This should be about red flags and gun control, not discrimination

I understand that people are grieving the three officers who died on Saturday, especially as more information comes to light.  My heart breaks for the 911 dispatcher whose error in describing the situation proved fatal. 

But I can't help wondering about all the systems and people who let Richard Poplawski down before he picked up that high powered assault weapon he was not supposed to have.  Booted out of school and booted out of the Marines.  PFAs.  Repeated domestic calls involving his mother.  How many systems is that — the educational system, the military, his family and friends, etc. 

Arm-chair “diagnosing” Mr. Poplawski doesn't help in the least.  It just perpetuates fear of mental illness and probably reinforces people's unwillingness to seek assistance for themselves or their loved ones.

Take this:

It is time, really past time, to recognize that paranoid, schizophrenic or otherwise mentally unstable people in possession of high-powered modern weapons are a threat as great if not more so than al-Qaida, and to address that threat accordingly.

No one would feel safe knowing that one of his neighbors was an avowed member of the Taliban who had openly professed hatred for our government and society and who was known to possess assault weapons. The same should be true for people who are convinced that the government is out to get them, and who act on their fears by arming themselves to the teeth.

Indeed, possession of a military assault weapon is de facto evidence of potentially dangerous mental instability, as such weapons have no other purpose than to kill large numbers of people in combat. No hunter uses or needs a Kalashnikov to get his yearly buck or doe.

Another reader cautions:

Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the folks at Fox News did not kill the policemen in Stanton Heights, but I think they need to take more responsibility for the collateral damage caused by their fear-mongering rhetoric.

Do you see the irony?  Fear driven rhetoric drives us to make poor choices, be it to pick up an assault weapon because we believe the President wants to strip us of our civil rights or to actually deprive people of their civil rights. 

Most mentally ill people are not going to shoot police officers.  They are not going to harm other people, perhaps only themselves.  We never hear about them because the news doesn't report on the millions of Americans who see their doctors, therapists and take their medications and go about their daily lives.  We do hear about the exceptions because funding for mental health intervention is woefully inadequate and awareness of resources is poor and the safety net to provide the basic needs necessary to address mental illness is horribly frayed. 

The simple truth is that providing affordable housing, reasonable disability payments, food security and health care could go a long way to helping people recover and move on to become productive members of society, self-sufficient even.

If we are going to debate restricting Second Amendment rights, we should have an honest discussion on the reality of ANYONE needing an assault rifle and addressing those underlying issues, most of which bring us back to anti-poverty programs. 

If we are going to do something concrete about mental illness, we need to avoid jumping to conclusions about people's “diagnosis” based on media reports.  Despair and fear are not the province of the mentally ill alone.  Neither are desperation and anger.

We also need to look at systemic breakdowns when it comes to responding to red flags.  Did the school district and the Marines exercise due diligence in connecting Mr. Poplawski with resources?  Did his family even know about the Resolve Crisis Line?  Does the PFA system actually accomplish anything in addressing potential domestic threats?  Then there's the claim that Mr. Poplawski was despondent over his employment prospects.  That's an entire landmine of culpability and accountability.

Let be clear. I do not absolve Mr. Poplawski for his personal responsibility in picking up those guns and murdering three people, people who simply came to help his mother.  That's an act of atrocity and he should be held accountable.  I heard on the CBS news this morning that he plans to write a book while in jail.  Even if he can't profit from it, he'll be infamous and fuel the very fear based rhetoric that seems inextricably tied up in this tragedy.

I am saying that tossing around mental health diagnostic terms can drive people who need help — people who are desperate and anxious and fearful and mistrustful — further away from the very resources they need to function in mainstream society.

The fear based rhetoric is counterproductive and a disservice to the thousands of police officers who respond to domestic calls every day.  The feelings we all struggle with right now — anger, helplessness, fear — can be channeled productively into helping the families of the slain officers AND advocating for the resources necessary to prevent this from happening in the future.  Yes, some of that might mean tighter gun control laws.  It also means making sure people know about Resolve.  It means that we stop the stigmatizing language so the person in the back of the room struggling with depression or anxiety doesn't feel isolated and marginalized.

And it means we should take a look at these systems and figure out if everyone did what they could to respond to the red flags that I'm sure were there far before this past Saturday.



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  • My fear is people really do not know what to do when someone is acting or has acted as if mentally ill, of course we know what to do ,we are in the field. How many people are going to admit a loved one needs help? How many are going to admit, they themselves need help.
    I think people are in the state of denial when in a situation they feel could potentially bring harm to someone else. no one thinks their loved one is going to shoot /stab/harm someone else, because a sane mind can not fathom such atrocities. The question I have is how do we get people to realize the actor is not “just having a bad day” or “a string of bad days”
    but really needs to be under Dr. care.

  • I agree steelcity, it is difficult to know when to report? How or who determines stability? Most difficult if it involves a family member. PFA's have proven time and time again, nationally to not be effective and in fact extremely dangerous for women involved in domestic violence situations. It “sets off” the perpetrator to act on behaviors that prior, were only an additional threat of violence resulting in their mortality. The mental health community and resources have to be reevaluated, the proper facilities put in place to address what has been cut by budget and supposed band aide approaches. I cannot believe that people actually believed that you could release people back into society when they were incapable of mentally caring for themselves in any way, and left on their own to take their medication or care for themselves. If that were possible they would have been productive to begin with.
    In addition, I believe the gun advocates are wrong in that there is no reason to have such assault weapons available to the public. No one has ever said they were going to take away the guns, but where do assault weapons, not meant for anything other than to do major bodily harm, fit into this? Would it have made a difference in this current situation? Yes, maybe it would have saved one officer of the three. Two officers down is bad enough but, has to be better than three anyway you look at it.
    The assault weapon most likley took out the 3rd officer and the fire power of the assault weapon most likely kept other officers from reaching him in any timely manner before he died in the street. The video of the incident conveys that. Please don't tell me gun advocates that this “assault weapon” did not make a difference in this incident. It is quite apparent by the news coverage that it did. There are 3 Dead.

  • All great questions. Personally, I think we need to start on two things. First, we reduce the stigma of mental illness. We use cultural media to promote positive faces of mental illness. More people “come out” which is very hard to do. We avoid labeling people in our everyday talk. Just as you wouldn't say “that's so gay” you don't say “he's bipolar” because someone seems moody. We call people out when they do these things (like I did with the board member of Steel City Stonewall) and not let them get away with it. Basically, we have to increase the visibility of the real lives of people living with mental illness and normalize it.
    Second, we must address the safety net. People should have access to health care, period. This means more people have access to and stay on their meds. You should be able to see your psychiatrist more than once a quarter for 15 minutes. We should have more affordable decent housing. We have to consider how someone survives on $750/month because they are disabled. You shouldn't be penalized for becoming well enough to work by losing your benefits. Our SYSTEMS should promote recovery and give people supports.
    Both of these things require that we as a society value and support adults with mental illness, which we don't. Individuals in the LGBT community should be especially attuned to this, just as we claim the African-American community should be sensitive to our plight.

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