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Apoptosis and Bodyscanners

Apoptosis is the word for programmed cell death.  There are a variety of reasons why a cell dies.  Sometimes it’s because it’s not meant to hang around for very long.  It outlives its usefulness.  Sometimes it’s because it gets a signal from another cell to self destruct after a physiological event, like a stroke.  Sometimes it’s an immune response.   The cell realizes it doesn’t belong and takes itself out.

And then there are young males with guns.  Maybe the reason we have had so many wars in the history of human beings is because young adult males are apoptotic. Maybe it’s all that testosterone that does weird things to their heads.  It’s either war or some kind of financial apocalypse brought on by uninhibited gambling and a “boys will be boys” attitude.  They self-destruct before they get too old by doing reckless things, like changing cars at 60 mph on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Maybe civilization wouldn’t function too well if the unstable humans among us were too numerous.

There was an “expert” on mass murderers on NPR tonight as I was driving home from Philly whose research must be funded by the NRA.  No, there’s no pattern of psychosis, he said, although Jared Loughner and the Aurora shooter would suggest otherwise. The University of Texas tower sniper knew there was something wrong with his head when he left his home the morning he carried out his massacre.  He even left a note to that effect., Turns out he was right.  He had a brain tumor that was discovered during his autopsy.

But, the expert argued,  some shooters are just depressed, which seemed a bit unfair to the depressed out there, and project the blame for their sad, sorry lives onto others, including little 5 year olds.  There’s no model we can derive that wouldn’t give us “false positives”.  Well, gee, I guess there’s nothing we can do then.  {{sigh}}

That “false positives” term reawakened a dormant pharma part of my past.  Sifting through data, looking for patterns and constructing models, um, that’s what we used to do for a living before the pharma lobby got rid of us and cried crocodile tears to any ambitious politician who would listen that they just couldn’t find good help anymore.

So, the expert says the model we construct to keep the shooters from apoptotic destruction with collateral damage would be useless because we would incorrectly identify some of the people to be shooters when they really aren’t.  These are the “false positives”. Well, that was a stupid thing to say because anyone who looks for models and patterns knows that that’s what you get on your first round of screening- false positives and hopefully, fewer false negatives.  That just narrows your set of possibles.  It’s not the final answer.  In your second round of screening, you might use a different assay to distinguish the hunters and right wing gun nuts from the truly disturbed.  Maybe you could use a questionnaire, ask them if they’ve lost a job lately, gone through a divorce, are in debt, have ever been hospitalized for mental illness.  Then, once you narrow down that set of potential shooters, put them through another round of screening.  Maybe that would be a mandatory interview or two with a psychologist to evaluate whether the gun owner shows possible indications of schizophrenia or personality disorders.

Where to start?  The first round of screening criteria might be males in young adulthood who have bought multiple guns, a larger than expected cache of ammunition and body armor.  The truly discriminating would want to collect what looks like inconsequential data for further study, like socio economic class, level of education, parents living, health insurance coverage, prior issuance of a hunting license, time between purchases, etc.  You never know when you’ll find a correlation to include or rule out someone.

And what’s the end point?  I’m guessing that if you found someone who was a young adult male gun owner with multiple guns, a cache of ammunition and body armor, who has recently undergone a job loss and has a history of mental illness, you would probably want to lure him to a safe location and take away his guns.  That’s just me.  I’m sure the NRA would be fine with a sternly worded letter to the effect that it is ungentlemanly to shoot unarmed 5 year olds.  You must wait until they retrieve their own weapons first.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what the motive is.  We’re not interested in who the future shooter is going to blame, their mother or the global conspiracy working against him.  We’re interested in the collection of descriptors that separate the healthy gun nut from the disturbed gun nut.

Meanwhile, in the wake of 9/11 and the “fear! fear! fear!” histrionics on Fox News and the evening news, the security industry has been having a field day installing cameras and electronic locks on school doors across the country.  But the fact that the office has to buzz you in has always looked like a joke to me.  With so many people coming and going each day, the office is bound to get lax and it doesn’t stop a teacher’s son from claiming that he has to drop off something he has stashed in his backpack to his mother in the kindergarten class.  (I’m just guessing.  It has crossed my mind before that if there was going to be a shooter, this is how he would do it.)  The electronic doors wouldn’t change the possibility that a shooter who is familiar to the victims could get in.  They’re probably only good for keeping a 3 man Al Qaeda cell out.

In Newton, the lockdown drills were well rehearsed but they didn’t save the 20 children who were killed once the shooter got in the building.  You might argue that the death toll would have been higher otherwise but I’m not convinced this is true.  It’s pretty typical for students to do the “duck and cover” thing and for teachers to lock the doors without any training whatsoever.

Walking to the bus stop with your 10 year old couldn’t have stopped this incident.  Preventing your 8 year olds from running around outside and playing with their friends wouldn’t have stopped this incident. Freaking out about parents who help out in school without a background check wouldn’t have stopped this incident.  Putting your kid’s childhood in permanent lockdown for the duration of their formative years won’t have stopped this incident.  We can’t barricade our kids forever.  They need to be learn to navigate the world without our help.

But I’m betting that the security industry will cash in big from the bodyscanners that frantic Fox News watching parents are soon going to demand to be purchased by every school district in every state of the nation.  Well, except for Michigan where it will soon become perfectly fine to walk into a school with a concealed gun. The security industry has been very good at treating children like prisoners under permanent siege.  It’s been a very lucrative business model even if some of the expensive security fixes turn out to be nothing more than emotional placebos for disaster porn soaked parents.

What would have stopped this incident?  I don’t know but I’m willing to start with screening prospective gun and body armor buyers and taking away their tools of self destruction.  I’d rather be left with a bunch of false positives in round 1 than 20 dead children after round 100.

See Lenore Skenazy at FreeRangeKids for a somewhat similar perspective.

Descent into madness

Before

After


The New York Times:

The account by Mr. Loughner’s friend, a rare extended interview with someone close to Mr. Loughner in recent years, added some details to the emerging portrait of the suspect and his family.

“He was a nihilist and loves causing chaos, and that is probably why he did the shooting, along with the fact he was sick in the head,” said Zane Gutierrez, 21, who was living in a trailer outside Tucson and met Mr. Loughner sometimes to shoot at cans for target practice.

[...]

The new details from Mr. Gutierrez about Mr. Loughner — including his philosophy of anarchy and his expertise with a handgun, suggest that the earliest signs of behavior that may have ultimately led to the attacks started several years ago.

Mr. Gutierrez said his friend had become obsessed with the meaning of dreams and their importance. He talked about reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s book “The Will To Power” and embraced ideas about the corrosive, destructive effects of nihilism — a belief in nothing. And every day, his friend said, Mr. Loughner would get up and write in his dream journal, recording the world he experienced in sleep and its possible meanings.

“Jared felt nothing existed but his subconscious,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “The dream world was what was real to Jared, not the day-to-day of our lives.”

And that dream world, his friend said, could be downright strange.

“He would ask me constantly, ‘Do you see that blue tree over there?’ He would admit to seeing the sky as orange and the grass as blue,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “Normal people don’t talk about that stuff.”

He added that Mr. Loughner “used the word hollow to describe how fake the real world was to him.”


As more and more details emerge about Jared Loughner it is becoming clear that the warning signs were there long before he went on his murderous spree. I can’t help but feel that the system failed somewhere.

The story I linked to above reports that the police had been to the Loughner home on more than one occasion but it’s not yet clear why they were there. There are rumors going round that the Pima County Sheriff’s Office may have known more about Loughner than they are willing to admit.

I think we need to examine closely the last few years of Jared Loughner’s life to see what could and/or should have been done that might have prevented this horrible tragedy.

There is nothing political or partisan about trying to improve our nation’s mental health services. I’m not a mental health professional but some of our readers are and others have had close personal experiences with mentally ill friends and family members.

I’d like to see some informed discussion in the comments about what is wrong with our current system and what we can do to fix it, especially in regards to early identification and treatment of people with mental illnesses.

NOTE:

This post is NOT about political rhetoric and its relevance to this tragedy. We’ve had those discussions and I’m sure we’ll have them again. This post is about mental illness. Stay on topic or your comments will be deleted.


UPDATE:

Sometimes you write a post and hit “publish” and within minutes you find something that fits right in with the topic. From William Galston at The New Republic:

The story repeats itself, over and over. A single narrative connects the Unabomber, George Wallace shooter Arthur Bremmer, Reagan shooter John Hinckley, the Virginia Tech shooter—all mentally disturbed loners who needed to be committed and treated against their will. But the law would not permit it.

Starting in the 1970s, civil libertarians worked to eliminate involuntary commitment or, that failing, to raise the standards and burden of proof so high that few individuals would meet it. Important decisions by the Supreme Court and subordinate courts gave individuals new protections, including a constitutional right to refuse psychotropic medication. A few states have tried to push back in constitutionally acceptable ways, but efforts such as California’s Laura’s Law, designed to make it easier to force patients to take medication, have been stymied by civil rights concerns and lack of funding.

We need legal reform to shift the balance in favor of protecting the community, especially against those who are armed and deranged. This means two changes in particular. First, those who acquire credible evidence of an individual’s mental disturbance should be required to report it to both law enforcement authorities and the courts, and the legal jeopardy for failing to do so should be tough enough to ensure compliance. Parents, school authorities, and other involved parties should be made to understand that they have responsibilities to the community as a whole, not just to family members or to their own student body. While embarrassment and reluctance to get involved are understandable sentiments, they should not be allowed to drive conduct when the public safety is at stake. We’re not necessarily cramming these measures down anyone’s throat: I’ve known many families who were desperate for laws that would help them do what they knew needed to be done for their adult children, and many college administrators who felt that their hands were tied.

Second, the law should no longer require, as a condition of involuntary incarceration, that seriously disturbed individuals constitute a danger to themselves or others, let alone a “substantial” or “imminent” danger, as many states do. A delusional loss of contact with reality should be enough to trigger a process that starts with multiple offers of voluntary assistance and ends with involuntary treatment, including commitment if necessary. How many more mass murders and assassinations do we need before we understand that the rights-based hyper-individualism of our laws governing mental illness is endangering the security of our community and the functioning of our democracy?


Tuesday: Guns for everyone (and bullets for every gun) edition

As realists we know that here in the United States we aren’t ever going to outlaw private ownership of guns. But, you might (realistically) think that this Tuesday morning — nearly 3 days after the terrible shooting in Tucson — there would be a steady stream of articles calling for more serious regulation of the guns in this country.

There isn’t. Apparently Gun Control is off the table.


With my background in programming and maintaining databases I should have known better … but I didn’t. Even with all my knowledge, I thought there was something almost automatic about that database of people who shouldn’t be able to buy guns.

I was totally wrong:

After Tucson: Why Are the Mentally Ill Still Bearing Arms?

As far back as the Gun Control Act of 1968, there have been federal laws against selling weapons to mentally ill individuals. But the Virginia Tech tragedy in 2007, in which the shooter Cho Seung-Hui was able to pass two federal gun background checks even after a state court ruled that he was dangerously mentally ill, highlighted the need for better record-keeping and interagency communication to enforce those laws. (More than 30 people died in the incident.) Saying that unstable individuals are disqualified from buying firearms is meaningless if the national background-check system, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), has no record of their illness. That’s why the Brady organization was proud to announce on Friday, just a day before the Tucson shootings, that the number of records of mental illness in the NICS database had more than doubled since Virginia Tech, to more than 1 million records.
. . .
But there’s a problem with that: there should be more than 2 million records in that database, if all the states cooperated fully. According to the Brady organization’s records, Arizona was not even the worst offender — at least the state ramped up its reporting somewhat in the wake of Virginia Tech. But still, Arizona’s own estimate is that the state has 121,700 records of disqualifying mental illness that should go into the NICS database. From the beginning of 2008 to October 2010, however, it submitted only 4,465 records. Worse than Arizona were states like Louisiana, which submitted only one record during that time frame, and Nebraska and Pennsylvania, which didn’t submit any.


I just don’t get this.  We’re willing – sometimes eager – to regulate all sorts of things (drugs, speech, activities) but, don’t even think about controlling guns:

Support for Gun Control Has Dropped in Recent Years

In the wake of Saturday’s shooting in Arizona, there are likely to be new polls out this week measuring the public’s support for stricter gun control laws. Until they surface, it is worth noting that support for stricter gun control has significantly dropped over the last couple of decades, and there is little evidence to suggest that major gun crimes change opinions on the issue.
. . .
The number supporting stricter laws has been gradually declining over the last 20 years. When Gallup first asked the question in 1990, 78 percent favored stricter laws. That was down to 60 percent in 1999, 54 percent in 2004 and 44 percent in 2009 and 2010.

The 1999 Columbine shootings and 2007 Virginia Tech shootings appear to have had little, if any, effect on these views.

The scary thing?  Almost half of us don’t support the national ban on assault weapons!!

There is, however, substantially more support for a ban on assault weapons and semiautomatic firearms, like the one used in Saturday’s shootings. In a 2009 Times/CBS News poll, 54 percent of Americans, including about half of respondents who have a gun in their home, said they favored a nationwide assault weapons ban.


A Right to Bear Glocks?

If Loughner had gone to the Safeway carrying a regular pistol, the kind most Americans think of when they think of the right to bear arms, Giffords would probably still have been shot and we would still be having that conversation about whether it was a sane idea to put her Congressional district in the cross hairs of a rifle on the Internet.

But we might not have lost a federal judge, a 76-year-old church volunteer, two elderly women, Giffords’s 30-year-old constituent services director and a 9-year-old girl who had recently been elected to the student council at her school and went to the event because she wanted to see how democracy worked.

Loughner’s gun, a 9-millimeter Glock, is extremely easy to fire over and over, and it can carry a 30-bullet clip. It is “not suited for hunting or personal protection,” said Paul Helmke, the president of the Brady Campaign. “What it’s good for is killing and injuring a lot of people quickly.”


Do you ever read news stories and see a little movie as you read it?  Since reading this, I keep imagining the scene where Arizona Legislators debated and passed the legislation allowing guns in bars:

In Tucson, Guns Have a Broad Constituency

Arizona’s gun laws stand out as among the most permissive in the country. Last year, Arizona became only the third state that does not require a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The state also enacted another measure that allowed workers to take their guns to work, even if their workplaces banned firearms, as long as they kept them in their locked vehicles.

In 2009, a law went into effect allowing people with concealed-weapons permits to take their guns into restaurants and bars.


And I’ll close today’s list with these thoughts from Bob Herbert:

A Flood Tide of Murder

Excluding the people killed in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more than 150,000 Americans have been murdered since the beginning of the 21st century. This endlessly proliferating parade of death, which does not spare women or children, ought to make our knees go weak. But we never even notice most of the killings. Homicide is white noise in this society.

The overwhelming majority of the people who claim to be so outraged by last weekend’s shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others — six of them fatally — will take absolutely no steps, none whatsoever, to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. And similar tragedies are coming as surely as the sun makes its daily appearance over the eastern horizon because this is an American ritual: the mowing down of the innocents.

Politicizing a tragedy


This is wrong:

One veteran Democratic operative, who blames overheated rhetoric for the shooting, said President Barack Obama should carefully but forcefully do what his predecessor did.

“They need to deftly pin this on the tea partiers,” said the Democrat. “Just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people.”


Notice that there is no concern about the facts, just the political calculation of how to take advantage of an atrocity.

So what if Sarah and the Tea Partiers had nothing to do with it, let’s blame them anyway.”

Sick.

BTW – Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols WERE associated with the militia movement and anti-government people. Bill Clinton didn’t try to pin the bombing on Bob Dole and the Republicans.


UPDATE:

Just so we’re clear, I’m not feeling sorry for the Tea Party or Sarah Palin. I think this is bad strategery and will backfire.

If the evidence showed that Loughner was a Tea Partying Palinista who was motivated by her target list then I would say go ahead and rub her nose in it.

But that is not what the evidence shows.


2007 letter from Giffords found in Loughner’s safe

Jared Lee Loughner


From NBC affiliate KPNX-12 in Arizona:

Letter from Giffords found in safe of murder suspect

A letter from Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords found in the safe of the home of accused gunman Jared Loughner thanks him for attending a 2007 “Congress on your Corner” event.

Handwriting on an envelope said, “I planned ahead” and “My assassination.”

It contained Giffords’ name, along with what appeared to be Loughner’s signature.

Those facts were contained as part of a federal complaint filed in U.S. District Court that charges Loughner with two counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder at Giffords’ “Congress on your Corner” event on Saturday.

This matches up with information we heard yesterday:

Caitie Parker, a former classmate, said Loughner had met Gabrielle Giffords at an event in 2007. He “asked her a question and he told me she was ‘stupid and unintelligent’,” she said. Clarence Dupnik, the Pima County Sheriff, said that Loughner had been in contact with Miss Giffords’s office about the event.

From what I have read about paranoid schizophrenia it is not uncommon for them to fixate on someone. It sounds like Loughner may have been fixated on Giffords a year before Sarah Palin ever came on the national scene.

Here is a copy of the criminal complaint filed against Loughner. From the complaint:

Some of the evidence seized from that located included a letter in a safe, addressed to “Mr. Jared Loughney” at 7741 N. Soledad Avenue, from Congresswoman Giffords, on Congressional stationary, dated August 30, 2007, thanking him for attending a “Congress on your Corner” event at the Foothills Mall in Tuscon. Also recovered in the safe was an envelope with handwriting on the envelope stating “I planned ahead,” and “My assassination,” and the name “Giffords,” along with what appears to be Loughner’s signature.

Sadly, I expect that this information will make no difference to the people determined to “prove” that yesterday’s tragedy was Sarah Palin’s fault.

(h/t 1539days)


Crazy don’t make sense


A few years back here in Merced this guy took off all his clothes and broke into the house of some people he didn’t know. Then he started stabbing the children that lived there with a pitchfork. He killed two children and injured a third before the cops showed up and shot him dead.

We have no idea why he did it. He had no history of mental illness and the autopsy revealed no drugs in his system or any brain abnormalities. Some things just don’t have a reason.

Yesterday a guy named Jared Lee Loughner took a gun to a political event and started shooting. He killed six people and wounded thirteen others. His victims included a federal judge, a congresswoman and a nine year-old girl.

I don’t know why Jared Loughner committed that horrible crime. I doubt we’ll ever really know for sure. It’s one thing to wonder if his motives were connected to political events and rhetoric. It’s another to try to politicize the atrocity even if it means jamming a square peg in a round hole.



Absent more evidence I don’t think it’s fair to blame Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, the Tea Party movement or anyone else except Jared Loughner for what happened. On the other hand, I agree that it would be a good thing if EVERYONE toned down the violent rhetoric and imagery.





When Timothy McVeigh was arrested he was wearing a shirt that said “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” I don’t recall anyone blaming Thomas Jefferson.


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