I rarely watch TV news shows anymore, much less cable political talk shows. (Okay, I rarely watch TV at all anymore.) But I happened to watch Chris Matthews’ Hardball tonight on MSNBC. The topic was, of course, gun control. (Actually, the lack thereof, and whether is any real chance that that might change now.) And Washington Post political blogger and reporter* Chris Cillizza was answering Matthews’ question about what he thought was the problem with this country. As in, why do we have so many mass shootings? Matthews suggested some possibilities. Is it the absence of meaningful gun laws? Is it lack of health care to treat mental illness? (At least that’s how I recall it; I haven’t reviewed a transcript of the show.)
Cillizza responded with something like, “It’s gun laws. It’s healthcare. It’s mental health sentencing.” His emphasis, not mine.
It’s mental health sentencing? Really? How so, exactly–since actually there is no such thing. Not formally, any way. In truth, of course, large percentages of people serving prison sentences in this country, including people serving very long sentences, are mentally ill, some of them severely so. But, thanks to John Hinckley, mental illness almost never is a defense to a criminal charge in this country. Presumably, Cillizza knows this.
But also presumably, he knows that Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Cho Seung-Hui, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, and the others–several of whom (including Lanza, Cho, Harris and Klebold) killed themselves at the end of their maniacal spree–had no criminal record and therefore no mental illness sentence. Whatever that is.
What concerns me about Cillizza’s statement is that the very last thing we should do is allow gun-rights fanatics to try to turn this debate into one about whether prison sentences for mentally ill mass shooters are long enough to serve as a deterrent–which is what I assume that Cillizza meant. Lanza and most of the others sentenced themselves to death. And Loughner’s plea agreement calls for a life sentence. But I doubt that that will deter the next severely mentally ill teenager or young man who has access to an assault rifle and enough ammunition to kill or maim a lot of people during a rampage, and wants to do exactly that.
*This post originally referred incorrectly to Cillizza as a political columnist.