Major cities around the nation have an ever-increasing, and in some cases dire, homeless problem. New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego, DC, San Jose, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Boston, and Philadelphia rank one through ten in homeless populations, and combined contain about 200,000 of the more than half-million homeless in the nation. The population is not only large, it has been steadily climbing since the 1970s.

A study by the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that a quarter of the homeless have “severe mental illness,” and that nearly half have had some diagnosis of mental illness in their medical histories. It should not surprise us, then, that some homeless are violent, and that assaults committed by the homeless are on the rise. Local news sources carry such stories 1 2 3 all the time. Yet, the biggest advocacy efforts regarding the homeless seem geared to protecting their right to be homeless, to encamp where they wish, to avail themselves of services as they wish, and to treat emergency services as taxicabs. Well-meaning efforts to provide them shelters and food aren’t making a dent in the problem, likely in no small part because their mental illness has become a taboo subject, and anyone who dares suggest that the severely mentally ill be institutionalized rather than left on the streets runs afoul of the progressives that dominate this debate.

It is indeed a very thorny problem – the balancing of an individual’s rights vs the obligation the state has to protect the rights of other individuals. Yet, even libertarians recognize that being of sound mind is a necessary element of many societal interactions. A person judged to be not of sound mind isn’t held liable for criminal acts, for contracts (including wills), and so forth (we also don’t let children sign contracts, vote, buy tobacco or alcohol, take on debt, and so forth for similar reasons). And, indeed, there are provisions in the law for handling those who are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

It does seem, however, that the progressives who run our cities are more interested in allowing the mentally ill homeless to roam about and avail themselves of services at their whim than they are in treating them and/or protecting the populace from those inclined to violence – or in even treating them in a manner that might actually benefit both them and society in general

Contrast this with the advocacy for and advent of red flag laws from those political quarters. A “red flag law” permits stakeholders (e.g. police, family members) to petition the court for the right to disarm someone that they can convince a judge poses a threat, either to himself or to others. Nascent or undiagnosed mental illness has been cited as a or the factor in a number of high visibility shootings, and even the NRA is on-board with some legal provision to preemptively address concerns about a mentally ill person committing violence. This is a new layer on top of the long-standing mental illness question on the ATF Form 4473 (first mandated in 1968) that must be completed and sworn to as truthful any time someone purchases a firearm from a licensed dealer. And, it’s the sort of thing that’s meant to stop people like this past Wednesday’s shooter at a Florida bank. Florida enacted a red flag law after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas mass shooting. Sadly, that law failed to prevent the Florida bank shooting, even though early reports indicate that warnings were made, and even though he had been previously treated at a psychiatric hospital. We’ll know more as the story unfolds, but it’s not unreasonable to speculate that the government dropped the ball.

In short, the nation is expanding the ability of the state to manage the mentally ill who show proclivities to gun violence, but it’s regressing with regard to handling the mentally ill homeless. This dissonance is progressive politics in a nutshell, where people are sorted into classes before it’s determined what rights they get to keep and how robustly those rights are to be protected. It is rooted in the tendentious distinction made between “gun violence” and all other forms of assault and murder, no matter that the dead don’t feel any less dead if they were killed by a brick or a hammer instead of a pistol. And, it is illuminated by the Left’s obsession with banning “assault weapons,” even though that vaguely and fluidly defined category of guns is used in fewer than 5% of all shootings (and only a quarter of the big, high profile mass shootings that drive that narrative).

While some hard-core libertarians oppose government intervention of any kind with regard to mental illness, it is a fact that there are indeed people who are non compos mentis in our nation and in our world, and when they violate the rights of others, or show sufficient reason to believe they are of imminent threat, treating them as sane criminals are treated does neither them nor society any good service. Regular readers of this blog may recall the recent article discussing a newly-homeless woman who had a psychotic break, or the sad tale of “Evangeline,” the 400 lb mentally ill homeless woman for whom the system has no satisfactory answer.

Pre-emptive rights infringement is a very dangerous nose-under-the-tent proposition, and it should be kept under the strongest scrutiny. Determining whether someone is of sound mind can be a dicey proposition, and such power in the hands of the State comes with serious risk of abuse. This is part of what makes the problem so difficult, and part of why absolutist sloganeering is preferred over a deep-dive into the subject. But, this doesn’t change the fact that there are people who seriously mentally ill in our society, and a society founded on protecting the rights of its citizens is abdicating its responsibility when it washes its hands of dealing with them.

Post-hoc action is a different matter, and it’s certainly part of the state’s obligation to protect its citizens to implement appropriate punishments, including forced sequestration (e.g. prison or a mental institution). Mentally ill homeless with a long history of arrests for aggressive behavior are not served by the catch-and-release approach we witness today.

It is impossible to deny that our governments do a woefully insufficient job of addressing mental illness in the populace. This is due in no small part because it’s a difficult problem, and in no small part because of motivated advocacy groups driving competing agendas. It’s also a result of increased litigiousness, where advocates and ambulance-chasers see fault and negligence under every rock in order to extort taxpayer money out of government’s coffers. This has put everyone on a defensive posture, where actions are about covering the government’s ass more than about actually helping or managing the problem.

If politicians can’t easily pretend to fix a problem with a law and a photo-op, they’ll find one that they can, because the latter aids their re-election. But, even the current approaches are indefensible, no matter your perspective, if they are disparate. There’s no justification for turning a blind eye to violence by the mentally ill homeless while seeking to bolster pre-emptive infringement of gun owners’ rights.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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