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Shotgun News, August 1, 2007

Psychosis and Tragedy, Part 2

Last month I wrote about Cho Seung-Hui and the massacre at Virginia Tech.  I also wrote about how the root cause of that tragedy wasn't Virginia Tech's gun control law, or the failure of Virginia to report Seung-Hui's mental problems to the FBI.  The root cause was a beautiful dream of the 1960s that did not work.  That beautiful dream was deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill.  Not just gun owners, but all Americans have been paying a high price for the last four decades because of this policy.

I'm writing another book right now, a mixture of memoir and a history of mental illness commitment laws in America.  Regular readers of my column may recall that I have mentioned that I have an older brother who is a paranoid schizophrenic—and that's the primary reason that I writing this book.  As I was growing up, he was my smarter, older brother—with abilities that I lacked.  When he was drafted in 1966, he did so well on the Army's intelligence test that they gave him an option that most young men of that did not enjoy—an honorable discharge 24 hours after he was drafted, conditional on enlisting.  Draftees ended up in Vietnam, and the local draft board had little control over this.  My brother was so obviously gifted that they wanted him to enlist, so that he could go to radar electronics technician school.  When he finished his training, his abilities were so obvious that instead of shipping out to the safety of Germany, to maintain Nike-Hercules missle radar systems, he became the teacher.

After the Army, he went back to college—and shortly thereafter, as sometimes happens to brilliant but eccentric twentysomethings, he suffered a schizophrenic breakdown.  For a few weeks, he was seeing and hearing things that weren't there, but he knew that they weren't real.  Eventually, the hallucinations took over, and became reality for him.  If you saw the movie A Beautiful Mind, about the mathematician John Forbes Nash, you may have some inkling of what happened to my brother—and of the pain that our family suffered.  Unlike John Nash, who eventually recovered (at least partially), my brother has not—although he no longer attacks complete strangers in public.

John Nash and my brother are not alone.  There are millions of severely mentally ill people in America.  These are not people with severe depression, or who have some quirks or eccentricities, but psychotics—people whose connection to reality is weak or non-existent.  Comics make jokes about the guy who wears aluminum foil inside his hat to keep out the transmissions from Mars, but the reality isn't funny.  You can see the consequences on the streets of any big city, because many of the homeless are there because of mental illness.[1]  If you are as old as me, you can remember when it was not common to find people panhandling in the streets of an American city.

The problem of the mentally ill is not just their own private hell, as they freeze to death on the street in winter,[2] or die of pneumonia, or literally starve themselves to death while family and police look on helplessly, legally prohibited from intervening.[3]  There is also the problem of violence—especially random, unpredictable violence.  While most mentally ill people are not a threat to others, several studies in different parts of the United States and in Europe demonstrate what common sense tells us—that people who who are mentally ill are more likely to commit violent crimes.[4]

If you have been following the news for the last twenty years—especially the highly publicized incidents involving gun mass murders—you already know the names of a number of people who were identified by families, friends, and authorities as severely mentally ill—before they became tragedies with headlines.  These were people who gave clear signs of mental illness—and sometimes told authorities in advance what they were going to do, pleading for help. 

Buford Furrow was a member of a neo-Nazi group in Washington State.  A series of conflicts with his wife soon led her to take Furrow to a mental hospital.  He “told staff members he was thinking about committing suicide and shooting people at a nearby shopping mall.”  After threatening two nurses with a knife, a police officer arrested Furrow, who told the officer that, “Sometimes I feel like I could just lose it and kill people.”  He pleaded guilty to the criminal charges, and told the judge about his “long-standing fantasies about killing himself and others.”  The judge released Furrow.  Within a few months, Furrow went to Los Angeles, and did what he had told the hospital staff he fantasized about doing.  He shot up a Jewish community center, wounding five, and murdered an Asian-American mail carrier nearby.[5]

Others may not have made the threats explicit, but the evidence of mental illness was  clear enough.  Larry Gene Ashbrook wrote letters to local papers that “referred to encounters with the CIA, psychological warfare, assaults by co-workers and being drugged by police.”  In one letter, Ashbrook “said he thought he was a suspect in some Fort Worth area murders, including a 1985 sexual mutilation slaying” for which another man had already been executed.  Neighbors had long noticed his bizarre behavior—exposing himself in response to laughter that he thought (incorrectly) was at him.  A few weeks later, in 1999, Ashbrook went into a Forth Worth, Texas Baptist Church, screaming insults at their religion, killing seven people inside, then himself.[6]

Also in 1999, Russell Eugene Weston Jr. drove from Illinois to Washington D.C., where he shot two police officers at the U.S. Capitol.  After his arrest, Weston explained to the court appointed psychiatrist that he did so because he needed to get access to something called the “ruby satellite” locked in a Senate Office Building safe, to prevent himself from being infected with a disease called “Black Heva” spread by widespread cannibalism in the U.S. Government.  “The former mental patient told another doctor that he fatally shot officers Jacob J. Chestnut and John M. Gibson on July 24 because they were cannibals who were keeping him from the satellite. ...  On the tapes, he describes the ruby satellite system as a means of reversing time. Because of the satellite's ability to manipulate time, Weston told one doctor, Chestnut and Gibson are 'not permanently deceased.'”  Weston was hospitalized involuntarily for 53 days in Montana before this incident after threatening a neighbor, but then released.  According to Weston's parents, he had been losing the battle with schizophrenia for two decades when he went to the Capitol.[7]

I could give you dozens more examples of people with long histories of mental illness who went on a rampage, sometimes with a gun, sometimes with knives or swords, who, in 1960, would probably have been hospitalized before they killed anyone.  Our society used to lock up people who were mentally ill, even if they were not immediately dangerous to themselves or others.  A lot of people like Furrow, Ashbrook, and Weston, who were obviously dangerous, did not get the chance to escalate from dangerous fantasies and assaults to mass murder. 

This isn't just a belief or a hope; we have statistical evidence that backs it up.  Professor Bernard Harcourt of the University of Chicago Law School has been examining the question of mental illness commitments and its effects on murder rates.  When adding the rate of those institutionalized in mental hospitals to those housed in prisons, there is an astonishingly strong negative correlation between the percentage of the population that is institutionalized at any given time, and the murder rate.  Harcourt found that even when adjusting for changes in unemployment and the changing fraction of the population that was at their peak violent crime ages, the negative correlation remained strong—and did a better job of predicting both the 1960s rise in murder rates and the 1990s decline than other models.[8]

When Harcourt used state level data for institutionalization and murder rates, and controlled for more variables, the negative correlation remained for most states.  A few states (such as Florida) showed no significant correlation between institutionalization rates and murder rates—meaning that there was no apparent connection.  No state, however, showed a significant positive correlation; nowhere did increasing the institutionalization rate clearly cause an increase in murder rates.[9]

I mentioned that deinstitutionalization was a beautiful dream of the 1960s.  It was built on high hopes and good intentions.  For some people, without question, life was better outside the state mental hospitals of that era—some of which were warehouses whose care for their patients is still shocking to read about.  But this beautiful dream, like many 1960s fantasies, had severe consequences that we are paying for today.

As American citizens, we should be concerned about fixing this well-intentioned disaster.  We should care not just because of public safety, but because there are so many people like my brother whose descent into mental illness might have been stopped by an adequate early intervention—and the increasingly strict mental illness commitment laws pushed by the ACLU made this impossible.  The United Negro College Fund has a slogan that says, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  That could be the slogan for this tragic loss of human potential. 

As gun owners, we should also be concerned about correcting this problem.  While these recent mental illness fueled gun rampage killings have not done enormous damage to our gun rights, other such incidents played key roles in passage of the Brady Law, the 1989 and 1990 state assault weapon laws, and the 1994 federal assault weapons ban. 

In 1960, we had relatively few gun control laws because so many adults that could not be trusted with a gun were either in prison, or in a mental hospital.  Today, because of the deinstitutionalization movement, we are in the uncomfortable situation of having to choose: do we want dangerously mentally ill people to be hospitalized, where they don't have access to guns?  Or will we have a society with restrictive gun control laws that treats everyone like a mental patient who can't be trusted?



Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His sixth book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (Nelson Current, 2007), is available in bookstores.  His web site is

[1]    Rael Jean Isaac and Virginia C. Armat, Madness in the Streets: How Psychiatry and the Law Abandoned the Mentally Ill (New York: The Free Press, 1990), 4-6.

[2]    Nicholas Rango, “Exposure-Related Hypothermia in the United States: 1970-79,” American Journal of Public Health 74:10[October, 1984] 1159-60; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Compressed Mortality File 1979-1998. CDC WONDER On-line Database, compiled from Compressed Mortality File CMF 1968-1988, Series 20, No. 2A, 2000 and CMF 1989-1998, Series 20, No. 2E, 2003, ICD-9 E901.

[3]    Michelle Roberts, “Free to Die,” Portland Oregonian, December 30, 2002,, last accessed May 7, 2007; Michelle Roberts, “County watches woman starve herself to death; state leaves supervisors' missteps unpunished,” Portland Oregonian, December 29, 2002,, last accessed May 7, 2007.

[4]    Arthur Zitrin, Anne S. Hardesty, Eugene I. Burdock, and Ann K. Drossman, “Crime and Violence Among Mental Patients,” American Journal of Psychiatry 133[2]:142-9 (1976); Larry Sosowsky, “Crime and Violence Among Mental Patients Reconsidered in View of the New Legal Relationship Between the State and the Mentally Ill,” American Journal of Psychiatry 135[1]:33-42 (1978); Larry Sosowsky, “Explaining the Increased Arrest Rate Among Mental Patients: A Cautionary Note,” American Journal of Psychiatry 137[12]:1602-5 (1980); H. Richard Lamb and Linda E. Weinberger , “Persons With Severe Mental Illness in Jails and Prisons: A Review,” Psychiatric Services 49:483-92 (1998).

[5]    Jaxon Van Derbeken, Bill Wallace, and Stacy Finz, “L.A. Suspect Dreamed of Killing: History of erratic behavior, ties to neo-Nazi group,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 12, 1999, A1,, last accessed April 29, 2007.

[6]    Jim Yardley, “DEATHS IN A CHURCH: THE OVERVIEW; An Angry Mystery Man Who Brought Death,” New York Times, September 17, 1999,, last accessed April 29, 2007; “Tapes, letters reveal gunman's chilling actions, thoughts,” CNN, September 17, 1999,, last accessed April 29, 2007.

[7]    Bill Miller, “Capitol Shooter's Mind-Set Detailed,” Washington Post, April 23, 1999,, last accessed April 24, 2007.

[8]    Bernard E. Harcourt, “From the Asylum to the Prison: Rethinking the Incarceration Revolution,” Texas Law Review 84[2006]:1766-75.

[9]    Bernard E. Harcourt, "From the Asylum to the Prison: Rethinking the Incarceration Revolution - Part II: State Level Analysis" (March 2007). University of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 335 Available at SSRN: