In a time when America is averaging more than one mass shooting per day*, the good people of Burlington just suffered through several weeks of a homeless man riding his bike around town with a rifle strapped to his back.
*FBI definition: four or more people shot in a single incident, not including the shooter. We’ve had 29 in July so far.
Per Seven Days’ Mark Davis, police “found [Malcolm Tanner] to be ‘incoherent,’ and he insisted that laws do not apply to him.” But they did nothing about him because “he did not seem to be breaking any laws.”
Tra la la.
Two aspects of this.
First, of course they could have done something sooner, and I have no idea why they didn’t.
Burlington police eventually turned to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which handles federal firearms crimes. ATF agents learned that Tanner had felony convictions for theft and drug dealing in New Hampshire. Federal prosecutors filed a charge accusing Tanner of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Um, question here.
Did it take several weeks for them to come up with the idea of checking this guy against federal databases? On the cop shows, that’s the first thing they do, right? Doesn’t anybody at One North Avenue watch “Law and Order”?
For weeks the BPD was, according to Davis, being “flooded” with calls about this potentially dangerous man. Wouldn’t they be exploring every possible option?
Second, does it perhaps reveal a teeny-tiny hole in state law that an armed, incoherent man is free to go about his business? Which might include killing a bunch of people?
The state Legislature has rebuffed Burlington’s efforts to impose very modest gun ordinances. The Tanner incident provides abundant evidence that what works in rural areas is not suitable for our largest city. Besides, local control, right? That’s a big thing from what I hear.
Also, for those who will predictably scream “Second Amendment,” I would say this: All Constitutional rights have their limits. The First Amendment protects free speech, but it is not absolute. An incoherent man open-carrying a rifle is the very definition of “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” One person’s Constitutional right does not mean that an entire city has to live in fear.
I do sympathize with the BPD on one score. Our mental health system is badly under-resourced, and there are never enough beds for those who need psychiatric hospitalization. There are occasional media reports about patients being parked in emergency rooms for days or even weeks, but you never hear about the other effect of the inpatient bed squeeze: doctors are always under pressure to discharge people who would otherwise stay in the hospital.
In addition, as BPD Chief Brandon del Pozo pointed out, “State law requires that someone be deemed an imminent danger to themselves or others to be treated against their will. And that standard, experts say, is generally a very high bar to clear.”
So it’s not just our gun laws that need a second look; our mental health statutes should perhaps get a rewrite as well. This is not a popular stance with the mental health advocacy community, but I disagree with them on this issue. Allowing a potentially dangerous person to refuse treatment does the person no good and may put other people in harm’s way. It certainly puts them in an existentially uncomfortable position.
At last report, Tanner was being held without bail pending a federal court hearing. Thanks to the rather predictable coincidence of his criminal record in another state, the BPD can finally ensure that he is no longer a danger to the people of Burlington.
But it shouldn’t have taken weeks to discover this coincidence. And we shouldn’t have to depend on future coincidences to protect us from disturbed people with guns.