AUSTIN, February 13 - No one in 1966 – especially not a six-year-old boy growing up in Benavides, Texas, where so many owned a gun for sport and deer hunting – could avoid being forever seared by the black and white images running under Walter Cronkite's narration on the evening of August 1.
Earlier that day, Charles Whitman climbed the University of Texas' iconic Tower and set his rifle's sights on 46 innocent victims, killing 14 - after having murdered his wife and mother. Almost half a century has passed since then, but similar horrific images are still broadcast on television all too often - and now they're in color. Despite changing times and a renewed debate over gun control, what hasn't changed is the public’s common-sense belief that some sort of mental illness must rage within Whitman and other mass murderers like Adam Lanza, who slaughtered 20 innocent children in Newtown, Connecticut just two months ago.
People can debate guns, but a nation divided on the gun debate should remember that it shares common ground in its belief that a deep psychosis or lingering pathology drives someone to murder on a mass scale. Had I at the age of six been asked about the cause of the tragedy at UT, I would have answered simply in a sentence that included the word crazy. Now, at the age of 52 and as chairman of the House Committee on Human Services, when asked a similar question about today's mass shootings I use words that more fully describe the murderers' psychological condition, which surely involves some sort of mental illness or treatable condition. Like most Americans, I believe that mass murderers from Whitman to Lanza suffer from mental conditions that need to be identified, assessed and treated. But Texas ranks 49th in spending on mental illness per capita - outpaced by states like Oklahoma and Mississippi.
I am not surprised that various interest groups and politicians are taking steps to do whatever the public and the Constitution support regarding guns and firearms. But that portends a long political fight. What we should do now is identify those individuals who need help, especially those who have cried out for it. We must try to seek out the future Whitmans and Lanzas before they seek out our children. Four months before the shootings, Whitman had asked for help, telling a psychiatrist that he was "thinking about going up on a tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people." Lanza was also thought to need help. We know that many mass murderers suffer from illnesses that psychological testing or simple professional observation could have identified, and perhaps treated.
No part of the debate that began in the aftermath of Newtown is simple or obvious – except for the need to put greater resources for psychological examination and treatment in the hands of city, county and state law enforcement and mental health authorities, who consistently ask for more assistance.
When we in the Legislature debate issues like the budget and what we should or should not fund, the public sometimes views us as children fighting over toys. Today, however, we need not fight like children. The state budget is not in the financial bind it was two years ago, so we can - and must - do more in this critical area.
If we do not take care of our children, we are not doing our jobs. Texas – with our proud history of self-defense, our tradition of hunting and our belief in the Second Amendment – should take the lead to demonstrate what states can do with mental health resources to calm the madness and protect our children. We can claim guidance from Corinthians, whose age-old admonition still imparts a fundamental truth: When I was a child, I spoke as a child, and I understood as a child, and I thought as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.
Let’s do what we know as adults needs to be done -- increase the level and breadth of our investment in mental health care.
Richard Peña Raymond is Texas state representative for District 42. A Democrat who resides in Laredo, Peña Raymond is chair of the House Committee on Human Services.