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The Right to Massacre?

NEW YORK – The shootings of United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona last month are but the latest in a series of mass shootings in the US in which the (alleged) perpetrator suffered from an apparent mental disorder. Predictably, the Arizona tragedy has elicited calls for policy changes. But what, if anything, should be done differently?

The vast majority of severely mentally disordered individuals are not violent. Predicting which few without a prior history of violence will become violent is almost impossible. At the same time, proposals to protect society from the dangerously mentally ill pose basic civil-liberties issues.

A Russian reporter, Andrei Sitov, raised this question when he asserted at a White House press conference that American freedom was complicit in the Arizona shootings: “As to why – it does not seem all that incomprehensible, at least from the outside. It’s the reverse side of freedom. Unless you want restrictions, unless you want a bigger role for the government...This is America, democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the freedom to petition your government. And many people outside would also say the ‘freedom’ of a deranged mind to react in a violent way is also American.”

President Barack Obama’s press secretary answered defensively that American values do not endorse violence. That is true, but irrelevant. The question is whether American values favoring individual rights somehow facilitated the Arizona tragedy. After all, rates of severe mental illness are about the same across the developed world, yet the US seems to have more such shootings than do other countries.