I blame Ronald Reagan

As the father of a precocious first grader I can relate somewhat to the children and parents of Newtown. My son Fallon goes to a school with no interior hallways, all exterior doorways, and literally no way to deny access to anyone with a weapon. Making this beautiful school defensible would logically begin with tearing it down. But the school design is more a nod to good weather than it is to bad defensive planning. The best such planning begins not with designing schools as fortresses or filling them with police. It doesn’t start with banning assault weapons, either, though I’m not opposed to that. The best defensive planning starts with identifying people in the community who are a threat to society and to themselves and getting them treatment. And our failure to do this I generally lay at the feet of Ronald Reagan.

I’ve written about Reagan here before. When he died in 2004 I wrote about a mildly dirty joke he told me once over dinner. It showed Reagan as everyman and explained to some extent his popularity. Also in 2004 I wrote a column that shocked many readers as it explained how Reagan’s Department of Justice built brick-by-brick the federal corrections system that it knew would do nothing but hurt America ever since, making worse both crime and poverty all in the name of punishment.

At the same time Reagan was throwing ever more people into prison he was throwing people out of mental institutions -- a habit he adopted as California governor in the late 1960s. When he came into office President Reagan inherited the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, a law that passed with huge bipartisan support and was intended to improve the quality of community mental heath care. Reagan immediately killed the law by refusing to fund it, thwarting the intentions of Congress.

Reagan was offended by the entire idea of public health policy: remember Just Say No?

The Reagan administration cut funding for mental health treatment and research throughout the 1980s and it has never recovered. The Administration changed Social Security policy to disenfranchise citizens who were disabled because of mental illness, making hundreds of thousands homeless. What they called the New Federalism resulted in mental health treatment moving from the public to the private sector and becoming mainly voluntary: mentally ill people had to want to get better and then generally had to pay for their own treatment. No wonder it didn’t work.

Jump to Newtown just over a week ago where 20 year-old Adam Lanza managed to slip virtually unnoticed through the mental health system. Anyone who knew him knew he was troubled, but his family had enough money to keep him out of the system. It was assumed the family would care for him, keeping him out of trouble, too, but they didn’t.

Today, thanks to the Internet and laws supporting victims’ rights, I can find where convicted sex offenders live in my neighborhood, but I can’t find my local Adam Lanza. And maybe that’s okay and my Adam deserves some privacy. But not only can’t I find him, neither can the local police, local medical officials, or even the FBI. We don’t keep track of these likely threats to our communities when it would be so easy to do so.  It doesn’t even require Big Data, just plain old little data that’s been sitting all along with educators, health care professionals, gun sellers and pharmacists.

That’s what we should do in response to Newtown but instead we’ll now have a big argument about banning guns or putting police in schools. Probably very little will be done to simply identify and treat the hostiles within our society.

We didn’t do it when the wacko was named John Hinckley Jr. and the victim was Ronnie Reagan, himself, and we probably won’t do it now.

Reprinted with permission

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