The guns of September: Here we go again?

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Maybe this time will be different.

Within just one horrible week, the full range of modern American violence was on display. Also on display were our culture's by-now standard, get-us-nowhere responses -- but with a few glimmers of hope.

On Monday morning in Washington, D.C., a gunman killed 12 people and wounded three others at the Navy Yard before being shot and killed by police. The shooter, Aaron Alexis, was a Navy Reserve veteran who had exhibited erratic behavior since at least early August -- hearing voices and fearing strangers were sending "vibrations" through his body. The symptoms had prompted police to contact the Navy, to no avail.

Thursday night in Chicago, 13 people watching a basketball game in a local park were shot by assailants armed with at least one semi-automatic rifle. All survived, but within 24 hours, another 18 people in Chicago had been shot, and three of them killed, in that city's endless crime wave.

The mass shootings in D.C. and Chicago were of two different kinds: The former was the work of a mentally unstable man and the latter was apparently gang-related. These two kinds of crime require different remedies.

After the D.C. shooting, the usual voices called for stricter gun laws, ignoring the fact that the shooter's purchase two days earlier was legal because there had been no systematic reporting of his mental health problems.

Chicago's police Superintendent Garry McCarthy offered mixed messages in response to the mass courtside shooting: "Illegal guns, illegal guns, illegal guns drive violence," he said.

On this point he is absolutely correct. But he added a plea that lawmakers toughen the nation's gun laws. That's illogical: If the guns used in these shootings are already illegal, new gun laws won't make criminals any less likely to obtain and use them. Better enforcement does.

Also on Thursday, the New York Post reported that in the first month following a judge's decision effectively ending the police department's stop-and-frisk policy, shootings in New York have spiked nearly 13 percent while seizures of illegal weapons have dropped by more than 17 percent.

What Chicago needs is what New York police just lost: The ability to stop and question people -- overwhelmingly young men, who happen to commit most gun violence -- and to remove any illegal weapons they find.

The very recent rise in New York crime, after more than a decade of historic lows, seems to indicate pretty forcefully that the stop-and-frisk approach had worked. Though not prohibited, it essentially ended in early August when a federal judge, Shira Scheindlin, found that stop-and-frisk, as practiced, violated the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure and violated minorities' rights, since they were more likely to be stopped.

But if minorities are more likely to be targeted by police officers, they are also more likely to be targeted by criminals. Perhaps the testimony of innocent victims of police profiling should be weighed against the innocent victims of violent criminals -- if the latter have survived to be able to speak.

But what about the mass killings committed by the mentally ill?

On Thursday, three days after the Navy Yard tragedy, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy -- a Pittsburgh psychologist who chairs the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations -- announced coming legislation to address the intersection between violent events and our national approach to mental illness.

"America has replaced psychiatric hospitals with prisons and bridges for the homeless," he said. Nationwide, in 1955, we had 500,000 psychiatric beds; now we have fewer than 40,000.

Rep. Murphy said his bill will address the lack of treatment options and research; the confidentiality laws that prevent physicians, families and officials from sharing information; and the need for more police training in recognizing and compassionately handling the mentally ill.

Aaron Alexis had alarming encounters with police, but their warnings never reached anyone who could intervene.

If Rep. Murphy's bill can launch a more effective approach to identify, treat and monitor the dangerously ill, it will be an important step forward -- actually a return to sane social policy.

From Aurora to Newtown to the Navy Yard, the untreated mentally ill perpetrate horrors. So do sane criminals, evil and inadequately policed. Our challenge is to distinguish between them and take swift, appropriate action.


Ruth Ann Dailey:


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