Dr. Marvin Swartz is the head of Social and Community Psychiatry at the Duke University Medical Center. He has served as a consultant for The Washington Post and other media outlets following the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., in which six were killed and 14 were injured. The Chronicle’s Yeshwanth Kandimalla sat down with Swartz to discuss the circumstances surrounding the incident and the shooter, Jared Loughner.
The Chronicle: How can inflammatory political rhetoric affect a mentally or emotionally unstable person like Jared Loughner?
Dr. Marvin Swartz: The environment in which people live can really shape their thinking. With someone who has a serious mental illness, his or her environment definitely has an effect. It’s an indirect relationship.
TC: Do you consider public figures that engage in such rhetoric in any way responsible for such behavior?
MS: No, not for his behavior. There’s certainly been a lot of inflammatory rhetoric, but I couldn’t draw a one-to-one relationship between that kind of rhetoric and his behavior.
TC: How does this incident compare to school or office shootings in terms of the circumstances involving the shooter and the victims?
MS: This is certainly a much higher profile case with the federal judge and [Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.] being victims. It draws a lot more attention. Mass shootings tend to draw people’s attention and scare them. The political undertone of this incident has made it more notorious.
TC: How should Loughner’s case be handled within the legal system?
MS: The judge in the case will likely order a psychiatric evaluation of Loughner. Based on those results, his attorney can determine whether or not [Loughner] is mentally capable of standing trial. Loughner and his attorneys can try an insanity defense. A successful insanity defense is extremely rare though, and it doesn’t relieve culpability. Those who win an insanity defense are committed to mental institutions. In general, folks who plead insanity spend more time in mental institutions than they would with a regular prison sentence.
TC: Many Duke students are politically active and have heated discussions with one another. Do you see any Duke students acting as Loughner did to make a political statement?
MS: No, I do not. [Loughner] is a very sick young man and apparently untreated. I would hope anyone here who sees someone who is obviously sick would assist him. At a place like Duke, folks like the faculty or other students will try to step in and help. The community college [that Loughner had attended] assessed that he was disturbed. He was then expelled. A lot of community colleges have very few resources to be able to treat cases such as [Loughner’s].
TC: Going forward, do you see a shift in political rhetoric based on this incident?
MS: Well, President [Barack] Obama gave a speech calling for civility. It does appear to have toned down the inflammatory language for now. President Obama set the tone and many political pundits seemed to have followed that lead.
TC: Can you suggest any long-term solutions to prevent a similar incident in the future?
MS: I think there are some remedies and they have to do mostly with access to guns. We have to try to limit availability to certain kinds of guns and large cartridges and in general have better enforcement of existing gun laws. We also need to make sure communities have the resources to help those who are mentally ill.
TC: Do existing gun laws do enough to prevent mentally ill individuals from having access to guns?
MS: With the [Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, a federal law enacted in 1994 requiring background checks of people looking purchase firearms], states can report people that have been committed [to mental institutions] to a national database. It helps restrict access to guns being purchased at retail outlets, although there are restrictions for purchasing them at gun shows. I think proper enforcement of the Brady Act would somewhat limit access to guns.
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