Saturday, January 15, 2011

Mental Illness, Community, and Guns

There's been quite a bit of second-guessing as to what Pima Community College or anyone else might have done to respond to Jared Loughner's behavior. The signs of mental illness seem to have been there.

Unfortunately, the past few days have yielded another example as resistant to simple solutions as Jared Loughner's. I would like for the differences to be instructive, but it's not at all evident we can learn anything.

Richard Morse was a physicist at Los Alamos, a designer of nuclear weapons, and, IIRC, the Division Leader of the Physics Division. Overnight Wednesday and Thursday of this week, he held an armed standoff with police from his Bathtub Row house. He was taken without gunfire and is now on his way to have his mental state evaluated. Three guns and a thousand rounds of ammunition were found in the house.

I never knew Morse very well, although most of us who lived in Los Alamos when he was working there at least had heard each other's names.

Two or three years back, he came, in the company of a couple of friends, to a public meeting I was chairing. He stood up during the question period and made an incoherent speech. The friends urged him to sit down. Another Lab retiree attended the meeting, who was slipping into the grip of Alzheimer's disease. He asked his question, the same question, a few times.

The wife of the Alzheimer's victim had contacted me earlier and explained the situation. She wanted him to have as normal a life as possible, which included coming to our meetings and asking questions. There had been rumors about Morse, too, and I think nobody attending the meeting was offended or wanted to shut down either of them. Los Alamos is a small community in both good and bad ways.

So Morse had the support of friends in the community who probably had a pretty good idea of his problems. And still, this week he had some kind of break that occasioned the police standoff. What made it particularly dangerous was that had guns and lived in the center of town.

Bathtub Row (recently made the official name of the street) is a group of stone, southwest-architecture houses that were the homes of faculty at the Los Alamos Ranch School, the residents of the mesa before the Manhattan Project. During the Manhattan Project, the higher-ups, like J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director, lived in those homes, which were the only housing to have bathtubs, hence the name.

Community support wasn't enough. Many of the medications for psychosis have terrible side effects, which is why patients stop taking them. But we could make sure that delusional people don't get guns. Unfortunately, there seems to be no indication that this will happen.

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