Virginia Tech update

April 21, 2007

In yesterday’s entry about the Virginia Tech tragedy, I quoted Informed Comment, who wrote “”The Real Reason for the shootings at Virginia Tech? In the United States, violently mentally ill persons are allowed to buy hand guns.” It turns out that information is not accurate. When I got up this morning I saw the front page of the NY Times had an article which said “Under federal law, the Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho should have been prohibited from buying a gun after a Virginia court declared him to be a danger to himself in late 2005 and sent him for psychiatric treatment, a state official and several legal experts said Friday.”

Also, on reflection, perhaps I was a little overly pessimistic in my talk. I implied there really is nothing we can do—we have to tolerate the probability of such tragedies because we live in a society that values freedom.

As a pilot, something that irks me is when an accident is used as an excuse to pass a law that would not have prevented the accident. So even though I think gun control is a good idea, I was reluctant to use the Virginia Tech episode as a reason for promoting gun control, since the things usually proposed—assault weapons bans, registration—would not have prevented the tragedy. But, continuing to think like a pilot, even though we can never make things 100% safe, we can do things to improve the odds. So I would suggest there ARE a couple of things that could be done “to improve the odds” and make another Seung Cho less likely:

  1. Do a proper job of enforcing the gun control laws we do have. The NY Times article points out that currently only 22 states provide mental health data to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System. That’s not acceptable. Every state should participate, and every state should be required to have procedures to make sure that people “adjudicated as a mental defective” (the wording of the law) are in fact promptly entered into the database.
  2. There should be room for more aggressive treatment, even unwillingly, for people judged to be a danger to themselves or others.

I suspect that there will be people more directly connected with Virginia Tech who will work on those ideas. I wish them well.

Reb Barry

3 Responses to Virginia Tech update

  1. Kol Ra'ash Gadol on April 22, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    Actually, aggressive treatment isn’t the issue – it’s helping people get treatment when they themselves want it. A significant number of people really lose it not because they don’t want treatment, but because insurance companies don’t cover treatment when a person is sane enough to check themselves into a hospital – one has to be a danger to oneself or others *already* in order to get insurance coverage. The result? People who might do things like the VT tragedy, who are doing their best, can’t get the treatment they may well know that they need.
    I think more gun control would be a good thing; but better would be a less violent culture, and best of all would be a culture whose industries were held accountable for what they pruport to be doing – especially insurance companies, who have a lot to answer for, in this way and so many others.

  2. Lillian on April 23, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    Today, there are thousands of individuals coping with mental health problems that are desperately seeking medical care whose insurance does not offer mental health parity. People suffering, begging for both outpatient and/or residential treatment for themselves and family members. When their insurance covers any treatment it is most likely very short term. And in many cases it is treatment by someone other than a highly qualified specialist. More often than not what the person needs is a psychiatrist specializing in their specific issues to provide medication management and a psychologist — with the 2 professionals communicating to each other. There is rarely a short-term fix but, instead often requires on-going, long-term treatment.
    Before we look to find ways to commit more people against their will lets focus on providing care for those who are desperately seeking care.

  3. Rabbi Dr. Barry Leff on April 24, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    While I certainly think lack of universal health insurance is scandalous, as near as I can tell there is no evidence that Seung Cho sought help but was denied service because of a lack of insurance. Committing people who are dangerous seems to be a rather different issue than the inadequacy of our national health care system in general.
    Reb Barry

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