So. Another mass shooting. This time at a community college in Oregon. Last time it was at a church in Charleston. The time before that… well, I’m losing track.
I sit here confused. Not stunned anymore–it’s happened too often now. Not brokenhearted. I think I wept enough over Charleston that my well of anguish has run dry and I confess that the part of me that checks my own spiritual, psychological and moral pulse is more than a little worried about that. Not outraged. My outrage, too, is spent.
I sit here confused. And sad. And more than a little worried for the world my grandsons are growing up in. And more than a little fearful for the schools where my wife, my son-in-law and so many other persons I love so dearly are dedicating their lives to guide others down the transforming path of education. I sit here sad, worried, and fearful. But mostly confused.
I’m not confused about what will happen next. That’s all too boringly predictable. What will happen now in this great mediasphere in which we all spend too much of our time and energy is this. We will have a new cycle of anti-gun vs. pro-gun arguments. A few Facebook friendships will be terminated. But this cycle will be shorter than the last one because each one gets shorter as we become more accustomed to, less surprised by these random acts of violence. Blended into that small tornado will be a lot of talk about how we need to do more to care for the mentally ill, but the focus will be more about how we might be able to spot the dangerous psychopaths than how we might actually care for this unfortunate contingent of our population.
I’m not confused about how we came to be in this bizarrely immobilized nexus of violence. I study history. I doesn’t take a genius to graph the rise in gun possession and the radical neo-con reinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment against the defunding of mental health care. On a more esoteric level, it would probably be useful, too, to include some pages on the deconstruction of America’s common mythos of mutuality and how in its place we’ve been sold a mythos of individualism mixed with a simultaneous real-life devaluing of the actual individual in any kind of meaningful context of community. I would need to include the decline of the Church and religion in general in all that. No, I’m not confused about how we got here. The story is a bit complex, but not really all that long because it wasn’t all that long ago that it simply wasn’t like this. I know. I’ve lived through the changes.
It wasn’t always like this.
Some history. And a warning before you read any further: in what follows, it is not my intent to trash Ronald Reagan, although I confess that as one who lived through his era and has looked at his record in some detail I really don’t see any validity in lionizing him the way some do. Nevertheless, what follows is probably going to read as though I’m targeting him and blaming him for our current state of affairs. If it seems that way, it’s because, while history is complex and even starting points have roots somewhere, the fact is that everything does have a starting point and more than a little of the difficulty we face now began on his watch. I really don’t mean to malign Mr. Reagan. But history is history.
As both Governor of California and later as President Ronald Reagan let bottom-line accounting overrule both compassion and common sense. The irony here is that this kind of accounting, which is so necessary in a household, is disastrously short-sighted and crippling when applied on the macro-economic scale required by a national economy. I could write a good deal more about the fallacies and short-sightedness of Reaganomics, but I’ll save that for another time.
When Mr. Reagan was Governor of California in the late 1960s and early ‘70s it seemed to him like a good cost-cutting idea to close down all the state mental hospitals. It looked good on the bottom line and helped to “balance” the budget— to match income to outflow on an annual basis as he moved to give new tax cuts to corporations.
In 1980 when he was elected President, one of his first acts was to discard the Mental Health Systems Act which President Carter had signed only a month before. Again, it seemed like an easy way to cut a huge chunk of change out of the budget which would enable him to cut corporate taxes. So for one year-end report and a corporate tax cut, you get a better looking bottom line. But what happens next?
Here’s what’s happened. According to USA Today (2014) it now costs us, nationally, about $444billion a year to care for the mentally ill in our current non-system system. Most of that is toted up in ancillary costs that have to be paid for through interesting tricks in accounting since the category itself is largely defunded. It’s paid mostly by counties and communities, very few of whom have personnel, funds or facilities specifically designated for or prepared for dealing with mental illness.
Today in California there are 124,000 homeless people. 40,000 (1/3) of them are on the streets because they are mentally ill and simply incapable of managing themselves into a residence (2013 Sacramento Housing and Regulations stats). According to HUD figures, the cost to the state is $40,000 per year per homeless person, most of it in police, community services, shelters, and temporary series-hospitalizations, which means a total cost of $1.6billion per year to take care of mentally ill homeless persons living on the streets of California. Another 30,000 mentally ill in California are housed as inmates in our prisons at a cost $50K per annum each. That’s $1.5 Billion (Dept. of Corrections), for a grand total of $3.1billion per year. But according to the state’s Medi-Cal estimates, it would only cost about $900million to provide the necessary psychiatric care in home-based or institution-based residential systems like we had before Reaganomics. That would be a savings of $600million per year.
Aside from the cost in dollars there have also been staggering social costs as the homeless mentally ill become a ubiquitous feature of our urban and suburban landscapes. When I was a kid, my buddies and I took off in the morning and came back home when the street lights came on. We rode our bikes for miles and hung out in the city parks unsupervised by parents. I can’t imagine my grandsons doing that now, and for every blog I’ve seen on free-range parenting, I’ve seen an equal number of responses from people who think the idea borders on neglect because the world now is just too dangerous for that.
So when all is said and done, the free-range mentally ill are actually costing us considerably more than can be measured in mere dollars and cents. In light of all this, it seems grossly illogical to complain about or be perplexed by mass shootings by mentally ill people when we are failing to provide any treatment whatsoever for 40% of severely schizophrenic and bi-polar persons in our midst. Historically speaking, our budgetary priorities created the problem. Historically speaking, our refusal to properly regulate guns because we refuse to balance individual freedoms with collective responsibilities weaponized the problem.
So where does that leave us? We’re not willing to more strictly regulate firearms, to insist that they only be available to well-vetted, well-trained persons for use in a specific context, even though the 2nd Amendment begins with the words “A well-regulated militia.” And we’re not willing to pay for the necessary care and therapy for those poor souls whose mental illness makes it impossible for them to find a place where they fit in the world, which pretty much guarantees that from time to time the more violent among them will find access to some of the more than 300 million firearms abroad in this country and use them to act out their own pathologies and short-term mythologies in ways that are dangerous, tragic and horrifying for the rest of us.
And here’s the part where I’m confused. Apparently we’re okay with that. Apparently we’re okay with these random outbursts of bloodshed and violence. We must be, or else, like Australia, we’d do something about it. But apparently this continuing sacrifice of innocent victims is a price we’re willing to pay, although why we’re paying it, what it’s buying us, has never been explained in a way that makes any sense to me.
Why are we willing to continue tolerating these increasingly frequent episodes of bloodshed? Is this a sacrifice demanded by our society’s unnamed but clearly violent shadow god? Is that why so many treat guns as if they are somehow more sacred than the human lives they steal so abruptly? Is protecting corporations and the wealthier individuals among us from an additional 1% or 2% in taxes more sacred than providing care for the mentally ill?
We know what the problem is. We know that it rises from the easy availability of firearms intersecting with the lack of care for the mentally ill. We know this, so we know that fixing those two things would stop the bloodshed. But we don’t seem to want to. And why that is–why we just don’t want to– might be the most important question of all.