On December 14, 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother in their home near Newtown, Conn. He then armed himself with guns taken from his mother’s collection, drove to the Sandy Hook Elementary School, forced his way in and opened fire. There, he killed another six adult staff members and 20 children before he fatally shot himself as the police closed in.
On July 20, 2012, 25-year-old James Eagan Holmes bought a ticket to a premiere of The Dark Knight Rises at the Century 16 multiplex theatre. Approximately half an hour into the film, he left the theatre through an emergency exit and returned minutes later wearing protective gear and armed with multiple weapons. He opened fire on the crowd, killing 12 and wounding 58 before surrendering to the police.
On January 8, 2011, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head at point blank range during a public constituent meeting held at a Safeway grocery store parking lot. Immediately after shooting Giffords, Loughner fired on the crowd in attendance, killing six and injuring 13 others. Giffords survived the attack.
There were more than a dozen mass shootings in the United States last year, raising the death toll from these events to nearly 90, plus another 60+ wounded. Looking further back, there have been more than 60 mass shootings in the U.S. since the early 1980s.
A history of violence
Mass violence of this kind is not new. The deadliest school attack in the U.S. occurred not within the last few years, but in 1927, when farmer Andrew Kehoe, facing foreclosure and outraged over the taxes raised to pay for the Bath Consolidated School in Bath Township, MI, rigged the school building to explode with more than a ton of dynamite and pyrotol. After the initial blast, Kehoe murdered his wife at their farm, drove to the school where a crowd had gathered to respond, and detonated his explosives-laden truck. Kehoe ultimately killed 58 people including himself. Thirty-eight of his victims were children.
Mass violence of this kind is not even exclusive to the United States. On the same day of the Sandy Hook massacre, a knife-wielding man in China attacked a class of young schoolchildren, wounding 22. An especially notable event took place near Oslo, Norway in 2011 when ultranationalist Anders Behring Breivik detonated a car bomb near the Prime Minister’s office building in Oslo, killing eight people. Breivik then traveled to nearby Utoya island, where he assaulted a Labour Party youth camp. For more than an hour, Breivik hunted down camp attendees and staff, and by the time he was apprehended, he had killed 69 people and injured 110 more (55 of them, seriously). It was the single worst act of mass violence in Norway since World War II.
And yet, against such a bloody context, the Sandy Hook massacre stands out. Perhaps because the victims were so young, or perhaps because the event occurred at the end of a year when there had been so many other shootings, the shooting began a national discussion over why such events repeat themselves and what can be done to prevent them. Sandy Hook also became a comparative event for subsequent acts of violence that have captured the public’s attention: a six-day hostage standoff in Alabama that ended with the death of 65-year-old survivalist Jimmy Lee Dykes; the Texas shooting range murder of retired Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle; the serial murder of police officers by Christopher Jordan Dorner in California, which ended with Dorner’s death after he was cornered in a mountain cabin.
The number of people killed at Sandy Hook — and in all U.S. mass violence events combined for 2012 — is miniscule compared to the nearly 14,000 homicides and nonnegligent manslaughters that the FBI reports as having occurred in the U.S. in 2011 alone. The United States lives with almost constant murder and manslaughter, and yet, it is the incidents of mass violence that shock the public into calls for action. Predictably, gun control has dominated the discussion on how to address mass violence — it has been at the forefront of the White House task force convened in response to the Sandy Hook shooting — but, for many, restricting weapons access overlooks a far more important issue: mental health.
A history of illness
Of the numerous mass shooters in 2012, many of them exhibited clear signs of mental illness. Adam Lanza had a well-documented history of mental instability, which his mother tried — tragically and ironically — to address by training him how to shoot firearms. James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora shooter, was reported to have exhibited signs of mental disturbance significant enough for him to fail a membership application to a local gun range shortly before the cinema shooting. Jared Lee Loughner, though found sane enough to stand trial for the Tucson shooting, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia by two different medical evaluations.
In January 2013, less than a month after Sandy Hook, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a grassroots organization dedicated to improving mental health, met with Vice President Joe Biden’s task force and urged action to strengthen and expand the nation’s mental health care services.
NAMI stressed four key points during the meeting. First: that the current system of obtaining adequate mental health care is, for most, impossible to navigate, especially when it comes to getting access to early identification and intervention, treatment and support of those showing signs of mental illness. Second: that school personnel, law enforcement, families and community leaders receive training so they might better identify and respond to those experiencing mental health issues. Third: that school-based mental health services receive better support, so that children and young adults with mental health issues can receive treatment and continue their education. Fourth: that key provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), including mental health parity provisions, receive full implementation.
NAMI executive director Michael J. Fitzpatrick said that the Task Force’s recommendations, whatever they are, must include mental health care. “Treatment works — if a person can get it,” Fitzpatrick said. “We must have a national dialogue that builds systems of care that provide treatment and support to people who need it, when they need it.”
Fitzpatrick’s call for better mental health services echoed what had already been said by others in the days that followed Sandy Hook, but few matched the viral intensity of one blogger named Liza Long, Chair of General Education at Brown Mackie College-Boise in Boise, Idaho. Long responded to Sandy Hook with a detailed essay entitled “I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” in which she identified with the Lanza family, and the difficulties of raising a child with mental illness leading to violent tendencies. According to Long, getting her son the mental health care he needs is a significant challenge, and would be unaffordable if she did not have employer-provided health coverage. Without that, her son’s best hope for getting care would be if he entered the penal system, which would likely happen only after he committed the kind of act his treatment is meant to prevent. “I love my son,” Long wrote. “But he terrifies me.”
Long’s post quickly drew huge numbers of comments. Some responded viscerally to Long’s call for a national dialogue on the subject, criticizing Long personally. Still others criticized the connection being made between acts of violence and mental illness.
But there was a huge amount of supportive feedback as well, especially from those who echoed Long’s observation that actually getting adequate mental health care, especially for someone who might need it but not necessarily want it, can be nearly impossible. One response published by an unidentified psychiatrist laid the gauntlet at the feet of the health insurance industry. “My main complaint is with you,” the author wrote. “You make it so hard to keep people in the hospital when they need to be there, and it’s even harder to keep them in intensive outpatient services. Please create protocols for difficult cases and loosen the purse strings for extremely troubled individuals — before it’s too late.”
Meanwhile, the health insurance industry — arguably the one private group with more to gain or lose from a national conversation about mental health care than any other — has remained noticeably silent.