January 2013
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There is a Difference

by Thom Riddle

America has a long history of promoting and defending personal freedoms, more so than probably any other democratic society in the world. This elevation of personal freedom above nearly all other liberties is not a bad thing in itself, and is indeed one of the distinctly American characteristics that attract so many from other lands.

I will not bother writing out a litany of liberties and personal freedoms that we enjoy because they are common knowledge. However, I will mention two specific ones which should be discussed openly in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.

No, I'm not referring to the constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms.Though I do strongly believe that a limitation in magazine/clip size for semi-automatic weapons (like there was until 2004 when the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired) would limit the magnitude of the senseless massacres that we've witnessed in recent years.

What I am talking about is the freedom to refuse medical treatment. For the most part, when an individual refuses recommended medical treatment, the direct consequences of that choice are borne by the individual alone. This is certainly true when the treatment is for a medical condition that affects the person's body. But there is a difference between physical medical treatment refusal and refusing treatment for mental conditions that affect ones behavior in a potentially catastrophic way. When a severely mentally unbalanced person has the potential to cause such mayhem and tragedy as the plethora of mass shootings in recent months and years have demonstrated unequivocally, a distinction between mental and purely physical conditions must be made.

In addition and perhaps even more importantly, we need a way of detecting and dealing with people whose mental aberration and lack of appropriate management of it are potentially dangerous to others. I am aware of the potential abuse of this distinction between mental problems and purely physical problems. I am neither a psychologist nor psychiatrist but do have close and long personal experience with family members with mental conditions that can affect their public behavior if not treated and managed properly. I am not in favor of limiting their rights to privacy. I am merely suggesting that their right to refuse appropriate treatment should be considered in the context of potential danger to others.

The laws should permit and remove disincentives for those close to people who may have serious mental conditions that might endanger others, to advise medical and court supervised authorities of the situation. Upon thorough vetting of the person bringing the situation to the authorities' notice, if the evidence is sufficient, then a physical and mental examination of the subject should be ordered while maintaining the strictest of privacy. I am not sure how this would work, but surely safeguards can be built into the system to protect the individual's right to privacy while protecting the public from a potentially catastrophic massacre at some unknown future date.

There are precedents for restricting personal freedoms for the common good of the community. Today, courts are empowered to require examination of people's mental condition and even require treatment for people with mental conditions but only AFTER they have been charged with or convicted of some heinous crime. Unless we start doing some proactive intervention, these unthinkable tragedies will continue. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School happened with legally purchased guns in one of the more restrictive gun law sates in the country. If it can happen in Newton, Connecticut, it can and may happen anywhere in the country, unless we can identify those who are potentially dangerous to innocents, and intervene with proper treatment and management.