatment is if he is determined to be “a danger to himself or others,” which is an instance of shutting the barn door after the horse has gotten out and broken his own leg, and maybe if we’re lucky he hasn’t trampled seventeen people before doing that.

You can find this “yourself or others” caveat in a lot of the cheaper health insurance policies, which is a fantastic dodge. Go ahead and look at your own policy if you happen to be a 1099 graphic designer paying for your own insurance. You’ll probably see that big honking asterisk listed underneath the mental health provision of your policy. If you’re mentally ill and have tried to jump off a bridge or, say, tried to unload 600 rounds into a midnight showing of Batman, the state is definitely picking up the tab for your treatment, so insurance companies don’t really have to worry about that anyway. This does not at all prevent insurers from factoring this hypothetical treatment that they’ll never have to pay for into your premium costs. 

There isn’t any financial upside for insurance companies to cover mental illness. Until Jesus comes back and starts doing the laying on of hands thing, there isn’t a cure. It can be treated and suppressed, and that’s it.  When an insurance company has someone with severe mental illness on its client list, that guy isn’t anything but a huge drain on their bottom line. Not only do they have to shell out the money for the multiple, quite expensive medications that it takes to keep the crazy relatively normal, but they also have to pay for the monthly visit to the psychiatrist to get all of those medications prescribed. A broken leg will heal. Leukemia can go into remission. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder never go away.

A lot of American homeless people used to be productive citizens. They had jobs and health insurance, and the health insurance paid for their prescriptions and trips to the psychiatrist, right up until the point where the insurance didn’t have to anymore. And when they didn’t have to, all sorts of people couldn’t afford the hourly rate of the shrink or the thousands of dollars that it took to get their pills, and then the aliens from Zoltar came back, and then these folks became unemployable, and now they all live beneath the overpass near I-95. Or maybe near the gun store. 

It’s really easy to write off the homeless as winos or crack addicts, but one of the reasons that they are is because a giant bucket of Thunderbird or a few rocks of crack are pretty effective, low-tech ways of turning down the voices in their head. It’s way cheaper than Risperdal, Lithium, or Seroquel.

And isn’t that yet another problem that we’ve all happily decided that we can’t do anything about? That it’s easier for a paranoid, jabbering psychotic to get Boone’s Farm, crack, or a gun than to get medical care? Our for-profit health care system and our mental illness policies produce casualties, both direct and peripheral. If you see a guy with a broken leg, you call an ambulance. If you see a guy yelling to nobody in particular and crying into a trash can, you move to the other side of the street and try to forget about it, and maybe you might think “Gosh, that’s just too bad.” And if you see the next Jared Loughner coming, it’s probably already too late.