This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," December 22, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
PAUL GIGOT, FOX HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," as the residents of Newtown, Connecticut, bury their dead, tough questions about how America treats the severely mentally ill, and protects society from them.
And House Republicans' Plan B to avoid a fiscal crisis collapses. Is there a Plan C or are we headed off the cliff?
And top State Department officials testify on Capitol Hill about the Benghazi attack. But we'll have to wait a little longer to hear from Hillary Clinton. Could her role in that debacle hurt her plans for 2016?
Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.
As the nation copes with the shooting deaths of six adults and 20 children at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, efforts turn now to preventing the next tragedy, with President Obama appointing a task force to study gun violence, and members of Congress calling for stricter gun control measures.
But my guest this week says the heart of the problem is not the availability of weapons, but the abundance of individuals with severe mental disorders who are not being treated.
Dr. E. Fuller Torrey is the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center and author of the "Insanity Offense: How America's Failure to Treat the Seriously Mentally Ill is Endangering Its Citizens."
Dr. Torrey, welcome. Good to have you here.
DR. E. FULLER TORREY, FOUNDER, TREATMENT ADVOCACY CENTER & AUTHOR: Thank you, Paul. My pleasure.
GIGOT: You've written for us you're not opposed to gun control, but the access of mental ill people to guns is a bigger threat. How many people are we talking about across the United States?
TORREY: It's both a gun problem and a mental illness problem. We have about seven million severely mentally ill people in the United States at any given time. Of these, half are not being treated at any given time.
And about 1 percent or 70,000 are potentially dangerous at any given time.
And we're not treating those people.
GIGOT: How do we get around to treating them? We don't know, for example, that Adam Lanza really was mentally ill. We haven't seen if -- we don't know if there was a formal diagnosis. So how do we identify those people and make sure they get treatment?
TORREY: Most of the potentially dangerous people we can identify.
You can walk into the police station in any small town in the United States, say, who are the potentially dangerous people that you know about?
And say, well, John over on Fourth Street, we have to go and visit every two weeks because he gets a gun out and threatens to kill his neighbors.
We know basically who the potentially dangerous people are. But we often, because the way the laws are written in most states, we can't do anything until they actually act. Until they've actually committed a crime.
GIGOT: Well, explain that. Why to we have to wait if police departments and others know? When you say the laws -- the way the laws are written, how does that work? Or in this case, not work?
TORREY: Paul, these are state laws --
TORREY: -- so they vary from state to state. Connecticut, as an example, has among the most stringent, restrictive commitment laws, so the only way you can get somebody treated in Connecticut is if they are overtly a danger to themselves or others. You can't treat them because they are potentially, because they have exhibited dangerous, dangerous behavior in the past. You have to wait until they actually do something. They also -- Connecticut's a good example of one of only six states that does not have assistant outpatient treatment. Which means you can treat the person living in the community on the condition -- they can live in the community on condition that they take the medication. Connecticut doesn't even have a law like that.
GIGOT: So, but who makes that decision when you say assist outpatient treatment. For example, in the case of an Adam Lanza, who would make that decision about the fact -- saying, look, you would need to take this treatment, otherwise, you're going to have to be incarcerated?
TORREY: The petition could be filed by the mother or by another family member or by a member of the police, for example, if they thought the person was dangerous. They then would have to be examined. I'm talking about a typical state.
GIGOT: Right. Sure.
TORREY: And they would have to be -- they then would have to be examined and they would have to have a court hearing. They would be defended by a lawyer. So, it's a judicial process that then says, yes, you have exhibited dangerousness. We think you may be dangerous.
And remember, Paul, half these people don't know they're sick. They won't take medication voluntarily --
TORREY: -- because they don't think there's anything wrong with them. And they then are basically adjudicated by a judge that says, yes, you can continue to live at home or wherever you're living on the condition you take medication. If you don't take medication, we have the legal right to put you in the hospital and stabilize you.
GIGOT: These laws seem reasonable on its face as you explain it. Why -- what is the opposition to this kind of assisted outpatient treatment?
TORREY: Very strong opposition from the Civil Liberties Union. From
GIGOT: The ACLU, American Civil Liberties Union?
TORREY: ACLU, Bashlon Center (ph), here, in Washington, has been a major impediment. And a lot of people believe that nobody should ever be treated involuntarily.
Well, that flies in the face of the fact that we treat people with active tuberculosis involuntarily when they won't take medicine. We also restrict people who have Alzheimer's disease and don't know they're sick. So, we do this for other conditions, but we have a lot of trouble thinking through this clearly for people with severe mental illness.
GIGOT: You mentioned in your op-ed for us that the number of activity psychiatric beds for severely mentally ill patients has declined in the last 50 years from more than half a million to fewer than 50,000. I guess this is part of that movement you're describing against incarcerating the mentally ill. But you're saying that that decline in those beds has endangered the American public?
TORREY: It has, because if you try to get somebody who needs hospitalization into a hospital today, it's virtually impossible. As one of my colleagues says, it's easier to get somebody into Harvard than it is a mental hospital.
We have really only one out of the 20 beds that we had 50, 60 years ago, given the increase in population. 95 percent of the beds that we used to use were treating people with severe mental illnesses are now closed.