On Mental Health Issues, Gun Control, and Child Incarceration

The recent Oregon mass shooting at a community college by a student stirs up memories of one too many tragedies involving guns, mental health and child incarceration. Writer Shaunn Cartwright writes, "It seems all too common that people with mental health issues have access to guns... and this seems to me the real issue that our elected officials need to address."

I grew up in Tarzana, California, and my childhood memories of it were forever changed when the father of a mass murder spoke about the killings his son committed at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon earlier this month. Once again the connection between myself, my hometown, and tragedies occurring in Oregon had solidified an experience that I couldn’t shake. Years earlier I traveled to Springfield, Oregon to cover the arraignment of Kip Kinkel, the 16-year-old student who killed his parents, two students, and injured 25 others at Thurston High School. My assignment was to cover the opinions of the community and I wondered to myself what sort of justice was to be served.

As I arrived into town, a picture was painted of a small, rural town with closed ranks; every sign on the churches, the Dairy Queen, tire shops, flower shops, etc. expressed sadness and support for those hurt by the violence. The people in this town of about 60,000—almost three times the size of Roseburg—could tell who the outsiders were and gave anyone that looked like the media a cold steely eye. They didn’t like the intrusion on their sorrow, the glorification of the gore, they didn’t like me there.

As I sat outside the courtroom amongst the families who had lost children, among the children who had been shot themselves… it was a moment I will never forget. Hearing them sharing their stories of watching each other get shot and attempting to flee the shooting, hearing the parents sharing their updates on their children still in the hospital… it was gut wrenching. The moment tore my heart out and ignited such an emotional connection with the victims and their families that it made me that much more certain, Kinkel had to pay dearly for his evil.

I was shocked when Kinkel was within three feet of me, as he was ushered into the courtroom for his arraignment. Here was the murderer of four, the maimer of 25, and the disrupter of so many lives. And all my anger dissolved when I realized that he was a just terrified, little, scrawny kid. All I wanted to do was hug him and tell him it would be OK. I walked away from his arraignment completely shaken from how quickly my own emotions changed.

As it turned out, Kinkel, an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, had been seeing a psychologist for a couple months but hiding his schizophrenia because he didn’t want to be labeled “weird.” His parents, well known and respected in the small community, had been doing their best to address the situation, but felt they were running out of options. As happens all too often, mental health issues play a part in these shootings as does the lack of good mental health services and the stigma of mental illness.

The Roseburg shooting, only an hour away from Springfield, brought back a lot of memories for me. A shooting in a small Oregon town, ties to Tarzana, and a renewed call for gun control that I see going nowhere because the death grip the NRA has on our decision makers is stronger than the number of deaths that happen all too frequently, whether by mass murder or daily suicides. 

I am left to question, are all mass murderers mentally ill? There’s a legal definition, which boils down to if they knew what they were doing was wrong, then they are sane. Like a high level of premeditation, like the Colorado Theater shooter in July of 2012. Society generally assumes these people must be crazy to commit such heinous acts. But in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court said, “Juveniles are less mature than adults and, no matter how heinous their crimes, they are not among ‘the worst offenders’ who deserve to die.” Since abolishment of the death penalty for minors in 2005, 72 children on death row in 12 states are now being re-sentenced, this includes Kinkel, who is currently appealing his conviction.

I never filed my story on the Kinkel arraignment. Sitting with the survivors, parents and community, it seemed far too intrusive and exploitive to use their grief to further my journalistic endeavors. But I have always used that experience to speak out on mental health issues, gun control, and child incarceration.

Like Kinkel, who was sentenced to 111 years without parole, many children are being given adult sentences they cannot comprehend. Also, like Kinkel, many of these children have mental health issues that lead them to commit their crimes and then leading them to often being placed in solitary confinement, which has devastating effects on their psyche. It seems all too common that people with mental health issues have access to guns, whether obtained legally or not, and this seems to me the real issue that our elected officials need to address. 

This article is part of the category: Law & Justice 
This article is part of the tags: child incarceration  / gun control  / Gun violence  / mental health 


Thanks for sharing your perspective Shaunn. It seems that stigma and denial around mental illness sometimes delays treatment. Also, the way mental illness is covered (or not covered) by health insurance can result in intentional misdiagnosis to meet insurance requirements. And that can result in all kinds of problems including misprespcribing and overprescribing medications.

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