Straight Shooting on Gun Control

I would urge moderation to Abigail Kohn's enthusiasm ("Straight Shooting on Gun Control," May) in assuring us that the Second Amendment is safe. There is too much evidence to the contrary. Although in the 1700s Americans enjoyed civilian ownership of .50-caliber rifles, today we find ourselves in the preposterous situation of seeing these rifles banned or facing potential bans in several states.?

Wendy Kaminer's nonsense, however, takes the cake. She claims the National Rifle Association (NRA) "is not only a gun rights organization"; it allegedly promotes the GOP's line on issues "having nothing to do with guns," attacking the U.N., John Kerry, trial lawyers, Tom Daschle, and Clintonomics.

Nothing to do with guns? The U.N. fights gun ownership on a global scale. John Kerry never met an anti-gun bill he didn't like, including a plan to sue gun makers out of existence, which is where the trial lawyers come in. And Daschle and Clinton presided over the most viciously anti-gun administration in the history of the Republic.

James J. Jentes
Dingmans Ferry, PA

After likening gun owners to survivalists and David Koresh, Wendy Kaminer concludes that civilian armed resistance to a modern state is doomed to failure. This argument ignores the reality of insurrection. For a government to be toppled, two things must happen: It must be isolated, and it must lose its legitimacy. Isolation occurs when it is no longer safe for officials to move freely among the populace. Loss of legitimacy follows when government institutes policies that suspend basic rights in order to protect its officials against the general population. This places the police and military against the people in the name of order. Since the police and military are generally drawn from the "common" people in revolt, their sympathies can be turned to support replacing the government. That is the force multiplier that makes overthrow possible.

If private possession of weapons isn't a line of protection against a tyrannical government, why do all tyrannical governments ban them? Why do we want to confiscate them from the terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq? The answer is that a few armed and determined citizens can destabilize a government's ability to serve its single most important function, security. If it fails in that, the government falls to those who can meet this test.

Thomas M. Michaels Jr.
Wilmington, NC

In criticizing gun owners' reluctance to support any criminal justice policy addressing guns, Abigail Kohn cites the early success of the Harvard-led Boston Gun Project and asks, "Is [Wendy] Kaminer the only one to recognize this point?" Well, no. Harvard researcher David Kennedy got the NRA's informal approval before starting the project, and it was officially and repeatedly praised by the NRA after it began achieving some beneficial results.

Paul H. Blackman
Arlington, VA

Thomas Szasz Takes on His Critics

I appreciated Jacob Sullum's thoughtful and generally balanced review of Szasz Under Fire ("Thomas Szasz Takes on His Critics," May). But it is critical to distinguish Szaszian claims about the nature of "disease" from claims regarding the appropriate medical, legal, and social response to disease.

Citing my example of migraine headaches as a medical condition diagnosed almost exclusively on the basis of the patient's subjective reports, Sullum objects that "migraine sufferers are not treated against their will." Neither are most patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder–at least, most are not treated under some kind of court-ordered mandate or commitment. If one of the symptoms of migraine were, say, severe self-mutilation, does anyone seriously believe that involuntary commitment would not at least be considered for a migraine patient who refused admission to a hospital?

Sullum finds disingenuous my claim that commitment decisions are ultimately judicial, not psychiatric. But most psychiatrists have been involved in many cases in which their petition for commitment was flatly turned down by the judge. Moreover, such petitions may also be brought to the court by police officers, next of kin, other physicians, psychologists, social workers, or even "interested parties."

Sullum wrongly asserts that psychiatric diagnoses "generally imply that the 'patient' either does not properly understand his own interests or is not capable of acting on them" and that therefore "the threat of involuntary treatment always hangs in the background." Providing a psychiatric diagnosis–even a serious one, such as schizophrenia–categorically does not entail a claim that the patient does not understand his own interests or is in some pervasive way "incompetent."

Indeed, the notion of competence is fundamentally a legal, not a psychiatric one. Surely a diagnosis of delirium, rendered by an emergency room physician, carries a much higher connotation of mental incompetence and also presents the "threat" of involuntary treatment. Yet we do not find many screeds condemning the motives or practices of such emergency room physicians.

Ronald Pies, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry
Tufts University School of Medicine
Boston, MA

It is not accurate to say that I was "once a Szasz admirer," as Reason's review of Szasz Under Fire suggests. I continue to admire him for his outspoken criticism of many psychiatric practices. These include "diagnosis creep," whereby increasing numbers of undesirable human behaviors are given official diagnostic labels in order to qualify practitioners for insurance claims, and the potential for the political abuse of psychiatric labels, such as occurred in the former Soviet Union.

On the subject of schizophrenia, however, I am indeed "one of his most vocal critics." Szasz ignores a vast amount of evidence, much of which became available in the last decade, that schizophrenia is a disease of the brain in exactly the same sense that Parkinson's and multiple sclerosis are diseases of the brain. By continuing to hold to his 1961 view that schizophrenia is a "myth," Szasz is increasingly viewed as anachronistic. This allows critics to discredit him on other issues on which he has much to contribute. Dr. Szasz thus risks being confused with Dr. Seuss, which would be a loss to the psychiatric profession.

E. Fuller Torrey, M.D.
Bethesda, MD

Jacob Sullum's rich review of Szasz Under Fire is an unusually sophisticated piece, but there are some subtle points that deserve a little elaboration.

Sullum repeats the now accepted empirical observation that "insanity pleas are offered only in about 1 percent of criminal cases." He might have added that they are successful in only about 25 percent of those cases. This misleading fact, which has been utilized tendentiously to indicate that because of its rare use the insanity plea is not invalid, hides the tremendous involvement of psychiatry in the criminal justice system, from mitigated sentences to incompetence to stand trial.

The most difficult issue in evaluating Szasz and his critics is this: What about schizophrenia, which Szasz calls "The Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry"? The early E. Fuller Torrey seems more reasonable that the later Torrey on this matter, but one dilemma remains the issue of whether there is a discrete somatic illness called schizophrenia, and how much its morbidity constitutes an exception to Szaszian theory, since there are psychiatrists who diagnose schizophrenia falsely and promiscuously.

Richard E. Vatz, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric and Communication
Towson University
Towson, MD

CORRECTION: An article about the drug war in Colombia ("Legalization Now!," June) quoted Sandro Calvani of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime as saying "we're spending around $5,000 per hectare fumigated." The figure refers to spending by the international community (not the U.N.) per hectare eliminated from coca production, not merely fumigated.

Reason News

This is our annual double issue. The next issue subscribers receive will be dated October.

We're happy to report that the June 2004 Reason has won the Western Publication Association's "Maggie" award in the "politics and social issues" category.

We're also pleased to announce the publication of The Agony of an American Wilderness, by Samuel A. MacDonald, our former Washington editor. Sam's book examines the continuing struggle over the Allegheny National Forest among environmentalists, industry, and the locals who have lived and worked there for generations.