Posts Tagged Gabrielle Giffords
For those of us who came of age in the 1970s, one of the most shocking aspects of the last three decades was the rise of mass public shootings: people who went into public places and murdered complete strangers. Such crimes had taken place before, such as the Texas Tower murders by Charles Whitman in 1966,1 but their rarity meant that they were shocking.
Something changed in the 1980s: these senseless mass murders started to happen with increasing frequency. People were shocked when James Huberty killed twenty-one strangers in a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California in 1984, and Patrick Purdy murdered five children in a Stockton, California schoolyard in 1989. Now, these crimes have become background noise, unless they involve an extraordinarily high body count (such as at Virginia Tech) or a prominent victim (such as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords). Why did these crimes go from extraordinarily rare to commonplace?
For a while, it was fashionable to blame gun availability for this dramatic increase. But guns did not become more available before or during this change. Instead, federal law and many state laws became more restrictive on purchase and possession of firearms, sometimes in response to such crimes.2 Nor has the nature of the weapons available to Americans changed all that much. In 1965, Popular Science announced that Colt was selling the AR-15, a semiautomatic version of the M-16 for the civilian market.3 The Browning Hi-Power, a 9mm semiautomatic pistol with a thirteen-round magazine, was offered for sale in the United States starting in 1954,4 and advertised for civilians in both the U.S. and Canada at least as early as 1960.5 If gun availability does not explain the increase of mass public murders, what else might?
At least half of these mass murderers (as well as many other murderers) have histories of mental illness. Many have already come to the attention of the criminal justice or mental health systems before they become headlines. In the early 1980s, there were about two million chronically mentally ill people in the United States, with 93 percent living outside mental hospitals. The largest diagnosis for the chronically mentally ill is schizophrenia, which afflicts about 1 percent of the population, or about 1.5 percent of adult Americans.6 A 1991 estimate was that schizophrenia costs the United States about $65 billion annually in direct and indirect costs.7
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