Monday, April 30, 2007

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

One of the cable channels that runs oddball documentaries had one about the MPAA's rating system with the title above. Now, I'm not entirely happy with MPAA's rating system. I've seen movies rated PG-13 for violence that seemed completely indistinguishable from other movies rated PG for violence. Roger Ebert's review of Hannibal (2001) makes a very trenchant observation about the utter inability of a movie to get an NC-17 rating for violence, no matter how gross and gratuitous, and Ebert's obvious revulsion at it:
Many still alive will recall when a movie like this could not be contemplated, let alone filmed and released. So great is our sophistication that we giggle when earlier generations would have retched. The brain-eating scene is "special effects," the face-eating is shot in deep shadow and so quickly cut that you barely see the dogs having their dinner, and Julianne Moore explains in interviews that the story is a fable of good and evil (although she cautions that she "actually talked to my shrink about it").
The MPAA rating system also isn't very consistent--and after Shrek 2's transgendered trashiness, I am convinced that the rating system is utterly defective for figuring out what films are appropriate for small children.

I share the apparent concern of the filmmaker that unrealistic violence is given too low of a rating compared to realistic violence. I am concerned that at least some kids may fall into the "violence is a video game" attitude when nothing too terribly serious results from guns blazing everywhere. But there is a real danger that regular exposure to very graphic, very detailed violence may have a desensitizing effect as well.

This may not make some people happy, but I think that even relatively graphic portrayals of a couple making love (as distinguished from having sex) is far less corrosive to the 8-17 set than the repeated portrayal of extremely graphic violence--or even the repeated portrayal of unrealistic violence. But of course, Hollywood has far too much interest in something kinky, something perverse, something degrading (almost always to women), and what seems to make Hollywood happiest of all--something that combines sex and violence.

The more I watched of This Film Is Not Yet Rated, however, the more disturbed I became with the apparent major concern of the filmmaker and many of the people they interviewed, including a self-described First Amendment lawyer--that the MPAA rating system is a form of "censorship." It is nothing of the sort. Censorship is a governmental imposition, either through prior restraint or, in a rather indirect way, through punishment after the fact. The First Amendment has nothing to do with a purely private body like the MPAA. To my knowledge, even state laws that regulate what materials may be shown or sold to minors do not use the MPAA rating, but rather have rather specific definitions of what is prohibited.

As near as I can tell, the big objection--the big point of this documentary--was that the MPAA's rating system, which is from my perspective way too loose for anyone raising kids to make good decisions, is blocking the access of filmmakers to American culture. What?

If you don't want your film to have an MPAA rating, it isn't required. There are lots of art houses that will run it. If the MPAA gives it an NC-17 rating, this will limit your ability to get into a lot of theaters around the country. My only reaction is: "So?" Movies made in the 1940s and 1950s managed to address some rather significant and serious topics by the use of subtle writing. For example, the sequence in Spartacus where the slave's new master talks about how some people prefer oysters, and some prefer clams--and some prefer both--and immediately thereafter, the slave played by Tony Curtis runs away to join the slave revolt.

I'm sure that the vast majority of young people that saw Spartacus when it came out didn't get the implication of that discussion--and that's okay. There comes a moment when you can understand this, and if you don't? No big loss. But it is a reminder that even with the standards that the MPAA operated under back then, it was possible to write serious works without being graphic.

Ditto for Casablanca. There's not a bit of dialog that tells you how intimate the relationship was between Rick and Ilsa back in Paris, but the smoldering looks that Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman exchange tell you that they had gotten a bit beyond holding hands--without hammering the audience over the head about it. Subtlety--a concept that could be reintroduced into filmmaking, without the MPAA's nasty ratings monopoly being any real obstacle to the business.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Movies I've Seen Recently

Shining Through (1992) with Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas. It's a World War II spy movie (which you learn at the very beginning, so I'm not giving anything away). It was better than I was expecting. There's a bit too much modernity that creeps into a lot of movies about this period, and maybe Melanie Griffith's character is a bit too aggressive for the normal female of that time--but other than that flaw, it's a pretty entertaining, almost plausible story.

I guess part of why I found it interesting is that I worked with a guy many years ago who worked for OSS during World War II, and went into Germany. The tale he told emphasized how well he was trained and equipped (right down to authentic-looking German laundry marks on his underwear)--and not him at all. That was one of the reasons that I was prepared to believe him. People that make up stories like that usually make themselves, their courage, or their intelligence the center of the story. This guy was quite the opposite.

I, Robot is a bit more recent--one of those movies that I was mildly interested in seeing, but never got around to it. The title comes from an Isaac Asimov story, and the Three Laws of Robotics come from Asimov's robotic short stories, but the rest of the story doesn't seem to come from any Asimov story that I recall. It is, in most respects, too sophisticated and thoughtful.

I don't want to spoil the plot, but if you saw the previews you know that Will Smith plays a police homicide detective a few years in the future investigating a murder--and one perhaps committed by a robot. The rest of the story is what I imagine a Macintosh fanatic with paranoia might construct if he found out Microsoft was going into the robot business.

There is a surprisingly thoughtful set of questions posed by the movie about what constitutes a soul, free will vs. determinism, the importance of keeping the population armed, the dangers of concentrations of power, and when a single company becomes too dominant on the economy. (Sorry, Microsofties!) It also has so many twists and turns that I kept changing my mind about who the bad guy was right up to the last few minutes.

Will Smith being in it, there are a couple of subtle Christian messages scattered in the movie. At least the version that I saw on cable television was astonishingly clean. There are a few very, very subtle double entendres that small kids won't catch--just about as clean as a movie as gets made anymore that isn't animated. There is a bit of violence in it, but nothing terribly detailed or gross, since most of the violence involves robots, and robots don't bleed.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

NAACP Official Takes the High Road

I am so glad to see this guy taking the right position, and calling this tragedy what it is--a failure of the black community to deal with a moral failure that is entirely within its power to fix:
CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland NAACP responded Friday to criticism surrounding the shooting death of a teenage boy during a robbery.

NAACP President George Forbes and Cleveland Councilman Zach Reed said the black community failed 15-year-old Arthur Buford, NewsChannel5 reported.

They said Buford was wrong for allegedly trying to rob Damon Wells at gunpoint on Saturday.

Wells opened fire and killed Buford at East 134th Street and Kinsman. Police said Wells had a valid weapons permit and used the gun in self-defense.

"Then you have a 26-year-old young man who had every right to protect his life, protect his fiance and protect his property. But he has to life with the fact that for the rest of his lie he shot a 15-year-old boy," said Reed.

"That man had a right to do what he did. If he didn't do it, we'd be sitting here today mourning him rather than the 15-year-old," said Forbes.

They pointed out that homicide is the leading cause of death for black men 15 to 24.

Forbes said that if we saw those kind of numbers for an illness, the community would be outraged.

He said the community should also treat this as an epidemic.
I remember some years ago the NAACP (I think) ran a commercial very briefly that showed a Klan rally somewhere, and then showed the number of black people that various hate groups had killed in the previous year--and then a stereotypical black gang member, and the number of black people that this bunch had killed in the previous year. It was like 10 to 10,000. There was a storm of protest--but the point was made: too much focus on white supremacists, not enough on the criminals who are destroying the black community.
Point-Prevalence Bias

I was looking for current data on homelessness and mental illness, since it has been known since at least the 1980s that many homeless people are mentally ill--and this is likely a causal factor in their homelessness. While hunting, I found this article about something called "point-prevalence bias" in homelessness statistics. What in the heck is that?

If you measure the number and characteristics of the homeless at a particular point in time (say, the night of December 15), you will get everyone that was homeless that night. People that are chronically homeless--the person who has been homeless for several years--will be overrepresented compared to those who are homeless for only a few weeks. This is "point-prevalence bias."

If you are having some trouble understanding why this is bias, so am I. Yes, it means that the chronically homeless will be given more weight in the final results than measuring what they call "lifetime" homelessness--how many and what sorts of people have ever been homeless. In reading the paper, I smell something that sounds rather like, "We're having trouble getting enough sympathy for homeless people because the surveys show that more than half have histories of jail or prison and a big fraction of the rest have been in psychiatric hospitals, so let's emphasize the people who are short-term homeless, even though this is at any given time, a small fraction of the homeless population." It also looks like they are trying to create a huge population of people who have ever been homeless, even if only for a few days. It smells rather like Mitch Snyder's opt-repeated by journalists, "three and half million homeless--and growing" claim of the 1980s.

By the way, I was surprised at the large percentage of this "point" studies that show jail or prison lockup. I learned something very interesting about this from talking to my daughter, who is working on finding housing for homeless families who are at the Booth Family Shelter. Here in Boise, the vast majority of landlords--even landlords who are cooperating on helping find permanent housing for these homeless families--will not rent to people with felony convictions in the last ten years, or were evicted and owe lots of back rent.

I could understand the felony convictions stigma. While not every felony is something horrifying, trying to distinguish murder/robbery/kidnapping from turning back a car odometer/passing bad checks might be a bit of a struggle, and landlords don't want trouble.

The evictions and back rent stigma, however, surprised me. My daughter tells me that some people owe many months of back rent from evictions. This tells me that there are landlords in this area who are not heartless. It appears that Idaho is one of those states where five days after you fail to pay the rent, the landlord can evict you. So if you owe many months of back rent, it means that your previous landlord must have accepted excuses for not getting rent paid far beyond what the law requires.
It's Nice To Break The Wires

You've probably seen the commercial for wireless notebooks with the marionette who finally gets to break the wires. That's how I feel! I'm out on the bad patio, as the sun sets, looking down on Horseshoe Bend's lights, while working on the next book. I just returned from a jaunt up Highway 55 towards Banks, with the top off the Corvette, enjoying the warm wind and the smell of the pine forest. Life is good!

UPDATE: But once the sun was down, it started to get cold, and then the coyotes started to howl, so in I went!
Mental Illness and Violence

I was looking for information on the extent of mental illness among prison inmates, and I found this review of the literature in the journal Psychiatric Services. It reports that "6 to 15 percent of persons in city and county jails and 10 to 15 percent of persons in state prisons have severe mental illness." This is consistent with the recent work by Bernard Harcourt that I have mentioned previously showing that there is a strong negative correlation between institutionalization rates (mental hospitals plus prisons) and homicide rates.

As the grand experiment of deinstitutionalization took place, murder rates rose. As the percentage of the population in prison rose, murder rates fell. This was even true when Professor Harcourt repeated the study using state level data. While there were a few oddball states such as Florida where the institutionalization rate seems to have no connection to murder rates, this is the exception. Almost every state had a statistically significant negative correlation, and no state had a statistically significant positive correlation.

It doesn't take a genius to see that prison is a bad substitute for mental health treatment. Some mental illnesses can be treated. Some illnesses can be brought under control (such as bipolar disorder); some can be treated at least for the symptoms (such as schizophrenia). I doubt that mental hospitals are cheaper per year per patient than prisons, but if you can treat a patient to the point where he isn't a danger to others or himself, this seems preferable to throwing a patient into a prison instead--and might, if we can figure out a way to supervise the patient's medications upon release, save some money.

Anyway, while digging around, I found a number of interesting papers about the question of violent crimes and the mentally ill. If you read most newspapers, almost any time that an article discusses mental illness, the reporter will insert a comment to the effect that the mentally ill are no more violent than anyone else. Why do they always insert this? Because this is now conventional wisdom, and like most conventional wisdom that reporters feel the need to insert in their articles, it appears to be incorrect.

This 1976 article the American Journal of Psychiatry studied patients released from Bellevue's psychiatric division in New York City, and found that they were more likely to be arrested for rape, aggravated assault, and burglary than the general population of the "catchment area" for Bellevue. They were less likely to be arrested for murder and robbery, although not much less. This study seems a bit deficient in statistical significance information. This was contrary to a number of earlier studies that found murder and robbery rates higher among released mental patients.

This 1978 study examined San Mateo County mental patients
, and found that they nine times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes than the general population of the county--and for some crimes, like murder, as much as 55 times as likely to be arrested. Now, it is possible that mentally ill people come to the attention of police, and are more likely to be arrested for that reason, but 55 times as likely? I think Harcourt's negative correlation is beginning to look correct.

There are some significant differences based on age. Not surprisingly, the mentally ill in their 50s and 60s are not terribly likely to be arrested for violent crimes--much as is true in the general population. Not all forms of mental illness seem equivalently likely to produce violent behavior. But it does appear that much of the traditional view of the mentally ill--as having a higher potential danger to public safety--has some basis in fact.

You may be wondering why that 1976 study in New York City found murder and aggravated assault rates among mentally ill comparable to the rest of the population. At the risk of being quoted out of context by a gun control advocate: there is a possibility that New York City's strict gun control laws make it sufficiently difficult for mentally ill persons released from the hospital to get hold of a gun, reducing their murder rates relative to, for example, the San Mateo County population in that 1978 paper. Aggravated assault charges usually involve a weapon--and I suppose that the inability to get hold of a gun might explain why that rate was about the same as the general population in New York City. I find this a plausible explanation because one of the arguments for why New York City had to pass its 1967 Gun Control Law was that "crazy people" (as some New York politician I saw once explain it) were buying guns and going immediately into the streets and shooting people.

Still, this suggests that gun control laws make all of New York rather like a mental hospital--one that limits access to deadly weapons. It might have more sense to have asked why mentally ill people were being released to the streets to live on steam grates.
Houston in September

One of the colleges in the area is organizing having me come to debate the meaning of the Second Amendment with a prominent law professor on the other side. (I'm not identifying him yet until we get everything finalized.) When we get the details finalized, I'll be trying to organize other events in the area as well.
Carbon Indulgence Fraud

At least when Pope Leo X was selling papal indulgences
, we got St. Peter's Basilica out of it (along with paying the bribery debts of the Archbishop of Mainz). This article from the April 25, 2007 Financial Times is unsurprising:
Companies and individuals rushing to go green have been spending millions on “carbon credit” projects that yield few if any environmental benefits.

A Financial Times investigation has uncovered widespread failings in the new markets for greenhouse gases, suggesting some organisations are paying for emissions reductions that do not take place.

Others are meanwhile making big profits from carbon trading for very small expenditure and in some cases for clean-ups that they would have made anyway.

The growing political salience of environmental politics has sparked a “green gold rush”, which has seen a dramatic expansion in the number of businesses offering both companies and individuals the chance to go “carbon neutral”, offsetting their own energy use by buying carbon credits that cancel out their contribution to global warming.

The burgeoning regulated market for carbon credits is expected to more than double in size to about $68.2bn by 2010, with the unregulated voluntary sector rising to $4bn in the same period.

The FT investigation found:

■ Widespread instances of people and organisations buying worthless credits that do not yield any reductions in carbon emissions.

■ Industrial companies profiting from doing very little – or from gaining carbon credits on the basis of efficiency gains from which they have already benefited substantially.

■ Brokers providing services of questionable or no value.

■ A shortage of verification, making it difficult for buyers to assess the true value of carbon credits.

■ Companies and individuals being charged over the odds for the private purchase of European Union carbon permits that have plummeted in value because they do not result in emissions cuts.

Francis Sullivan, environment adviser at HSBC, the UK’s biggest bank that went carbon-neutral in 2005, said he found “serious credibility concerns” in the offsetting market after evaluating it for several months.

“The police, the fraud squad and trading standards need to be looking into this. Otherwise people will lose faith in it,” he said.
In Spite of the Virginia Tech Massacre? Or Because of It?

The Kansas legislature overrode Governor Sibelius's veto:
TOPEKA - Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' veto of a bill preventing local governments from imposing additional restrictions on Kansans carrying concealed guns was overridden Friday by the Legislature, allowing it to become law.

It's the second veto of the Democratic governor to be overridden by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Last year, lawmakers overrode her veto of the bill creating the concealed gun law.

The override was completed when the Senate voted 30-10 -- three more than the necessary two-thirds majority. On Thursday, the House overrode the veto on a 98-26 vote.

The governor's office had no immediate comment.

The bill was a reaction to efforts by some cities, especially in Johnson County, to impose their own requirements.

Supporters say the state should set the requirements for concealed guns so they will be uniform statewide, avoiding the possibility of someone unknowingly violating some local concealed gun ordinance that goes beyond state law.
In a society that doesn't lock up dangerously mentally ill people until they have killed someone, and where Congresscritters are talking about the dangers of terrorists obtaining guns, the last thing we need is more victim-disarmament zones.
Here's a Bill That Is Too Dangerous

I agree that there is some real danger of terrorists buying guns, and if I had confidence in the integrity and intelligence of the Justice Department, I wouldn't object. But this administration hasn't shown that its Justice Department can be trusted to do its job, and I sure wouldn't trust President Clinton's Justice Department to show integrity or intelligence:
WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department and a Northeastern Democrat have formed a rare alliance intended to restrict gun sales to terror suspects.

The bill, introduced late Thursday by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., after two years of study produced an endorsement by the Justice Department, would give the attorney general power to block gun sales to persons on terrorism watch lists. In some instances, the attorney general could let a sale go through - for example, when stopping the sale would hinder a terrorism investigation.

The measure also includes ways for would-be buyers to appeal a denial by the attorney general.

"The administration finally realized that letting terrorists buy guns is dangerous," Lautenberg said. "This 'terror' gap in our gun laws has been open too long."

The Justice Department, which endorsed the idea in letters this week to congressional leaders, said the delay was necessary in part to study potential situations in which barring a gun buy could interfere with investigations and intelligence collection.
I would like to think that Homeland Security has enough agents to keep an eye on terror suspects who are buying guns. If not, either there are too many suspects on the list, or we are in a lot deeper trouble than anyone is letting on.

I will be curious if Teddy Kennedy, who was upset about being on a "no-fly" list several years ago, would be upset about the government setting up a "no-guns" list without any due process requirements. Do you suppose the ACLU would fight such a measure?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Dangers of Credentialism

I've long been hostile to the irrational focus on a degree when deciding whether someone is qualified for a job. I had this attitude when I was an undegreed software engineer, and I am not any more sympathetic to credentialism now that I have earned a BA and an MA.

Requiring certain degrees is a cheap and easy way to reduce the size of the pile of resumes that someone has to carefully read, to decide who gets brought in for an interview. I suspect that, on average, those applicants with a degree are more qualified than those without, but my experience over the years tells me that the difference in qualification, at least in engineering disciplines, is not huge. I know a few millionaire engineers who did not finish college, and a few who are far wealthier who never attended college at all.

This sad story, on the one hand, is about an integrity problem:
Marilee Jones, the dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became well known for urging stressed-out students competing for elite colleges to calm down and stop trying to be perfect. Yesterday she admitted that she had fabricated her own educational credentials, and resigned after nearly three decades at M.I.T. Officials of the institute said she did not have even an undergraduate degree.

“I misrepresented my academic degrees when I first applied to M.I.T. 28 years ago and did not have the courage to correct my résumé when I applied for my current job or at any time since,” Ms. Jones said in a statement posted on the institute’s Web site. “I am deeply sorry for this and for disappointing so many in the M.I.T. community and beyond who supported me, believed in me, and who have given me extraordinary opportunities.”
On the other hand, I find myself wondering: if having a degree--and one presumes, a graduate degree, if she ended up with the title of "dean"--is so fundamentally necessary to her job, how is that no one ever noticed her inability until now?

Call me unimpressed with credentialism.
A Description of the Disappearing Glaciers

I was reading a travel account of the Rhone glacier in the Alps:
The rocks are grooved and scarred away up hundreds of feet above the ice, showing that the glacier was once many times its present size. It is slowly melting away--dying, the scientists say. It may not last more than five or six thousand years longer, so if you want to see it you'll have to hurry.
Okay, evidence of global warming? Well, perhaps, but this account predates the enormous increase in man's production of carbon dioxide. It is from Leander A. Bigger, Around the World: An Illustrated Trip for Education and Pleasure (New York: Lyceum Travel Bureau, 1916), 3:99, describing a round the world trip of 1904-05.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

HR 297

This is McCarthy and Dingell's bill concerning improving state reporting of information that might disqualify someone from purchasing a gun because of misdemeanor domestic violence or mental illness problems. Gun Owners of America is sending around an email warning that this is a horrible, dangerous bill:
HR 297 would require the states to turn over mountains of personal
data (on people like you) to the FBI -- any information which according to the Attorney General, in his or her unilateral discretion, would be useful in ascertaining who is or is not a "prohibited person."

Liberal support for this bill points out an interesting hypocrisy in their loyalties: For six years, congressional Democrats have complained about the Bush administration's efforts to obtain personal information on suspected terrorists WITHOUT A COURT ORDER.

And yet, this bill would allow the FBI to obtain massive amounts of information -- information which dwarfs any records obtained from warrantless searches (or wiretaps) that have been conducted by the Bush Administration on known or suspected terrorists operating in the country.

In fact, HR 297 would allow the FBI to get this information on honest Americans (like you) even though the required data is much more private and personal than any information obtained thus far by the Bush administration on terrorists.
As I said on a radio broadcast this morning, I support the concept of improving state reporting of disqualifying mental illness problems, but the devil is in the details. So I have been reading over HR 297, and I am having trouble finding where "this bill would allow the FBI to obtain massive amounts of information" about individuals. The bill doesn't even require states to provide information--it only sets standards for how much money the state can receive for improving its reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System based on its level of data that it reports.

Now, there might be something that I am missing hidden in the current regulations, but "State records of persons adjudicated mentally defective or committed to a mental institution" and reporting of misdemeanor domestic violence convictions doesn't immediately seem to be a fishing expedition.

UPDATE: A reader who is concerned about this bill points out that the bill requires states that are receiving federal funds to improve their ability to feed firearms disability information to the NICBCS to provide records. If you don't want to provide those records, you won't get any money to improve your systems for feeding NICBCS. And why is this is a problem? If you don't want to provide data to NICBCS, then you don't need federal funding to improve your ability to feed data to NICBCS.

The other objection is that one provision requires states to provide information that would allow determination of whether an alien is legally present in the country. Supposedly, this is a truck sized hole--one that allows the FBI to request vast quantities of information:
Bank records, marriage license, birth certificate, property tax records, credit card records... every single one of them could in some way be used to determine whether someone is an illegal alien or not, right?
Well, no. Birth certificate is about the only item that might be useful for determining whether someone is a citizen--and if they have a U.S. birth certificate, that makes them by law a citizen (with a few very weird exceptions involving diplomatic personnel). The rest of this stuff? I wish that it was different, but illegal aliens have credit card, bank accounts, pay property taxes, and marriage licenses.

True, there are abuse potentials with information gathering, but I am hard pressed to see that this bill opens any more doors on this than the PATRIOT Act has already opened. Net effect on the powers of the snooping federal government: zero.
Mark Twain's Remark About The School Board Needs Updating

You may have heard it--something along the lines of "Before God made the idiot, he made the school board for practice." It needs updating to refer to Oklahoma University. Do you remember the student who blew himself up outside the stadium? The one who had become a Muslim, but of course, that and strapping a bomb to his chest right outside a crowded stadium--no, that can't be a terrorist attack? Well, the university decided to remember him:
NORMAN, Okla. -- The University of Oklahoma has put up a memorial to a student who died when a homemade bomb exploded near the OU football stadium.

A stone with the name of Joel Hinrichs III was placed outside the OU student union by the student affairs division.

Hinrichs died Oct. 1, 2005, when the bomb he built detonated as he sat on a campus bench near Memorial Stadium while a football game was under way. University officials ruled the death an accidental suicide.
Accidental suicide? What is that? A suicide is intentional; it's not an accident. If there was anything "accidental" about his death, it was probably premature detonation. He deserves nothing but our sorrow that his mental problems led him into the death cult variant of Islam.

Thanks to Michelle Malkin for the pointer.
Institutionalization Records

I was watching one of the news programs last night, and they were mentioning that Senator Schumer (not a friend of gun owners) and the NRA have made common cause on a bill to deal with the loophole that allowed Cho Seung-Hui to pass the national firearms background check. I guess this is progress; instead of focusing on the gun (trying to ban semiautos, or high capacity magazines), they are focusing on the person holding the gun.

The reporter reading the story sounded a little incredulous that the NRA would support such a change, but really, this is not a surprise. The NRA's opposition to various background checks has never been with the concept, but with the implementation details. A background check was not a big problem for the NRA when the Brady Bill passed; it was the waiting period.

From a constitutional standpoint, a background check that excludes felons, the mentally ill, minors, former U.S. citizens, and illegal aliens are all perfectly acceptable, based on the type of restrictions that were common and considered acceptable when the Second Amendment was ratified.

We can argue about particular categories: should all felons be excluded, or only violent felons? What constitues "mentally ill"? Does it include a person who was depressed and sought outpatient psychiatric treatment? I would say that's absurd. But I think most people would agree that someone who has been hospitalized against his or her will because a court concluded that they were a threat to themselves or others is probably a valid basis for a firearms disability--at least for a few years. If someone doesn't end up hospitalized again after some period of time (five years seems like an adequate interval), there's a pretty good chance that this was a passing problem.

I see from an article in today's Idaho Statesman (which I can't find on their website, but is substantially the same as this one) that Idaho is one of 28 states that do not share mental illness commitment information with the FBI for the national background check. The article explains that in some states, there are state privacy laws that prohibit it; in others, there are technical problems that make it impossible. (The state itself doesn't have the information.)

I can understand why Idaho might not have put sharing this information at the top of their priority list--but it isn't like Idaho doesn't keep the information or use it internally. For example, Idaho Code 18-3302 already provides that you may not obtain a concealed carry permit if:
(f) Is currently suffering or has been adjudicated as follows, based on substantial evidence:
(i) Lacking mental capacity as defined in section 18-210, Idaho Code; or
(ii) Mentally ill as defined in section 66-317, Idaho Code; or
(iii) Gravely disabled as defined in section 66-317, Idaho Code; or
(iv) An incapacitated person as defined in section 15-5-101(a), Idaho Code
I am a little surprised that we don't share at least this information with the FBI for the national background check. I can't imagine that cost is an issue; we already have the data somewhere to run the background check for a carry permit, and in a state of 1.5 million people, I can't imagine that more than about 1500 people a year get dropped into one of these categories.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

More On Mental Illness and Firearms Disability

I found this rather disturbing but not surprising news item about Russell Eugene Weston, Jr. In case you have forgotten him already:
Russell Eugene Weston Jr. told a court-appointed psychiatrist that he stormed the U.S. Capitol last summer, killing two police officers, to prevent the United States from being annihilated by disease and legions of cannibals.

"He described his belief that time was running out and that if he did not come to Washington, D.C., he would become infected with Black Heva," wrote Sally C. Johnson, the psychiatrist who examined Weston last fall. Weston called this imaginary ailment the "most deadliest disease known to mankind" and said it was spread by the rotting corpses of cannibals' victims, Johnson wrote.

Weston told Johnson he went to the Capitol to gain access to what he called "the ruby satellite," a device he said was kept in a Senate safe. That satellite, he insisted, was the key to putting a stop to cannibalism.

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.
The disturbing item that I found was this:
(CBS) Russell Weston bragged he was the son of John F. Kennedy, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart. He spoke to satellite dishes because he thought they carried his voice to Washington. He threatened neighbors. He'd been arrested and one day he was finally packed off by the state of Montana to a mental institution.

But despite all that, on the day of the Capitol Hill shootings, records show Weston had a valid permit from his home state of Illinois to buy all the guns and ammunition he pleased.

The reason for that according to Illinois State Police Dir. Gene Marlin, is that Weston lied on this gun permit application last year when he circled "No" to the question of whether he had ever been a mental patient. And when Illinois went to check it out, says Marlin, Montana's privacy laws forbid it from telling other states that, in fact, Weston had been ordered into a mental institution for a 90-day evaluation in 1996.

"The mental health laws in Montana are very strict, and they do not share those types of commitments with law enforcement in Montana, or with ourselves, obviously. So any checks we ran - which we did in Montana - came out negative," he said.

It happens all the time, say lawmen. Committment to a mental institution means automatic denial of a gun permit. However, states rarely tell each other about such records.
Weston spent 53 days locked up in a mental hospital, and from all accounts, should not have been released.
More About Institutionalization vs. Homicide Rates

I mentioned yesterday a Texas Law Review paper by Bernard Harcourt about how adding mental hospital and prison incarceration rates together did a better job of predicting murder rates than other models--and that as the total of the two rates went up, there was a strong negative correlation to murder rates.

Today, I heard from Professor Harcourt, who pointed me to a paper in process here which uses state level data and a broader range of social variables--and finds that while there is variation from state to state, the same essential results pop out: as states increase the percentage of population who are locked up in either mental hospitals or prisons, the murder rate declines.

There are signs of elasticity on this. When the institutionalization rates drops to very low levels, murder rates don't continue upward at the same rate because nearly all the dangerous people are out on the street. When the institutionalization rates rise to very high levels, murder rates don't get any lower because those who are locked up increasingly include people who might be a bit eccentric, or mentally ill, but not dangerous to others.
Adventures in Photography: New York City

I lugged around the Pentax K10D while sightseeing in New York City--and it was a reminder of the tradeoffs that you make on cameras. There were many times during the day that I wished that I was carrying my HP Photosmart E427, because it slips into your pocket. The Pentax I carried in an old video camera bag, partly because it protected it from getting banged up, and partly because a criminal might have assumed that all I had inside was an analog video camera--which is probably not worth stealing, at this point.

The upside of the Pentax is that I was able to take pictures that the Photosmart simply could not have, because it doesn't have a zoom, and because it doesn't have the ability to change ASA settings. (At least, I haven't figured out how.) In low light settings, such as in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Chrysler Building lobby, this is a huge advantage--especially in those places where photography is allowed, but flash is not.

I do wish that there was a selector on the outside of the Pentax for changing the ASA setting; it is a bit clumsy to go through the menu to change the ASA setting. (There probably is a way to do this, but I haven't sat down with the several hundred page manual to figure it out.)

I did see another tourist carrying the Panasonic Lumix FZ50, which is a long zoom digital camera that I considered, until I found that the lens isn't removable (which I need for astrophotography). Unfortunately, while quite a bit more compact than the Pentax, it is not quite pocket sized, but still a very reasonable alternative to the Pentax.
Saul Cornell

Ed Killoran has an article here
about Saul Cornell's presentation in support of gun control at a church in Ohio:
Cornell's main premise of the Second Amendment allowing gun control was based on the phrase, “well-regulated.” The last question I asked was how he defined "well regulated" as used the Second Amendment. I had several sources indicating it meant something different 200 years ago (smooth running, like a clock) but that was nonsense to him. He emphasized REGULATION. He noticed my copy of Clayton Cramer’s book, Armed America, and promptly said, “Cramer’s never met a gun law he liked.”
Utterly false. I have long argued that laws that prohibit convicted felons and the mentally ill from having guns are both constitutional and probably provide some benefits to the society. This article, for example. And this one, where I chastise the Supreme Court for striking down the federal law that prohibits those convicted of felonies in foreign courts from possessing firearms. If Cornell is being accurately quoted, he is either insufficiently knowledgeable about my position, or he is lying.

UPDATE: Saul Cornell has contacted me, and now knows that this isn't an accurate statement of my position.
Deranged Democrats At It Again

And one with such a fine last name, too:
LAS VEGAS - A man accused of threatening a Nevada Republican Party official with a rifle was arrested Tuesday in a vehicle in which police found swords, knives, a shotgun, shells and a flare gun, authorities said.

Matthew Hunter Kramer, 31, did not resist officers who arrested him on a warrant issued after the April 3 confrontation at state Republican Party offices in Las Vegas. It wasn't clear why he was not arrested earlier.

Zachary Moyle, executive director of the state GOP, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Kramer invited him to look at something in the trunk of his Mercedes before pulling out a rifle, pointing it at his face and warning that he would be back if President Bush vetoed an emergency war spending bill being considered by Congress.

Bush and Democratic leaders are locked in a dispute over the president's pledge to veto legislation if it sets a timetable on the
Iraq war.

Kramer also removed photos of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney from the wall of the office and threatened to harm staff members, Moyle said. Kramer left his cell phone number with office staff before leaving, police said.
Did he think that he wouldn't be arrested for threatening violence?
Democrats Say Iraq War Isn't About Al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda doesn't agree:
DUBAI (Reuters) - Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden is orchestrating militants' operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior commander of Afghan Islamist group Taliban said in remarks broadcast on Wednesday.

Bin Laden has not made any video statements for many months raising speculation that he might have died.

"He is drawing plans in Iraq and Afghanistan ... Praise God he is alive," Mullah Dadullah told Al Jazeera television.
Democrats who say that the war in Iraq is a distraction from the War on Terror might want to tell the Taliban to shut up.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bernard E. Harcourt's "From the Asylum to the Prison"

I've just finished reading this paper from Texas Law Review 84:1751-86 [2006]. I am not in a position to analyze his statistical work, but he makes an argument that I find quite persuasive, because of the book that I am currently writing about the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. Harcourt's primary claim is that social scientists need to look at both prisons and mental hospitals in understanding the incarceration revolution--that a great many of the failures to adequately predict crime rate changes go away if you look at both categories of incarceration--not just prisons.

A secondary claim is that if you combine national prison and mental hospital incarceration rates for the period 1928-2000, there is a very strong negative correlation to homicide rates: -0.78, and that this strong negative correlation survives when you factor in unemployment and demographic changes. This should not be any big surprise; about 7% to 16% of current prison inmates are mentally ill. A fair number of people that might, in 1950, been locked up in a mental hospital, now wander the streets until they commit some fairly serious crime. In a few cases that make headlines, they commit mass murder, and follow it up with suicide. The current levels of prison incarceration, while high by the standards of the 20th century, when examined in conjunction with mental hospital lockups, just barely reaching the levels common in the 1930s through the 1950s.

One substantial difference that Harcourt doesn't address--and which might influence the apparent causal connection on this--is that a surprisingly large percentage of pre-1960 mental hospital populations were syphilitic insane and elderly senile. Syphilitic insanity largely faded away with the introduction of penicillin after World War II, and the elderly senile, who contributed to that large mental hospitalization rate, transferred over to a variety of private nursing care facilities as a result of the Medicare program in the early 1960s.
Students for Concealed Carry on Campus

Yes, that's the name of this organization. They appear to have existed well before this tragedy at Virginia Tech. As the Frequently Asked Questions section explains:
Students in Universities all over America are licensed to carry concealed weapons.

But when we step foot on our campuses we must be unarmed.

Too many have been murdered, raped, robbed and beaten on our campuses!

Enough is enough!

Allow the CCW holders on our campuses to protect ourselves and those around us!
Who Taught Cho To Hate?

I mentioned yesterday
that I thought that Cho Seung-Hui would have picked whatever ideology gave him a reason to hate, and I thought blaming the dominance of hatred for Christianity, capitalism, and wealth was missing the core problem: Cho Seung-Hui's insanity. Nonetheless, I am impressed how much racial hatred and violence one of Cho Seung-Hui's professors has spewed as poetry. VDARE.COM points to a number of examples of Nikki Giovanni's production of racial hate focused poetry and enthusiasm for hip-hop's worst elements.

I doubt that this caused Cho Seung-Hui's decision--but if he had attended a fundamentalist Christian college, and had murdered 32 gay men, you can be sure that liberals would be running the engines of the mass media full-time demanding that something be done to suppress anti-homosexual teaching.
Reading The Supreme Court's Decision on Partial Birth Abortion Ban

Last week, Professor Orin Kerr described the Supreme Court's 5-4 upholding of Nebraska's partial birth abortion ban as using "the narrowest ground to uphold the ban...." When I read the decision, what struck me about Justice Kennedy's opinion was how tremendously detailed it was in describing the procedure that was being prohibited--far more detail than really seems necessary for a purely legal question. It is, however, exactly what you would write if you really wanted to impress upon the arm-waving theorists the monstrousness of this:
A doctor must first dilate the cervix at least to the extent needed to insert surgical instruments into the uterus and to maneuver them to evacuate the fetus.... The steps taken to cause dilation differ by physician and gestational age of the fetus. .... A doctor often begins the dilation process by inserting osmotic dilators,such as laminaria (sticks of seaweed), into the cervix. The dilators can be used in combination with drugs,such as misoprostol, that increase dilation. The resulting amount of dilation is not uniform, and a doctor does not know in advance how an individual patient will respond. In general the longer dilators remain in the cervix,the more it will dilate. Yet the length of time doctors employ osmotic dilators varies. Some may keep dilators in the cervix for two days, while others use dilators for a day or less. ...

After sufficient dilation the surgical operation can commence. The woman is placed under general anesthesia or conscious sedation. The doctor,often guided by ultrasound, inserts grasping forceps through the woman’s cervix and into the uterus to grab the fetus. The doctor grips a fetal part with the forceps and pulls it back
through the cervix and vagina, continuing to pull even after meeting resistance from the cervix. The friction causes the fetus to tear apart. For example, a leg might be ripped off the fetus as it is pulled through the cervix and out of the woman. The process of evacuating the fetus piece by piece continues until it has been completely removed. A doctor may make 10 to 15 passes with the forceps to evacuate the fetus in its entirety,though sometimes removal is completed with fewer passes. Once the fetus has been evacuated,the placenta and any remaining fetal material are suctioned or scraped out of the uterus.

The doctor examines the different parts to ensure the entire fetal body has been removed.... Some doctors,especially later in the second trimester, may kill the fetus a day or two before performing the surgical evacuation. They inject digoxin or potassium chloride into the fetus, the umbilical cord, or the amniotic fluid. Fetal demise may cause contractions and make greater dilation possible. Once dead, moreover, the fetus’ body will soften, and its removal will be easier. Other
doctors refrain from injecting chemical agents,believing it adds risk with little or no medical benefit. ...


Intact D&E, like regular D&E, begins with dilation of the cervix. Sufficient dilation is essential for the procedure. To achieve intact extraction some doctors thus may attempt to dilate the cervix to a greater degree. This approach has been called “serial” dilation. ... Doctors who attempt at the outset to perform intact D&E may dilate for two full days or use up to 25 osmotic dilators. ... In an intact D&E procedure the doctor extracts the fetus in a way conducive to pulling out its entire body, instead of ripping it apart. One doctor, for example, testified:
“If I know I have good dilation and I reach in and the fetus starts to come out and I think I can accomplish it,the abortion with an intact delivery, then I use my forceps a little bit differently. I don’t close them quite so much, and I just gently draw the tissue out attempting to have an intact delivery, if possible.”

Rotating the fetus as it is being pulled decreases the odds of dismemberment. ... A doctor also “may use forceps to grasp a fetal part, pull it down, and re-grasp the fetus at a higher level—sometimes using both his hand and a forceps—to exert traction to retrieve the fetus intact until the head is
lodged in the [cervix]. ... Intact D&E gained public notoriety when, in 1992, Dr. Martin Haskell gave a presentation describing his method of performing the operation. Dilation and Extraction 110 – 111. In the usual intact D&E the fetus’ head lodges in the cervix, and dilation is insufficient to allow it to pass. ... Haskell explained the next step as follows:
“‘At this point,the right-handed surgeon slides the fingers of the left [hand ] along the back of the fetus and “hooks” the shoulders of the fetus with the index and ring fingers (palm down).

“‘While maintaining this tension, lifting the cervix and applying traction to the shoulders with the fingers of the left hand, the surgeon takes a pair of blunt curved Metzenbaum scissors in the right hand. He carefully advances the tip, curved down,along the spine and under his middle finger until he feels it contact the base of the skull under the tip of his middle finger.

“‘[T]he surgeon then forces the scissors into the base of the skull or into the foramen magnum. Having safely entered the skull, he spreads the scissors to
enlarge the opening.

“‘The surgeon removes the scissors and introduces a suction catheter into this hole and evacuates the skull contents. With the catheter still in place, he applies
traction to the fetus, removing it completely from the patient.’” H.R. Rep. No. 108–58, p.3 (2003).
If this starts to make you think of the brainsucking sequence in the terrible movie version of Starship Troopers, then I think Justice Kennedy achieved his goal. Doesn't it make you proud to be an American?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Imagine If Jerry Falwell Had Said Something Like This...

They would have been screeching night and day about it--even worse than Don Imus's offensive remarks. These are far worse--but this isn't a national news story--because it was said by a Muslim, and therefore liberals must genuflect to show their support for diversity:
A community debate over religious freedom surfaced in Western Pennsylvania last week when Dutch feminist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee who has lived under the threat of death for denouncing her Muslim upbringing, made an appearance at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

Islamic leaders tried to block the lecture, which was sponsored through an endowment from the Frank J. and Sylvia T. Pasquerilla Lecture Series. They argued that Hirsi Ali's attacks against the Muslim faith in her book, "Infidel," and movie, "Submission," are "poisonous and unjustified" and create dissension in their community.

Although university officials listened to Islamic leaders' concerns, the lecture planned last year took place Tuesday evening under tight security, with no incidents.

Imam Fouad ElBayly, president of the Johnstown Islamic Center, was among those who objected to Hirsi Ali's appearance.

"She has been identified as one who has defamed the faith. If you come into the faith, you must abide by the laws, and when you decide to defame it deliberately, the sentence is death," said ElBayly, who came to the U.S. from Egypt in 1976.
Instapundit turned it around nicely:
When you come into the United States you must abide by the laws and customs that prevail here. You're supposed to leave this kind of medieval idiocy behind. If you keep it up, don't be surprised if you get thought of as some sort of medieval idiot.
ElBayly does not seem to have crossed the line into directly saying that someone should kill Hirsi Ali, so I guess that he hasn't actually broken any laws--but compared to what Don Imus said, this is far worse. And you won't hear a word about it from the usual screeching heads on television.
There Are Things Worse Than Gun Accidents

The gun control movement works very, very hard to give you the impression that lots of kids get killed in gun accidents. It isn't true. Every such accident is a tragedy, and one that doesn't need to happen.

You do have your gun properly secured, right? I hope so--not just to protect your child, or your child's friend, but to make sure a burglar doesn't use it on you.

But stories like this are a reminder that there are situations worse than a gun accident. Much worse:
Tied up and left to die in a burning apartment, a Columbia student used the blaze set by her sadistic rapist to free herself, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said yesterday.

"It appears she was able to escape as a result of the fire," Kelly said. "She was tied, and the flame was used by her to break the bond."

The 23-year-old woman, identified by sources as a student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, endured 19 hours of rape and torture at the hands of a sick creep in her Hamilton Heights apartment Friday night.

In what Kelly called a "particularly vicious" assault, the fiend tied his victim to a bed, cut her, raped her, burned her with scalding water and chemicals - and then set the woman's futon on fire to cover up the crime, police said.

He was so brutal he slit her eyelids, Kelly said.

The student used the flames to free herself and fled her fifth-floor apartment with her hands still bound to each other to get help from a neighbor, officials said.
Bitter over at The Bitch Girls linked to this story after explaining that this is why she has a pistol on her nightstand.
The Sky Is About to Fall

Hell is about to freeze over. Watch out for those flying pigs! I just saw Senator Schumer (D-NY) on The O'Reilly Factor admit that the Second Amendment protects an individual right. He went on to argue that the right isn't unlimited, just like the First Amendment "doesn't protect pornography." He even acknowledged that there is a right to defend yourself, and that can even include using a gun to do so.

Now, I don't believe for a second that Schumer's definition of "reasonable regulation" of guns matches mine, but this is real progress. Either that, or he has already figured out that the Supreme Court is going to uphold Parker v. D.C. (D.C.App. 2007), and is figuring out how to hamstring that right so badly that it is meaningless.

UPDATE: Professor Volokh points out that this isn't the first time that Schumer has acknowledged that the Second Amendment protects an individual right--although subject to regulation that most people would consider unreasonable.
Mental Illness and Mass Murder

I'm glad that a few other people are prepared to say it. From today's Wall Street Journal:
I was in graduate school, studying clinical psychology when they began shutting down the asylums. The place was California, the time was the early 1970s, and "they" were an unprecedented confederation of progressives, libertarians and fiscal conservatives.

From the left marched battalions of self-styled mental health "liberation activists" steeped in the writings of Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing. Though he denied being opposed to his own profession, Laing's notion that madness could be a reasonable reaction to an unjust society, or even a vehicle for spiritual transformation, helped fuel the anti-psychiatry movement of the post Love-In era. The most radical of Laingians carried revisionism one step further: Not only wasn't psychosis a bad thing, it was evidence of a superior level of consciousness.

The libertarians were fueled by Thomas Szasz, an iconoclastic psychiatrist who was, and remains, an outspoken foe of virtually every aspect of his chosen specialty. Hungarian-born in 1920, and witness to vicious state exploitation of medical practice by the Nazis and the communists, Dr. Szasz pushed an absolutist dogma of individual choice, finding ready converts among members of the Do-Your-Own-Thing generation. Though his early essays offered much-needed critiques of the Orwellian nightmares that can result when autocracy corrupts health care, Dr. Szasz devolved into something of a psychiatric Flat-Earther, insisting in the face of mounting contrary evidence that mental illness simply does not exist. Currently, he serves on a commission, cofounded with the Church of Scientology, that purports to investigate human rights violations perpetrated by mental health professionals.

Accepting the arguments of the liberationists and the libertarians at face value led to the assertion that no matter how bizarre, disabling or life-threatening a person's hallucinations and delusions, involuntary treatment was never called for. And to the assertion that violation of that premise created yet another class of political prisoners.

While moderate members of the anti-asylum movement were willing to concede that psychosis might pose difficulties for a few individuals, they insisted that society had no more right to force psychoactive drugs upon mental patients than it did to hold down diabetics for insulin injections. If treatment was to be offered, it needed to be consensually contracted between caregivers and care-recipients on an outpatient basis. That fit perfectly with the sensibilities of conservative scrooges searching for ways to cut the state budget, and all too happy to dismantle a massive state hospital system denigrated as inefficient at best and inhumane at worst. The replacement chosen was an untested, less costly treatment model: the community mental center.

How nice that everyone agreed.

Everyone, that was, except for many families of hospitalized, hopelessly-decompensated, often self-destructive and occasionally violent psychotics. They'd lived with the reality of severe mental illness and wondered what "freedom" would bring. But there weren't enough of these families to matter.


By the time I received my doctorate in 1974, the doors to many of the locked wards had been flung open and the much vaunted community mental health centers were being built--predominately in low-rent neighborhoods. A few years later, government funding for these allegedly humane treatment outposts had been cut, as yet more fiscal belt-tightening was inspired by findings that they didn't work.

Because crazy people rarely showed up for treatment voluntarily, and when they did, the treatment milieu consisted of queuing up interminably at Thorazine Kiosks.

And now we had a Homeless Problem.

And everyone was astonished.

Estimates vary but there's no doubt that a significant percentage of people living on heating vents, pushing their belongings in shopping carts, squatting in city parks and immersed in the squalor of tent cities suffer from severe mental disease. And their psychosis is often exacerbated by drug and alcohol abuse--what is, essentially, a regimen of self-medication that should make a Szaszian proud.

Many of these unfortunates end up as victims of violent crimes. A few become victimizers and when they do, watch out. For though it is true that schizophrenics are responsible for a proportionally lower rate of violent offenses than the general population (because many forms of the disease engender passivity and physical inactivity), when crazy people do act out the results are often horrific: bloody spree killings ignited by paranoid thinking and the angry urgings of internal voices.

Which brings us to outrages such as the Virginia Tech massacre.

Diagnosis from afar is the purview of talk-shows hosts and other charlatans, and I will not attempt to detail the psyche of the Virginia Tech slaughterer. But I will hazard that much of what has been reported about his pre-massacre behavior--prolonged periods of asocial mutism and withdrawal, irrational anger and hatred, bizarre writing and speech--is not at odds with the picture of a fulminating, serious mental disease. And his age falls squarely within the most common period when psychosis blossoms.

No one who knew him seems surprised by what he did. On the contrary, dorm chatter characterized him explicitly as a future school-shooter. One of his professors, the poet Nikki Giovanni, saw him as a disruptive bully and kicked him out of her class. Other teachers viewed him as disturbed and referred him for the ubiquitous "counseling"--an outcome that is ambiguous to the point of meaninglessness and akin to "treatment" for a patient with metastasized cancer.

But even that minimal care wasn't given. The shooter didn't want it and no one tried to force him to get it. While it's been reported that he was involuntarily committed to a "Behavioral Health Center" in December 2005, those reports also say he was released the very next morning. Even if the will to segregate an obvious menace had been in place, the legal mechanisms to provide even temporary "warehousing" were absent. The rest is terrible history.
This Texas Law Review paper by Bernard Harcourt examines institutionalization--as measured by both prison and mental hospital inmates. He makes the shocking discovery that if you combine both measures and plot them against U.S. murder rates for the period 1928-2000, there is an almost perfect negative correlation: as institutionalization (in either prison or mental hospitals) goes up, murder rates go down, and vice versa.

There's a lot of evidence that many of those who are currently locked up in prisons are mentally ill. It would appear that the great experiment of the 1960s--deinstitutionalization--simply transferred violent mentally ill people from mental hospitals to prisons, after a few decades of suffering, both by those mental patients, and by the society as a whole.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Can I Find an Ambulance-Chaser to File a Fault Advertising Claim?

This should be worth at least several million dollars. I noticed this advertising that United Airlines had it up in the Denver International Airport terminal:

Click to enlarge

One would conclude that their new regional jets are actually an evolved form of butterfly, or perhaps as beautiful as butterflies--or maybe as low impact on the environment as a butterfly?

Or most likely, some advertising creative guy could not figure out a coherent message that would make people happy, and settled for this.
Amusing Examination of Nasty Capitalists Laying People Off

Jim Geraghty observes:
As you’ll recall from yesterday, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is upset with Circuit City for laying off 3,400 workers, wagging her finger to management in a letter that declared, “these decisions are inconsistent with the fundamental compact between your company and its employees. This is the wrong way to deal with the economic pressures of the day — and the wrong way to treat workers who’ve given their all to your company.”

Hillary doesn’t mention it in the letter, but one presumes she believes that the company has spent too much on other areas.
Then he marshals the evidence that suggests that the layoff of 75 workers at Simon & Schuster were caused by the $8 million advance that they gave an author named...Hillary Clinton several years that seems unlikely to ever be covered by royalties.

Was that just a bad call on the expected sales of the book? Or a disguised personal gift from a publishing company to a politician?
Another Tragedy of Our Mental Health System, But This Won't Get As Much Press

First, because there was only person killed, and second, because it didn't involve a gun. From the April 19, 2007 Santa Rosa (Cal.) Press-Democrat:
The family of a man who allegedly stabbed his mother to death at her Rohnert Park home wrestled Wednesday with grief and their anger at a mental health system that they say failed everyone involved.

"A broken heart and a broken system, that's what I'm feeling today," Dave Cooper said.

Cooper's mother-in-law, Jeanne Elaine Hoyt, 61, was stabbed multiple times with a sword and died Tuesday night, authorities said.

Ezra Timothy Hoyt, 33, a paranoid schizophrenic, was holding a sword when he was arrested at gunpoint in front of his mother's house as she was being treated inside, police said.

Jeanne Hoyt was rushed to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 6:44 p.m., Rohnert Park Police Lt. Jeff Taylor said.

Her son, who Cooper said was living in a group home in Santa Rosa, is being held without bail at the Sonoma County Jail, facing a charge of murder.

He was holding what is believed to be the murder weapon when police arrived at his mother's home in the Rancho Grande mobile home park on Snyder Lane. Police and fire crews were dispatched to the home at 6:09 p.m. in response to a "frantic 911 call," Taylor said.

He did not say who called 911.

The sword was a rapier, "long, slender, sharply pointed," and Hoyt dropped it at an officer's command, Taylor said.

A distraught Cooper suggested that the family's efforts to get Ezra Hoyt timely and proper help were frustrated by the mental health system.

"It's the way the social services system works -- or doesn't work," he said. "All we're told, of course, is that nothing can be done until until he becomes a threat to himself or others."

Cooper said family members had worried that Hoyt wasn't taking medication for the illness with which he'd been diagnosed about five years ago.

"He's over 18, he can't be forced to stay on his medications until something happens," Cooper said. "Well, something has happened."
This is a tragedy. Like a lot of other mental illness tragedies that I have talked about on this blog in the last several years, those who become violent are a small minority of the mentally ill (most of whom are a bigger threat to themselves than to others). But the unpredictability of a violent mentally ill person--and that they may attack people who have no idea that they are seen as targets--creates enormous fear in the general population.

Unlike what happened at Virginia Tech last Monday, no gun control law would have prevented this tragedy. But like Virginia Tech, a mental illness commitment law that wasn't quite so far out on the civil libertarian extreme might well have prevented this tragedy.
Back From New York City

I'm drained--it may be tomorrow before I post anything. I had hundreds of emails waiting for me, and most of them, amazingly enough, weren't spam.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What, Realistically, Can Be Done?

It appears now that Cho's mental illness problems didn't make it into the NICS because he chose to be voluntarily hospitalized--perhaps because he was given that as an alternative to involuntary commitment. I suspect the unwillingness of one of his stalking victims to press charges might have played a part in this as well.

So, what can be done to deal with situations like this? If we make voluntary commitments an NICS reportable firearms disability, it will discourage some people from checking themselves in--and that would be a serious problem. That's part of why a lot of mental health professionals in California initially opposed such a state law.

Perhaps situations like Cho's, where there was reason to suspect that he might be dangerous, justify involuntary commitment--regardless of whether anyone wants to press charges.

The problem is that involuntary commitment in some states, especially for observation, does not have enough protections against abuse of the process. In California, Welfare & Institutions Code 5150 allows:
a peace officer, member of the attending staff, as defined by regulation, of an evaluation facility designated by the county, designated members
of a mobile crisis team provided by Section 5651.7, or other professional person designated by the county may, upon probable cause, take, or cause to be taken, the person into custody and place him or her in a facility designated by the county and approved by the State Department of Mental Health as a facility for 72-hour
treatment and evaluation.
Once you have been 5150ed, you lose your right to possess firearms for five years. See Welfare & Institutions Code 8103(f).

This can be, and has been abused. I know someone who got upset with a bureaucrat at the Sonoma County Planning Department some years ago, and made some rather stupid and rash statement along the lines, "If I have to do any more paperwork for this subdivision, I'll kill myself." The bureaucrat apparently was sufficiently displeased that he called the police. Within an hour, this guy had been picked up and taken to a mental hospital. Two hours after his admission, he was back out. The staff could see that this guy was no threat to himself or to others--but that 5150 was now a problem, and he had a bit of work to go through to get his firearms disability removed, including petitioning the court--but the burden of proof is to prove that there is good reason to remove that disability. In some counties of California, where hostility to gun ownership by judges is widespread, that would be a high standard to meet, I fear.

There needs to be some minimum level of due process to cause a person to lose their right to possess firearms--and it should not be a lifetime disability. There are people who go through difficult times, especially teenagers and young adults, and then straighten their lives out. Five years doesn't seem unreasonable; if someone keeps getting locked up for observation or commitment more than once every five years, he either has a serious problem, or he needs to move to a less abusive locale. Most of the serious mental illnesses will have such a person committed far more often than that.

Even then, let's be realistic about the net effect. If Cho's mental problems had made into NICS--and this had caused his purchases to be declined--would it have disarmed him? It appears that whatever Cho's problems, they were not glaringly obvious--not obvious enough to make the gun dealer Cho bought guns from nervous about him.

Could Cho have bought guns privately? Very probably. There are mental patients who are so obviously disturbed that a gun dealer would not sell to them--or even allow them into the store. Even the most opportunistic criminal would think twice about selling guns to someone who appeared to be crazy, both out of fear of the mental patient coming to the attention of the police, and out of fear of being injured by the patient.

All background check systems work at the margin. They don't work perfectly. They may only prevent the prohibited person from buying at a dealer, causing him to look for a private seller. But any system that isn't hideously expensive--and still works at the margin--can be a good thing.

If 2% of prohibited persons, because they can't buy from a dealer, decide not to buy a gun, or need to spend more money or time to find a private seller, this can be a good thing. They may not find a private seller. They may be delayed long enough to give up on their project. They find the cost prohibitive--or not have enough to buy the vast quantity of ammunition that Cho apparently used.

We have a choice on this: try to fix a significant hole in the system, even if it isn't perfect, or find ourselves confronting the same problem a few years down the road. I would rather not wait for another mentally ill person to buy a gun from a dealer, and murder 32 people.
Applaud People Who Put Principle Above Profit

Like this black-owned media firm:
ST. LOUIS | A St. Louis company that operates four TV stations and a hip-hop radio station said today it is banning programming and music lyrics that it deems violent, sexist and racist.

The decision by black-owned Roberts Broadcasting Cos. comes less than a week after Don Imus was fired by CBS Radio for calling members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”

Fallout from the incident renewed debate about lyrics of many rap and hip-hop songs that are racially charged and derogatory toward women. The Rev. Al Sharpton has called entertainment the next battleground after Imus.

St. Louis brothers Michael and Steven Roberts operate a multifaceted business that includes an aviation company, shopping centers, hotels, construction firms and residential developments. The broadcasting unit includes four television stations — WRBU in St. Louis, WZRB in Columbia, S.C., WAZE in Evansville, Ind., and WRBJ in Jackson, Miss. The company also operates WRBJ-FM, a hip-hop station in Jackson.

“We take tremendous pride in being African-American and refuse to let anyone, white or black, strip us of that pride,” said Steven Roberts, president and chief operating officer of the company.

The decision will have an immediate impact on WRBJ-FM. Rather than censoring offensive words of songs, Roberts spokeswoman Keesha Dhaene said, “We’re going to ban them altogether, which is a hard move for a hip-hop station. If it’s offensive in any way toward women, toward African-Americans, it’s not going to be played on Hot 97.7.”

WRBJ-FM general manager Terrill Weiss said his staff faces a daunting task in sorting through song lyrics.

“There’s probably a higher incidence of derogatory language in general in hip-hop music because it’s a language of the street,” Weiss said. “It reflects life, and their art involves a lot of language that could be deemed objectionable.”

Still, Weiss applauded the move by Roberts. “I’m glad they made a decision to take a stand,” he said.

In a letter to the staff of WRBJ-FM on Wednesday, chairman and chief executive Michael Roberts wrote that the Imus case “has certainly put new fire under the need to respect ourselves first — specifically the hip-hop nation and rap music’s role in desensitizing our country to derogatory comments toward women and each other.”
Wow! This takes real courage--and a willingness to cut into one's profit margin. Sad to say, hip-hop is offensive because there's a sizable audience for it--especially among white suburban kids.
Reminder: I'll Be Out Of Town For A Few Days on a Book Tour

I'm not taking my laptop with me, so I won't be blogging much if any. And I probably won't be checking my email, either. But make sure that if you are within several hundred miles of northern New Jersey, you come and see me speak!
Tragedies That Won't Stop

Boise doesn't have very many murders--there were a total of eight in the years 2003 through 2005--which is pretty impressive for a city of just under 200,000 people. When there is a murder here, it is a front page story for days, such as the two murders (one in Moscow, Idaho, the other in Boise) alleged to have been committed by a very confused and troubled young man named John Delling. This article describes the anguish of Dellings' parents:
In the letter, Delling's parents say they are searching for answers and express their "deep sadness at the loss and injury of those three fine young men." Delling's parents also appear to say they tried to get their son help but that his problems overwhelmed the people who tried to help him.

"John was very sick and needed more than this system had to offer," the Dellings wrote.
Here is something that Delling wrote on a Christian recovery website a while back that captures his mental illness.

These tragedies just don't stop.
Swinging Pendulum

I mentioned yesterday
that Cho's Creative Writing professor was so disturbed by some of his work that she tried to get him to go in for counseling. This should be no surprise; over the last forty years, one of the consequences of the deinstitutionalizaton of the mentally ill has been not the release of those who were hospitalized, but the reluctance to hospitalize those whose behavior was peculiar or worrisome.

I mentioned a few days ago the story of Joyce Brown, whose bizarre behavior living on a steam grate in New York City in 1987 led to a confrontation between Mayor Koch and the ACLU--and the ACLU won. That's by far the more common side of the problem--mentally ill people living in misery and squalor because their mental illness prevents them asking for, or accepting hospitalization and treatment. The ACLU thinks it is looking out for the dignity of people in this situation. It is a tragedy, but one largely confined to that person.

The less common side of the problem is what happens when a mentally ill person goes on a rampage. I say that this is "less common," because it really is relatively rare. But when it happens, everyone knows about. It isn't a localized piece of suffering that ends when someone dies of pneumonia or exposure, but the cause of multiple deaths.

Martin Bryant, somewhat retarded, who killed 35 people in Tasmania in 1996, after providing at least clues to his dangerousness because of his involvement in two previous suspicious deaths.

James Huberty, who killed 21 people in San Ysidro, California in 1984.

Charles Whitman, who murdered 18 people sniping from a tower at the University of Texas in 1966--and who autopsy showed had a golf-ball sized tumor in his brain, and had been receiving psychiatric treatment that didn't look for this physical cause.

Thomas Hamilton, who murdered 17 people at a school in Scotland in 1996. His unhealthy interest in little boys was well-known to the authorities; there are some reasons to wonder if Scottish police may have allowed him to have a pistol permit (not easy to get in Britain) covered up aspects of the crime to hide their involvement with Hamilton and child pornography.

Michael Ryan, who murdered 16 people in Hungerford, England in 1987.

And there are so many others, like Richard Baumhammers, who showed clear evidence of serious mental illness, or the guy who murdered my landlord's daughter in San Francisco in 1982, but no action was taken until they started killing people.

There was a time when a person who was just a little eccentric might find himself locked up in a mental hospital without reason. I mentioned O'Connor v. Donaldson (1975) a while back. Lynn Vincent and Robert Stacy McCain's Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party on pp. 181-2 describes how in 1961, a local sheriff brought prostitutes to President Kennedy's suite at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle:
Miffed that he hadn't been able to deliver the prostitutes to the president personally, the sheriff warned the hookers, who were already inside the suite: "If any word of this night gets out, I'll see that you both go to Stillicoom [a state mental hospital] and never get out."
And at the time, that was a realistic threat.

American society was too willing, not that many years ago, to lock someone up in a mental hospital on the say-so of an authority figure. But we have clearly gone too far the other direction--and the consequences of this unwillingness to hospitalize those who are deeply troubled sometimes gives a bitter and bloody harvest.

UPDATE: It now appears that Cho was hospitalized, apparently against his will, in 2005--which makes me wonder if the Brady Law background check works:
April 18, 2007 — Virginia Tech police say Seung-hui Cho was sent to a nearby mental health hospital for evaluation in December 2005, after two female schoolmates said they received threatening messages from him and school officials became concerned that he might be suicidal.

That information came to light two days after Cho, a Virginia Tech senior, killed 32 people and then himself in a shooting rampage on the university's campus.

University officials said the school had obtained a "temporary detention order" from a local magistrate that allowed them to refer Cho to an off-campus medical facility.

According to Virginia law, "A magistrate has the authority to issue a detention order upon a finding that a person is mentally ill and in need of hospitalization or treatment.

"The magistrate also must find that the person is an imminent danger to himself or others," says the guideline from Virginia's state court system.

"We normally go through access [appealing to the state's legal system for help] because they have the power to commit people if they need to be committed," said Wendell Flinchum, chief of the Virginia Tech police department.
UPDATE 2: A forensic psychiatrist concludes that Cho was schizophrenic:
What then leads you to believe Cho had schizophrenia?

How he related to his roommate was just too bizarre to be depression. The bizarre content of his plays — mashing a half-eaten "banana bar" in someone's mouth, the hypersexual, nihilistic (death obsessed) obsessions in the absence of depressive guilt or tearfulness are another clue. The progressive decline of a period of years. Those with schizophrenia, especially in their earliest years, are not readily recognizable as such — their condition is evolving. But here was someone who, as early as 2005, was carrying himself so strangely that he was a spectacle. The depressed withdraw and disappear. Those who are so peculiar in their manner so as to be inappropriate (taking cell phone pictures of his teacher, speaking inaudibly, pulling a cap low over his eyes) exhibit signs and symptoms more indicative of schizophrenia. He was communicating in a rambling manner reflective of what we appreciate as autistic thinking — characteristic of schizophrenia. In a similar vein, Mr. Cho's stilted communication in his homicide note (deceitful charlatans — not the language of a 23-year-old college kid) is also the manner of a schizophrenic's communications, as is his pronounced delay in responding to questions.
This is not surprising. A lot of schizophrenics start to show symptoms in late teens or early 20s.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


A posting over at the Liberty Zone from last year that correctly predicted what would happen:
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
College students in Virginia will remain vulnerable

And here I thought Virginians had some common sense when it came to gun rights. Guess not.

A bill that would have given college students and employees the right to carry handguns on campus died with nary a shot being fired in the General Assembly.

House Bill 1572 didn't get through the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety. It died Monday in the subcommittee stage, the first of several hurdles bills must overcome before becoming laws.

The bill was proposed by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, on behalf of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. Gilbert was unavailable Monday and spokesman Gary Frink would not comment on the bill's defeat other than to say the issue was dead for this General Assembly session.

Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker was happy to hear the bill was defeated. "I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's actions because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on our campus."
And I'm sure the armed criminals are appreciative of the General Assembly's actions as well. This will help them victimize their prey and give them a full college campus of disarmed targets.
These are the times that I'm sure Nicki wishes that she had been wrong.
Just a Reminder, The Next Time A European Gets Huffy...

About these gun mass murders being an American problem. From BBC, April 26, 2002:
Eighteen people died when an expelled former pupil went on a shooting spree at his school in the eastern German city of Erfurt.

Masked and dressed in black, the gunman walked through classrooms killing 14 teachers, two schoolgirls and one of the first policemen on the scene before taking his own life.

He was clothed completely in black and you could only see his eyes.

Pupils of the Gutenberg School spent four hours trapped inside before police could declare the building safe.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder described the massacre in the quiet provincial city as "beyond the powers of the imagination".
And this account from the New York Times in 1995:
After murdering three relatives at home, a teen-ager walked to the next village today and calmly opened fire on a quiet town square, killing nine more people before turning the gun on himself.

The incident was the country's worst multiple killing since 1989.

"It was like he was hunting birds," said Guy Sintes, the owner of a cafe on the square in Cuers, a village near the Mediterranean port of Toulon.

Television footage from the scene showed sidewalks and a car spattered with blood and a bullet hole through a shop window.

"The people are devastated, totally traumatized," said the Mayor of Cuers, Guy Gigou. "The village is in shock.",

The boy was identified as Eric Borel, 16. The impetus for the killings was unclear. His father died recently of cancer.

Neighbors, interviewed on French television, described him as taciturn and said his room was plastered with posters of Hitler and neo-Nazi themes.
From the Moscow Times:
GALI, Abkhazia -- One night in June at a lonely Russian post in the small village of Sida, Sergeant Artur Vaganov, 22, of the Russian peacekeeping force here, woke up to commit mass murder.

Very deliberately, he cut the post's communications, gathered together all the weapons and opened fire on his fellow soldiers as they slept in their bunks. He shot dead 10 men and wounded three more before killing himself. The building was still awash with blood the next day, eyewitnesses said.
And this 2002 Time article:
Last week's mass murder of eight city councilors in a Paris suburb left not only a traumatized community and bereft survivors. Coming in the thick of a presidential campaign, alsoit, set France searching for political meaning in a fundamentally senseless act. Both major candidates, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and President Jacques Chirac, were on the scene before sun-up, condemning the attack in the same words, as "a murderous folly." Yet by the end of the day the two sides were enmeshed in a furious debate over the propriety of drawing any connection between the desperate act of a deranged man and "insecurity," a central theme of the campaign. Then that deranged man, Richard Durn, managed to commit suicide while in police custody, and the focus shifted again. How could government be so dysfunctional as to allow the avowedly homicidal and suicidal Durn to own and use guns and then make his dramatic exit?
You want more examples to show that this is not peculiarly or even especially American? See here.