Man Who Killed NYPD Officers Was Just Another Resentful, Mentally Ill Person With Access to Firearms

No sooner had the fatal shooting of two NYPD officers reached the newswires than the predictable partisan backlash began: conservatives  who had been on their heels as a movement grew against police brutality suddenly found their foooting from which to unleash a torrent of invective blaming liberals for the killings. Sensible people have pointed out that it is possible to mourn the brutal killings of police officers alongside the pointless deaths of unarmed civilians. 

But overlooked in this narrative is the depressing reality that this latest multiple murder has much more to do with America's continued inability to solve its epidemic of gun violence, particularly by the mentally ill, than it does with the ongoing debate about policing tactics. It's not just that (minor incidents of looting notwithstanding) protests against excessive force by police have been expressly non-violent and that a movement whose slogan is "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" can hardly be blamed for causing someone to shoot innocent public servants. There are other, deeper problems. 

The Right's preferred narrative about the killings that the shooter's primary motive was to take revenge on police is complicated by the fact that he first shot his ex-girlfriend  before using his gun on the officers and finally on himself. It's difficult to assert a cold-blooded anti-institutional revenge motive when his first victim was a defenseless former lover. The conservative story that anti-police protests convinced the killer to take racially motivated vengeance is complicated by the fact that the victims, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were both people of color. Nor was the killer a rational actor: he had a long history of mental illness and attempted suicide. His social media presence paints a portrait of a man veering back and forth from self-loathing to rage against society. 

In this respect, he was little different from other recent mass murderers in America: mentally ill, usually violent against women, resentful of the world, and somehow able to acquire a gun. In Oregon earlier this year a deeply religious conservative teenager shot a fellow student to death and injured a teacher to rid the world of "sinners." Another mentally ill and sexually frustrated young man acquired an arsenal of guns and went on a murderous and ultimately suicidal rampage in Isla Vista, apparently in an attempt to punish all the young women who had spurned him. The Fort Hood military base was the site of two separate mass shootings with guns bought at the same store: the first rampage in 2009 by a deranged misogynistic Islamist fundamentalist for the purpose of jihad, the second just this year by a man with a history of mental instability apparently upset with his former squadmates and superiorsThe man who shot Gabby Giffords and killed six others was apparently motivated by deep-seated paranoia and a desire for fame. The Virginia Tech shooter had a history of mental health problems and anger issues on a variety of fronts. And we may never know why the Sandy Hook shooter took the lives of so many innocent children.

The list goes on and on. The stated motive for the killings is always different, but the common denominator is almost always the same: a mentally ill, socially dysfunctional man with a loaded firearm looking to go out in a blaze of glory.

In the case of the most recent murder-suicide in New York, the killer had apparently undiagnosed but obvious mental health issues. He was also a felon who had been previously convicted on gun possession charges. And yet he was somehow still able to acquire a firearm, shoot his former lover, brag on social media and execute two police officers before turning the gun on himself. After each shooting, the public always wants to know why the killer did it. It helps us to achieve to closure, to make sense of our chaotic world, and to ascribe blame. In addition to the killers' actual motives, agenda-driven modern-day Harold Hills use every outbreak of mass gun violence to blame a variety of irrelevant factors from declining morals to video games to, most recently, non-violent protests against police brutality.

But it's increasingly clear that why doesn't matter nearly as much as how. The NYPD shooting is simply another in a long line of cases in which an angry young man fell through society's cracks, didn't receive the mental health assistance he needed, and most importantly was able to acquire a gun, an impersonal tool that that makes mass killing tragically easy both physically and emotionally. Regardless of one's stance on the 2nd Amendment, it's more than obvious by now that America's Wild West attitude toward gun ownership and individualistic ethic combine with a woefully neglected mental health infrastructure to create a breeding ground for incidents of mass murder. 

Nor will more guns on the street help solve the problem. The killer's ex-girlfriend would not have been able to save herself even had she been armed and the officers were, of course, well armed themselves. An armed bystander would have been helpless to prevent the officers' deaths, and self-preservation was (as usual) not a factor: had a bystander shot the killer, it would simply have saved him the trouble of taking his own life.

Indeed, one thing both sides of the police brutality debate should be able to agree on is that both police and regular citizens would be safer in an environment with fewer firearms, particularly in the hands of those least mentally equipped to hold them. Many explanations abound for why American police officers tend to use deadly force so much more often than those in other countries, but one important factor is that American officers must constantly be in a reflexive quick-draw mode, never knowing just who might have a gun tucked under their belt or in the glove compartment.

All the partisan sound and fury aside, nothing would do more to save the lives both of officers and those they are sworn to protect than quelling the gun violence epidemic by improving mental health services and reducing easy access to firearms.


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