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Copycat Killer or Shared Family and Societal Ills: Guns and Mental Illness Revisited

Sadly, we once again learn of the senseless killing of numerous victims by a young man.  Many of the victims were targeted for distorted symbolic reasons, others were complete strangers to the gunman and targeted simply by chance.  In this instance, Elliott Rodger, the son of a Hollywood producer and pornography photographer, vented his pain and suffering on his college roommates and random members of the community.  Some have noted [1] the similarity to an attack by another child of a Hollywood producer more than a decade ago, suggesting, perhaps, some element of the copycat phenomenon in the events that have taken place.  Yet, I would argue that any such rendering is at high risk for oversimplifying the events and missing the critical component of what is in fact similar about these tragedies: the need for families and communities to balance individual freedoms of young adults with recognition of the need for some troubled people to be contained for their own good and the safety of the communities in which they live. 

Of Compassion For Families

It is of utmost importance to be mindful of the obvious and unimaginable suffering experienced by the family and friends of those killed in such tragedies, our prayers of support must be ever with them. 

But, what of the families of the perpetrators?  It is difficult to know with any certainty what occurs in the privacy of another family’s home, and it would be irresponsible to suggest any definitive explanation of what is undoubtedly a complex and irrational event: such is the nature of mental illness.  Still, it does not go unnoticed that the fathers of these two perpetrators found fame in violent media (Sopranos, Hunger Games), and one must consider whether messages regarding violence were distorted and misperceived by these psychologically-vulnerable youth. While many young adults are able to view violent media without taking violent action themselves (which is not to suggest that such media is, in fact, good for them), I would suggest that for some who are vulnerable, more paternalistic care may be needed.  As the anguish of the perpetrator’s family is brought to light in these cases, we must consider how to compassionately, but directly, deal with the realities that what we consume visually and experientially, has consequences.  

Failures To Communicate

In the older case of David Attias, we are told of multiple years of noncompliance with medication and an emerging psychosis, eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia.  That is a difficult situation for any family to manage for sure, though the parents of Attias’ victims suggest that Attias’ parents failed in their responsibility to seek help for their 18-year-old son, citing as one proof the fact that they sent him to college with a car, but with inadequate support for his clear psychiatric vulnerability.  (After his conviction, Attias was sentenced to 60 years in a mental institution, having been found legally insane, and unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.)

In the more recent case, Elliott Rodger’s parents are reported [2] to have alerted the authorities weeks ago of their son’s erratic behavior and suicidal and homicidal tendencies as evidenced in online video posts.  The police investigated and found nothing that would allow them to take action to commit Rodger to a mental institution.  Rodger later wrote that he was able to convince the police that he was not suicidal.  The police did not search Rodger’s apartment where the weapons of his assault were then present. 

Doris A. Fuller, executive director of the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center, said [3]“California law has provisions that permit emergency psychiatric evaluations of individuals who pose a serious threat, but that was never triggered.  In this case, the red flags were so big the killer’s parents had called police…and yet the system failed.” 

Mental Illness and Freedom

Following the Washington DC Navy Yard shooting, I wrote [4] that “families of those who suffer mental illness must be responsible in seeking care for their loved one (especially those who are unable to seek care for themselves, and even if they say they don’t want it),” while noting that the evidence is unclear whether those with mental illness are at increased risk to perpetrate or suffer from violence.   I also noted that persons with mental illness who have been involved in tragic events are thought to be exclusively those who had not been adequately treated for their condition.  What the recent tragedy brings to the fore is that even if family members try to act responsibly, we as a society have erected such high defenses around the notion of individual freedom that we have effectively handcuffed those on the front lines trying to take action in cases where action is clearly needed.  

These barriers to action stem from unfortunate events in the past where people with psychiatric problems were institutionalized for lengthy periods of time, often without adequate due process, and in inadequate conditions that were an affront to their human dignity.  Feuding spouses and family members could abuse the system and disrupt lives.  Reform was needed.  Yet, it seems that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.  Those parents and friends who have legitimate concerns about the safety, mental health, and welfare of their loved ones can have great difficulty getting them to a safe place for proper and necessary treatment.  Although this typically does not result in tragedy for the community as occurred in Santa Barbara, the mentally ill person continues to suffer nevertheless, and he deserves better.

As with many social problems, the solution is expensive.  While there will be debate [5] about where the line should be drawn between personal choice and compelled treatment, the issue has been researched and findings are available [6].  What seems less acceptable for discussion is the reality that something can and should be done to protect our communities.  

Statements were made in the context of both tragedies that we are helpless.  For example, UC President Janet Napolitano told [2] reporters “This is almost the kind of event that’s impossible to prevent and almost impossible to predict.”  I hope and pray that is not so. 

While we obviously cannot be perfectly safe in this world, I would argue that does not mean that we are helpless.  If there is the will among leaders to take necessary and perhaps unpopular steps to protect society through reconsidering psychiatric commitment regulations, and make the financial sacrifices that go along with it; and if parents and families will do the same by taking increasingly active responsibility for the formation of their children, including making sacrifices and choices themselves, choices that eschew violent entertainment, and present a wholesome, pure vision of society, then there is hope. 

Sadly, we once again learn of the senseless killing of numerous victims by a young man. Have we, as a society, erected such high defenses around the notion of individual freedom that we have effectively handcuffed those charged with protecting us?