In a press conference covering the brutal mass murders at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Sheriff John Hanlin defiantly refused to mention the name of the perpetrator, Chris Harper Mercer, and encouraged the media to do the same. The media should reject the Sheriff's request because understanding this particular shooter could be key to developing policies to prevent future shootings.
Based on Mr. Mercer's online postings, Sheriff Hanlin posits that Mr. Mercer wanted fame and by failing to mention his name the media can deny it to him. But Mr. Mercer is dead, so won't know that "fame" was denied him. It's a fool's errand. And a more likely cause of the murders was untreated serious mental illness although that is not known at this time. A 2013 investigation by Mother Jones found 63% of mass shooters between 1982 and 2012 had mental illness. The Telegraph reports that one of Mr. Mercer's online handles was "Lithium_Love." Lithium is a medicine used to treat bipolar disorder.
Perhaps the sheriff and media are shunning Mr. Mercer's name for fear of creating copycats. But if the cause turns out to be related to untreated serious mental illness, then the solution is related to understanding and treating the illness, not burying our heads in the sand and painting a unidimensional portrait of a monster. Liza Long, tried to explain that to the public when rather than shunning the mention of Newtown murderer Adam Lanza's name as many were suggesting, she wrote, "I am Adam Lanza's Mother" explaining her fear that her own mentally ill family member might become a headline. It was an attempt to get the public to develop a rationale nuanced response to reducing future violence.
This isn't the first time the media has shunned mentioning someone who may have serious mental illness and has committed a grievous crime. Mentally ill James Holmes was sentenced to life in prison for having killed 12 innocent people in Aurora, Colorado. In response to heartfelt pleas from families of Mr. Holme's victims, two CNN anchors declared they were avoiding the mention of James Holmes name and showing his picture. Is that why Congress hasn't passed legislation to reform the mental illness system proposed by Rep. Tim Murphy (R., PA) in the three years since those shootings?
I understand noble intentions of not wanting to offend those who were the real victims. My heart goes out to them. But as a family member of someone with serious mental illness, I would argue the best way to honor them is to understand what might be the root cause of this incident and use it to prevent future incidents. A head-in-the-sand approach is not what's needed. Help for those with serious mental illness and a policy that prevents people with serious mental illness from gaining access to firearms may be.
Mr. Chris Harper Mercer is the latest proof of that.
DJ Jaffe is executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org., a non-partisan science-based think tank that addresses serious mental illness and violence.