KSJ Tracker June 3, 2014

Guns, mental illness, and The New York Times: Good intentions don't make for a good analysis.

Joe Nocera

Joe Nocera has done a lot to call attention to guns with his Gun Report blog at The New York Times. He clearly wants to leverage his prominence as an Op-Ed columnist at the Times to do something to prevent mass shootings. And I'm all for it.

Yet his good intentions sometimes get in the way of his analysis. That's what happened in his column on Sunday.

He began by expressing empathy for the parents of Elliot Rodger, the man who killed six people and himself last month in Isla Vista, Calif. "It's difficult to read stories" about Rodger "without feeling some empathy for his parents," Nocera wrote. Noting that Rodger's mother had called the police to report what Rodger was putting on YouTube, Nocera wrote, "How worried — how desperate, really — must a mother be to believe the police should be called on her own son?"

The answer is not what Nocera thinks. He raises the question to try to show how bad things had become. But while I was writing a book about raising children with mental illness a few years ago, I heard from many parents who had called the police on their children. If you have a child who is threatening suicide, or threatening to harm himself or someone else, or taking drugs, calling the police can be a reasonable thing to do. Evidently, Nocera can't imagine such a thing except in extreme cases such as that of the Rodger family.

We can't know for sure, but calling the police might have been a smart thing in this case--a way to get help, not to telegraph the family's desperation.

In any case, Nocera's empathy for Rodger's mother doesn't last two long. By the sixth paragraph, he was writing:

Throughout, said one person who knew Rodger, “his mom did everything she could to help Elliot.” But what his parents never did was the one thing that might have prevented him from buying a gun: have him committed to a psychiatric facility. California’s tough gun laws notwithstanding, a background check would have caught him only if he had had in-patient mental health treatment, made a serious threat to an identifiable victim in the presence of a therapist, or had a criminal record. He had none of the above.

Now Nocera is blaming Rodger's mother for not having him committed--even though Nocera writes, just a few paragraphs later, that "nondangerous mentally ill people can't be confined against their will if they can function without confinement." Nocera is criticizing a mother for not doing what he acknowledges was probably impossible.

The column ends abruptly with a quick switch, in which Nocera writes that instead of doing all the things that couldn't and probably shouldn't have been done for Rodger, "maybe we should be making it harder to get guns, period."

Agreed. But let's not criticize parents along the way. We can't imagine what they are living through: Could one more call have made a difference? Should somebody have been with him that night? Do incidents his parents remember from his childhood now seeming like warning signs, when they seemed minor at the time? Where do they think they failed? Do they think they should have been able to stop this?

I don't know what they are thinking. I'm guessing. But it must be unspeakably awful to be in their shoes right now. All of the deaths that Rodger caused--including his own--are tragedies. But you won't see a lot of public sympathy for Rodger's parents, and you won't likely see his name included in any memorials or remembrances as one of the young people who tragically died too soon.

I'm making too much of Nocera's column. It wasn't terrible; but it wasn't terribly well informed, either. Before writing again about mental illness in young people, he might want to talk to some of them--and to their parents.

-Paul Raeburn


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