Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Capitol Shooting

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

The Capitol Shooting

Article excerpt

No Reflex Legislation, No Long-Term Solution

In the quiet heat of a summer day in Washington, Russell Weston walked into a visitors entrance in the Capitol, pulled out a gun and killed two policemen. Weston was a loner, a man with a history of schizophrenia. His victims were likable men doing their job, protecting the heart of the U.S. government. The media coverage of the shooting was intense and the ceremonies held to honor the slain men moving. The men received heroes' burials.

One might expect in the aftermath of the shooting that congressional representatives who knew the slain officers, and who could themselves have been shot, would come up with a quick and bad legislative solution. It's easy enough to demand that all the crazies be rounded up and locked away. Yet so far all that has happened in Washington is that security has been tightened on Capitol Hill.

It may be a sign that Washington and the American public are beginning to be less frightened by mental illness, and more knowledgeable about it.

Part of the credit for the muted reaction goes to Weston's parents, two homespun people straight out of middle America. They admitted that they knew little about mental illness and did much to prevent their son from being demonized. They made themselves available to the media, sharing their anguish and heartache. They apologized for their son's actions and talked about their frustration trying to see him through his illness. The parents had long known that their son had a problem. They just didn't know what to do. With Weston unavailable to the media, and with such sympathetic parents, there was no one to blame for the shootings.

Weston's story was interpreted and told by a media already primed to take a more sober look at violence among the mentally ill. In May, a study published in The Archives of General Psychiatry showed that mentally ill people are no more prone to violence than others, with the exception of mentally ill people who are also substance abusers. Mental illness advocacy groups, including the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), had gone to great lengths to see that the study was well publicized, issuing statements and calling up reporters. Thus when Weston started shooting in July and reporters started looking for a take on the story, the Archives study was fresh in their minds.

After the shootings NAMI and other mental health advocates were quick to contact reporters and write letters to the editors setting out their view of the incident--the shootings were certainly a tragedy, but such incidents are extremely rare. …

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