The Omaha difference

(Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

This week’s tragic attack in an Omaha mall is playing out in the news cycles across the country, pretty much as one might expect. After pausing for a moment to honor the victims, the gun debate resumed.

“When are they going to understand that easy access to guns – and the violence that accompanies access – isn’t limited to inner cities? It’s not just drug dealers who are shooting people,” says the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial.

“The real outrage of this crime is that it happened in a ‘gun free zone’ where law-abiding private citizens are disarmed by mall rules and state statute,” counters a press release from the Citizens Committee for the Right To Bear Arms, an angle picked up by Fox News. Nebraska, like Minnesota, is a concealed carry state. The mall in Omaha, however, posted signs prohibiting guns.

From Columbine, to Cold Lake, Minn., to Red Lake, to the campus of Virginia Tech, the post-tragedy debates have been changing. It changed with this shooting, too. With a few exceptions, this time the mental health issue is on the back burner.

We dared not speak of it after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gave us Columbine, for fear that attempting to understand their minds would be synonymous with condoning their actions.

When Jason McLaughlin shot up Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minn., in 2003, there was a hint — though small — of an attempt to understand the brain that masterminded it.

Hundreds of people gathered in the past few days to grieve at St. Boniface Church. A priest there, Father Cletus Connors, says he empathizes with the streses of high schoolers like McLaughlin.

“I think at that age of being a ninth grader, a person is growing so much in so many different ways, I can see how things can be disturbed,” he says.

As a leader in the community, Father Connors laments that Jason McLaughlin didn’t seek help from an adult. But perhaps his church will now have a better understanding of how to intervene with such a young man.

Those were our first steps toward understanding the unimaginable.

By the time Jeff Weise killed nine people — and then himself — on the Red Lake Reservation in 2005, the mental health issue was as much a part of the subsequent discussion as the role of guns.

University of Minnesota child psychiatrist Dr. George Realmuto offers another view. He argues some people have a genetic risk of problem behavior. Realmuto says traumatic events including bullying, violence at home or rejection increase the chance that people with certain genetic backgrounds will act out.

The focus on the need for mental health treatment reached its crescendo earlier this year, when Seung-Hui Cho committed the deadliest shooting rampage in American history. In its aftermath, the national dialogue was dominated not by guns, but by the mental health issue.

“We have difficulty recognizing mental illness in the young, often confusing serious behavioral problems with normal, temporary adolescent behavioral changes. Better recognition of mental diseases can act as a deterrent of future massacres by making an honest attempt at therapy and intervening with these vulnerable kids,” the Denver Post wrote.

The evolution of the post-shootings dialogue, though, ended on Wednesday. People did see the demons in Robert Hawkins, they did intervene, he did get a diagnosis, and he did get at least some help.

In the end, it didn’t matter. And now we’re back to square one.

  • jenel

    I see the varying angles the media has taken on the different shootings and appreciate your analysis. However, I don’t think that any conclusions can be drawn from any of those angles and therefore don’t know what you mean when you say, “we’re back to square one”. Could you help me see where you’re going?

  • Bob Collins

    Back to square one (be sure to click the links), means the focus of the post-shooting discussion has evolved, but in a circular way, as it turns out. Dylan-Klebold were publicity seeking monsters and then, as more shootings came along (or perhaps as the media looked for new angles), the discussion evolved to explore factors behind the motive, peaking at Virginia Tech and now returning to a line of exploration with this latest shooting that more closely resembles Columbine.

    YMMV, of course.

  • cee

    We are far from back to square one in the advance of research, intervention and assistance for people with mental illness. I agree the discussions in the media are appearing to be circular, but that is because there hasn’t been any full examination of the facts.

    Everyday someone is diagnosed with cancer and their chances of survival are much greater than they were even 10 years ago, because treatment has significantly improved since cancer was first “discovered”. Yet people are still dying of cancer and we are far from square one in that arena. Mental illness is also a medical diagnosis, but research (not the behavioral kind) on the brain, the causes of the variety of diagnoses, and how to treat them are still in their infancy.

    The interventions this young man received were outdated and proven to be ineffective. Primarily the answer was to remove him from his home and place him here, there and everywhere through foster care and residential treatment, thereby exacerbating his sense of being a societal “misfit”.

    He was never taught to live in his community or how to manage his illness. The family that took him in after the state “emancipated him” from their “CARE” was the first time he had been exposed to unconditional acceptance. Unfortunately it was too little too late.

    The insidiousness of mental illness destroys more than the one with diagnosis and it is reaching epidemic proportions. It is way past time to stop talking in circles and move towards talking long term solutions.

  • BJH


    We have not gone full circle. The shooter in Omaha got outdated “treatment”, was shuffled from group home to foster care and then let loose when he reached the age of 18. A kid like that needs tons of support to make it in the adult world. Generally kids with major mental illnesses are years behind their peers socially and developmentally. What kind of psychiatric care was he getting? So much is unanswered here.

    When will we learn that mental illnesses are biological brain illnesses that, left untreated and not respected can and do destroy people? When will we also learn that access to weapons in our society is also part of the picture, Like most of life, the answers are multifactorial. Is that full circle?