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Saturday, Jan 19 2013 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Scapegoat for gun violence: mental illness

By The Bakersfield Californian

This gun control stuff is tricky business. Without Thomas Jefferson around to help sort things out, regulating a well-regulated militia in a judicious manner turns out to be pretty daunting. The NRA, with its singular focus on the words "shall not be infringed," isn't much for negotiation.

Thank goodness this country, in its collective quest to figure out why Americans keep shooting each other, can blame mental illness for the carnage that men (and boys) have wreaked across the landscape. That young man in Newtown, Conn., who killed 20 first-graders last month -- mentally ill, right? The teen in Taft who allegedly tried to off a couple of his purported tormentors this month -- mentally ill, right?

Not according to any before-the-shootings psychiatric reports I'm aware of. We can pin these tragedies on a U.S. mental health infrastructure that's inadequate or poorly utilized, but the truth is, the variables involved in predicting these spasms of horror on the basis of some psychological profile are not reliable.

That doesn't prevent everyone, from TV talking heads to social media philosophers, from pointing fingers at one big target.

"You hear, 'Blah-blah-blah mental illness . It's like if they say mental illness, they're actually saying something, but they're not," Jim Waterman, director of the Kern County Department of Mental Health, told me Friday.

"If you look at these shootings, there's no common thread," he said. "Some of them are mentally ill and some of them aren't."

Waterman describes a spectrum of mental health conditions, from acute schizophrenia and depression on the far right side to more common concerns like ongoing frustration on the far left. All deserve our attention, but it's easiest to overlook the seemingly benign left. Teenage angst is about as prevalent as teenage pimples. Self-consciousness and self-absorption are as common to the high school experience as pizza and Facebook. When do those conditions morph into a strain of mental illness that justifies, in the perpetrator's mind, murder? Nobody has a firm grip on that.

People with a diagnosed mental illness, while slightly more likely to commit violent acts than the average person, are responsible for just 4 percent of such crimes in the U.S. overall. Yes, 96 percent of this country's ongoing slaughter of innocents comes at the hands of ostensibly healthy people who just happen to be full of rage.

We could confiscate the guns of everyone who has been recently fired, served divorce papers, denied child visitation or otherwise subjected to perceived injustice or ridicule, and we would probably prevent more mass murders than we do now with current safeguards barring the mentally ill from acquiring firearms. If typical mass shooters have a profile, it is one of a "healthy" but rage-filled man, not a schizophrenic.

So the bottom line is this: Nobody can predict who will fly off the handle, grab a gun and head down to the nearest school or movie theater. And, as a result, ending this scourge of violence goes well beyond firearms regulation or mental health policy.

This is something that's imbedded deep within our culture -- an outgrowth, perhaps, of an otherwise positive American characteristic: individualism, born of our Manifest Destiny mindset and turned on its ear by a hypercompetitive society that rewards the winners and shuns the losers in every facet of life. Throw in an attraction to violent entertainment, fostered from the earliest ages, and you have a bitter recipe for trouble. How do we fix all that? And, in the case of American competitiveness, do we pay a different sort of price for doing so?

It's all so complicated. Maybe, by comparison, the possibility of thoughtful gun restriction isn't so daunting after all.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@ bakersfield.com.

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