For those of us who came of age in the 1970s, one of the most shocking aspects of the last three decades was the rise of mass public shootings: people who went into public places and murdered complete strangers. Such crimes had taken place before, such as the Texas Tower murders by Charles Whitman in 1966,1 but their rarity meant that they were shocking.
Something changed in the 1980s: these senseless mass murders started to happen with increasing frequency. People were shocked when James Huberty killed twenty-one strangers in a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California in 1984, and Patrick Purdy murdered five children in a Stockton, California schoolyard in 1989.
For a while, it was fashionable to blame gun availability for this dramatic increase. But guns did not become more available before or during this change. Instead, federal law and many state laws became more restrictive on purchase and possession of firearms, sometimes in response to such crimes.
Nor has the nature of the weapons available to Americans changed all that much. In 1965, Popular Science announced that Colt was selling the AR-15, a semiautomatic version of the M-16 for the civilian market.
The Browning Hi-Power, a 9mm semiautomatic pistol with a thirteen-round magazine, was offered for sale in the United States starting in 1954, and advertised for civilians in both the U.S. and Canada at least as early as 1960.
If gun availability does not explain the increase of mass public murders, what else might?
Clayton Cramer points to deinstitutionalization.
At least half of these mass murderers (as well as many other murderers) have histories of mental illness. Many have already come to the attention of the criminal justice or mental health systems before they become headlines. In the early 1980s, there were about two million chronically mentally ill people in the United States, with 93 percent living outside mental hospitals. The largest diagnosis for the chronically mentally ill is schizophrenia, which afflicts about 1 percent of the population, or about 1.5 percent of adult Americans.
A 1999 study found that 16.2 percent of state prison inmates, 7.4 percent of federal prison inmates, and 16.3 percent of jail inmates, were mentally ill. As of 2002, about 13 percent of mentally ill state prison inmates nationwide had been convicted of murder.
In the 1960s, the United States embarked on an innovative approach to caring for its mentally ill: deinstitutionalization. The intentions were quite humane: move patients from long-term commitment in state mental hospitals into community-based mental health treatment.
John Linley Frazier was one of the first such examples. Like many other schizophrenics, he first exhibited symptoms in his early 20s. Fixated on ecology, after a traffic accident he became convinced that God had given him a mission to rid the Earth of those who were altering the natural environment. Frazier’s mother and wife recognized how seriously ill he was, and tried to obtain treatment for him, but he refused it.
Patrick Purdy, a mentally ill drifter, used his Social Security Disability payments to buy guns, while having a series of run-ins with the law. After one suicide attempt in jail in 1987, a mental health evaluation concluded that he was “a danger to his health and others.” In January 1989, Purdy went onto a schoolyard in Stockton, California with an AK-47 rifle, murdered five children and wounded twenty-nine others, before taking his own life.
Federal prosecutors held back for a few days from indicting Laurie Wasserman Dann in May 1988 for a series of harassing and frightening phone calls—and in those few days, she went on a rampage, killing one child in an elementary school, wounding five children and one adult, and distributing poisoned cookies and drinks to fraternities at Northwestern University.
Buford Furrow was a member of a neo-Nazi group in Washington State. Conflicts with his wife led her to take him to a mental hospital, where he threatened suicide and “shooting people at a nearby shopping mall.” He threatened nurses with a knife. At trial, he told the judge about his mental illness problems and suicidal/homicidal fantasies. The judge refused to hospitalize Furrow, sending him to jail instead. Released within a few months, Furrow went to Los Angeles in August 1999, where he acted out the fantasy that he had earlier told the court: he shot up a Jewish community center, wounding five people, and murdering an Asian-American mail carrier nearby.
There is a long list of similar cases which point to the fact that the problem isn’t the availability of assault rifles, it’s the failure to lock up the violent mentally ill because of intervention from groups such as the ACLU.