Chris Daly

Political overtones, but mental illness underneath

By Chris Daly
January 11, 2011

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MORE THAN 15 years ago, a 22-year-old man armed with a semi-automatic weapon went on a shooting rampage in Brookline. When it was over, John Salvi had killed two victims and wounded five others. To many, it appeared to be a political act, aimed at stopping abortion.

In Tucson last weekend, another man armed with a semi-automatic weapon also went on a shooting rampage. When it was over, the attacker — identified by authorities as Jared L. Loughner, 22 — had killed six people and wounded 14 others, including a member of Congress. To many, it appeared to be a political act, an attempted assassination, prompted perhaps by inflammatory rhetoric.

In both cases, authorities searched for a motive and found little more than evidence that each shooter embraced perplexing theories that touched on political controversies but did so in an idiosyncratic and unreasoned way. In both cases, as more evidence came to light, the shooters seemed utterly unsuited for involvement in any real political cause or movement.

Salvi had been diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia by several experts. Nonetheless, he was convicted of opening fire at two abortion clinics in Brookline on Dec. 30, 1994, before fleeing to Virginia, where he was arrested at another abortion clinic.

Investigators learned that Salvi had planned his murderous assault carefully. He was found to have lurked about the fringes of the pro-life movement, but he was never a joiner and never entrusted with any responsibilities. At the same time, he had other obsessions, including a new form of currency that he thought the Vatican should issue.

Despite his delusions, Salvi managed to buy a semi-automatic rifle and 1,000 rounds of hollow-tip bullets. Like many people who suffer from deranged thinking, Salvi was quite capable of using rational means to achieve irrational ends. He was found dead in 1996 in the Massachusetts prison cell where he was serving a life term.

When FBI agents searched Loughner’s home, they reported finding a note that allegedly said, “I planned ahead.’’ He had also written the name of his target, Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and the phrase “my assassination.’’

Loughner, who was swiftly taken into custody, must be considered innocent until proven guilty. He also deserves to be presumed healthy and rational. Still, Loughner shares some key biographical similarities with Salvi and many another “lone gunmen’’ in American history.

For one thing, the age at which both men are thought to have committed violent acts — their early 20s — is around the time when men tend to experience the onset of schizophrenia, a major mental illness that affects less than 1 percent of the population.

In addition, both shooters entered their twenties with a dwindling number of social contacts. Family members fretted but apparently felt at a loss.

In the aftermath of both shootings, observers wondered if outside forces were in any way responsible for the violent outbursts. In 1994, after the Salvi shootings, both sides in the abortion debate agreed to tone down their rhetoric. This weekend, many voices have urged partisans on both sides to calm down and stop demonizing their opponents.

It may be a good thing to dial back the partisan vitriol in America. But it may also be irrelevant. It may well be that the Tucson shooting, like Salvi’s rampage, has little to do with normal politics. It may turn out that both incidents, like many others, have more to do with the fatal combination of mental illness and easy access to semi-automatic weapons.

It may be far more relevant to learn more about mental illnesses that lead to disordered thinking. It may be more important to train those who work in institutions that have contact with young men like Salvi and Loughner — such as colleges and universities or the military — to spot such troubled young men. Colleges and the armed services may need to do more than exclude such young men and instead find effective ways to help them. And, it may be far more important to control who gets access to assault weapons and large amounts of ammunition.

Otherwise, no amount of political civility will save us from more lone gunmen.

Chris Daly, a former correspondent for The Washington Post who covered the Salvi case, is a professor of journalism at Boston University.