Jan. 12 2011 10:38 AM

It's a reason to talk about exaggerated debates, mental illness and gun control—as if we needed another one

Jared Lee Loughner
As soon as news of the shooting in Tucson broke Saturday morning, lefty commentators homed in on Sarah Palin’s provocative map with rifle sights trained on 20 House Democrats, including Gabrielle Giffords. And that made perfect sense, despite the howls of protest from Republicans—in an instantaneous news culture, reactions to the information occur nearly as quickly as the information itself, and before Jared Lee Loughner became an infamous name, all we had to go on was a bullet through Giffords’ head, a rifle target on Giffords’ place on a map and an inflamed political climate rife with violent imagery and grossly exaggerated anti-government rhetoric.

In our view, it seems more than reasonable to scrutinize Palin and others who talked in terms of armed insurrection during recent campaigns. Though, as a profile of the shooter emerged, it became much more likely that Loughner was responding to a disjointed conversation in his own head rather than the disjointed conversation on Fox News. Still, count us among those who believe it’s only a matter of time before violence-laden political blather claims lives.

Having said that, let’s enlist the help of The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Monday editorial for our transition from a discussion of political vitriol into one of mental illness. The editorial urged folks to “tone it down” (interestingly, the U-T never covered the aggressive behavior that congressional candidate Nick Popaditch and his hopped-up supporters displayed toward Rep. Bob Filner on election night), but it also said: “To be sure, there is reason to believe that the motive behind this massacre was somehow crazily political. But from what is known so far, perhaps the emphasis should be on the crazy.”

We’ll forgive the U-T’s use of the word “crazy” as an editorial flourish, but it’s important to note, as Vaughan Bell did Sunday on Slate.com, that available research shows negligible correlation between severe mental illness like schizophrenia and violent behavior. If a mental disorder caused Loughner to premeditate a killing spree, he’s part of a very, very small group.

By weekend’s end, we learned that Loughner had made quite a nuisance of himself in a community college math class, so much so that students and the teacher questioned his sanity—a student writing in an e-mail that she’d begun to sit closer to the door in case Loughner brandished a gun and started shooting, the teacher reporting Loughner’s bizarre and disruptive behavior to school administrators. For many, these revelations raise questions about whether anyone could have intervened so that Saturday’s bloodshed could have been avoided.

Slate’s Christopher Beam found Loughner’s college philosophy teacher, who said he had discussed, with a colleague, getting Loughner some counseling. But, the teacher said, they couldn’t “engage” Loughner well enough to get him interested in getting himself evaluated.

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? It’d be convenient, on one hand, to force people to get mental-health treatment. But for good reasons, ever since 1975 it takes a court’s determination that a person poses a clear threat to himself or others in order to forcibly treat him for mental illness.

However, we can limit the access of mentally troubled people—and everyone else—to certain weaponry. As has been widely reported, Arizona’s gun laws are among the most lax in the country. Plus, between 1994 and 2004, there was a federal assault-weapons ban in place that would have prevented Loughner from buying the high-capacity magazine he used to kill six people and wound more than a dozen others. Under the ban, which was supported even by President Bush and passed in the Senate but never taken up in the House, Loughner could have bought a magazine with 10 bullets, so the ban would not have saved Giffords from her severe brain injury, but could it have saved any of the dead, like, say, one or two of the elderly citizens who were gunned down? Maybe 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green?

A silver-lining outcome of this ghastly incident would be a renewal of the assault-weapons ban. Better still would be a much more restrictive ban on handguns, but, unfortunately, the Supreme Court has upheld Americans’ creepy gun fetish as a constitutional right.

What happened Saturday was nothing but awful. Yet, we can make the best of it by using it as a wake-up call to: cool our jets; stop wildly exaggerating the impacts of, and motives for, policies like healthcare and economic stimulus; make it easier to get mental-health treatment; and make it harder to buy and conceal assault weapons. Call your elected representatives. Tell them that.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.