Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Instant" Karma

Former Secretary of Labor and University of California professor Robert Reich pretty much nails it:

In the United States, if you are seriously depressed, you can purchase anti-depressive drugs like Prozac, but only if you have a prescription from a doctor. Anti-depressants are enormously beneficial to millions of people but they are also potentially dangerous if used improperly. So, you have to see a doctor and get an assessment before you can go to a drug store and purchase one.

But in the United States, in places like Virginia, a seriously depressed or deranged person can walk into a store and buy a semi-automatic handgun and a box of ammunition. All you need is two forms of identification. You don’t need permission from a doctor or counselor or anyone in the business of screening people to make sure [you’re] fit to have a gun.

We can debate the relative benefits and dangers of anti-depressants and semi-automatic handguns, but if 30,000 Americans were killed each year by anti-depressants, as they are by handguns, anti-depressants would be even more strictly regulated. So why aren't handguns? Consider the politics.

Funny (that would be funny strange, not funny ha-ha) enough, it appears Reich wrote his commentary (which also aired on Marketplace) before the full extent of Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui’s documented psychiatric problems were revealed to the press. Cho, it turns out, was not one of those stereotypical “nice, quiet boys” that everyone scratches their head about after things go to all to hell. No, this was the guy that everyone expected to do something like this. Two female students had complained to police after Cho harassed them via phone calls and text messages, a roommate thought him suicidal, a creative writing teacher brought Cho’s violent plays and stories to the attention of University administrators, and poet Nikki Giovanni threatened to quit the VaTech faculty if Cho wasn’t removed from her class because he was scaring away other students.

In fact, we learned on Wednesday that Cho had been involuntarily detained in a mental facility when it was determined by a psychiatric professional that he presented “an imminent danger to self or others.”

Much attention is being paid to, and much is being made of, the fact that Virginia Tech administrators had not collected all of these incidents in some sort of central file—as if somehow someone in the academic community should have been able to prevent the shooting spree that killed 33, including Cho, himself. While I will be one of the first to advocate for more awareness about mental illness, better mental health services, and easier access to them, the absence of a coordinated University response to Cho is not what facilitated this massacre, and not the most disturbing part of Wednesday’s revelations.

Instead of second-guessing the individual judgments of teachers and administrators—many of whom did their best to intervene—why don’t we focus on this fact: Cho Seung-Hui, a young man with documented mental problems, a man declared “an imminent danger to self or others,” walked into a Roanoke gun shop, and, moments later, walked out with a gun.

In a country of lax gun laws, Virginia has some of the laxest. Virginia has no gun registration, no safety training requirements for gun ownership, no restrictions on the kinds of guns sold, no mandatory waiting period for gun purchase, and performs only the most perfunctory “instant” background checks. Pretty much all you need, as Reich observed, is two forms of ID and you’re good to go. . . and kill.

Almost all Republicans, and an unfortunate number of Democrats, have fought long and hard against real background checks as a prerequisite for gun purchase. Early drafts of the “Brady Bill” suggested a waiting period of a week to allow for a thorough background check; that was negotiated down to five days by the time the bill was signed into law back in late 1993. But part of the law was struck down in 1997, and the waiting period provision expired in 1998.

The Brady waiting period was replaced with the so-called National Instant Check System (NICS) nine years ago, allowing a purchase to be approved in minutes if a check of a federal criminal database shows no felony violations. But even the NICS law has all kinds of exceptions that allow states and private sellers to skirt background checks entirely.

It was gun-loving Virginia’s take on the “instant” check that allowed Cho to instantly obtain a 9 mm Glock semiautomatic, extra clips, and many, many rounds of ammunition. (Cho also bought a .22 caliber handgun at a pawnshop, and additional ammunition at a Wal-Mart—in both of those cases, it was also cash and carry.) It was that instantly purchased murder kit that allowed Cho to turn his Blacksburg stomping grounds into a killing field.

. . . .

Coincidentally, but not really that coincidentally, Wednesday also saw Republicans in the Senate rally to prevent a vote on a Democratic-sponsored revision of last year’s Medicare Drug “reform” that would have allowed the government to negotiate down the prices it pays for prescription drugs. So, for the foreseeable future, the price of Prozac, and all those other anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, statins, blood pressure medications, chemotherapy drugs, etc., will remain artificially astronomical.

Gun prices, however, are still subject to the whims of the open market.

And, Wednesday also saw what five Republican-appointed Catholic men have to say to any woman who makes the mistake of needing a medical procedure called “intact dilation and extraction”—namely, “too fucking bad.” However, as Justice Kennedy said in his majority opinion, if you or your doctor really think you need this immediate medical procedure to preserve your health and well-being, you could always “assert an individual need for a health exception” or challenge the decision again in court. . . and wait the months or years it might take to get a final decision.

However, if you need a gun, maybe to kill somebody’s living, breathing, walking, talking son or daughter, well, you can get that in an instant.

And, also not that coincidentally, Wednesday was another murderous day in Iraq. A series of bombings in Baghdad killed upwards of 170—the deadliest day of many deadly days this year. As military commanders now admit, the Bush surge escalation has actually resulted in a higher number of civilian casualties.

Meanwhile, here at home, we are starting day four of wall-to-wall media coverage of the massacre of 30 college students and two of their teachers, while we pay scant attention not just to the daily horrors in Iraq, but to the roughly 80 people who die each and every day in this country from gun violence.

All of this—the easy access to guns, the poor access to medical and mental health care, the expensive prescription drugs, the disrespect for women and the doctors that try to help them, the ongoing death and destruction in Iraq—all of this can be attributed to what Republicans like to call their “culture of life.” Consider the politics, indeed.

But maybe all of that is just too much carnage to process—too many connections to make—so let me leave you with a simpler equation, again from Robert Reich:

In [the] United States, many people who are seriously depressed can’t afford to see a doctor, let alone get a prescription. Unlike every other advanced nation, we do not provide universal health care, or ready access to mental health services. But unlike every other advanced nation, we do allow almost anyone [to] buy a handgun.

(cross-posted to Daily Kos)

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