Yes, Of Course, Gun Control. But We Also Need More Crazy-Person Control

One consequence of mass killings like this week's horror in Newtown, according to reporting by Kristina Fiore, is this: Involuntary commitments of mentally ill men will increase for a while. To which I can only say: Terrific. I hope they triple. Yes, it's obvious that we need to reduce unstable men's access to guns (because guns greatly amplify the damage that a killer can inflict in a few seconds or minutes). But it's also obvious that we should be trying to reduce their access to people, and increase their access to serious help. Because even if we can get a handle on assault weapons and military pistols, there will still be knives, fertilizer and poison.

If you've ever had to deal with straight-up mental illness (not eccentricity or emotional outbursts, but the genuine crazy, which feels totally different), then you already know that it is extraordinarily difficult to force a troubled person into treatment in this country. This is a consequence of a 1975 Supreme Court decision, O'Connor v. Donaldson, which held that it's unconstitutional to confine a mentally ill person who presents no danger to himself or others. That decision was part of a great wave of "deinstitutionalization," in which people who had been warehoused in state-run mental hospitals were moved into society (supposedly into community mental health facilities, though sometimes into nothing). The Donaldson decision left states scrambling to write rules to define what constituted danger to self and to others, and to define who would decide. The practical consequence is that today people who are obviously in trouble, and obviously frightening, have been left untreated and unfettered.

For example, in 2005 Seung-Hui Cho was referred to a psychiatric hospital after a couple of people complained about his threatening behavior. But there he was judged to be mentally ill but not a danger to himself or others, and so was freed. On April 16, 2007, he killed 32 people at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, where he was a student. And Denver media have reported that the psychiatrist treating James Holmes last year notified a threat-assessment team at the University of Colorado that he could be dangerous. But the team did not follow up because Holmes dropped out of his university program. He later killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater.

One more example: In 2010, the campus police at Pima Community College in Arizona were called five times to deal with weird, threatening behavior by Jared Loughner. Finally in September of 2010 the school's administration told Loughner he needed to be certified non-dangerous by a mental-health professional before he could return to class. Instead, he withdrew from classes entirely. So the school had gotten him out of its hair. On January 8, 2011, Loughner killed six people in a Tucson mall, and wounded 14 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

It's a common myth that American massacres are total surprises, where no one imagined the perpetrator capable of such the crime. In fact, as this 2002 Secret Service report (pdf) on school shootings concluded, "most attackers engaged in some behavior, prior to the incident, that caused others concern or indicated a need for help." Yet those concerned others often did not or could not act; the help wasn't proffered. Can we imagine that this has nothing to do with our patient-centered culture, in which the troubled person's rights and needs come before anything else?

In the stories coming out about the Newtown shooter, Adam Lanza, acquaintances are saying they knew all along that he had it in him. People also talked that way about Cho, Holmes and Loughner. And while it's obvious that many of these statements are just media echo-chamber effects and 20/20 hindsight, some are not. Some gave journalists specific examples to back up their claims that people knew these young men were troubled, and troubling. Yet apparently it was just too difficult to force them to address their demons.

The politically correct way to broach this topic is to speak about improving the American mental-health system, offering genuine treatment to all who need it (in fact, since 1971 American law has held that mental patients have a constitutional right to treatment). And nobody—not even people in favor of some form of "reinstitutionalization," like this guy—wants to return to the era when mentally disturbed people were warehoused and given little or no help. But maybe we could admit that our patient-centered language of rights and freedoms doesn't adequately protect the rest of society.

This week a lot of gun-control advocates have been asking about the cost in blood of our right to bear arms, noting, as Gregory Gibson put it the other day, that children have paid for their elders' freedom. Shouldn't we be asking this same question about the freedom to refuse treatment for severe mental disorders?

Photo: "Non-Violence" (also known as "The Knotted Gun") by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd at the United Nations in New York. Via Wikimedia.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study:
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.

How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."