Lessons From Tucson

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It didn’t take long for the Tucson shooting to become just another point of contention in the endless shout-fest between liberals and conservatives. Lost amid the partisan bickering was a lesson that states like Texas should heed: Lack of mental health care leads to tragedy.

On Jan. 8, a 22-year-old former community college student named Jared Loughner snuck up behind Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords while she was greeting constituents in a supermarket parking lot and shot her in the head. He then fired indiscriminately into the crowd, killing six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, and wounding 13 others.

Within hours of the attack, some left-leaning commentators were linking the shooting with the violent rhetoric emanating from some right wing and Tea Party activists. The problem with this theory is that it lacks a basis in fact. As of this writing, it appears Loughner had no affiliation with any conservative political group. In fact, it’s not clear he had any coherent political ideology. His online diatribes are the jumbled ramblings of someone with severe mental illness.

His classmates at Pima Community College reported that Loughner frequently made “irrelevant and nonsensical comments in classes,” according to TIME. The Washington Post reported that Loughner had written on a recent exam, “Eat + Sleep + Brush Teeth = Math.”

The more you learn about Loughner, the more it seems the shooting wasn’t politically motivated. We’ve found the violent tenor of recent political rhetoric truly dispiriting. But the Tucson rampage seemingly has little connection to anything Sarah Palin has been saying.

If anything could have prevented the shooting, it was probably better mental health care. Arizona, like Texas, has received low rankings from mental health advocates in recent years. The state slashed mental-health funding by 37 percent in 2010 to fill a state budget gap.

Texas should learn from this. The state already ranks 49th in per capita spending on mental health. With a $27 billion budget shortfall, Texas will likely reduce our meager mental health services even further. Severely mentally ill people who don’t receive treatment can become violent, and Texas has seen its share of horrific examples. That includes Otty Sanchez—the schizophrenic San Antonio mother who decapitated her infant in 2009.

We may soon see more tragedies like the Sanchez case. They won’t be as high-profile as the Loughner shooting. But reductions in mental health care will surely lead to loss of life.