Dog Like Me

We’ve all heard about six degrees of separation, the notion that

everybody on planet Earth is a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend no

more than six times removed. Here in Santa Barbara, it’s more like

two, maybe three. If even that. Nothing brought this so painfully

close to home than last week’s mass murder at the Post Office

sorting plant in Goleta. Sherie Higgins, the mother of Maleka

Brinley-Higgins Pineda—one of the shooter’s seven victims—worked at

The Independent for many years, writing music reviews about hip-hop

and reggae. As a young teen, Maleka was in and out of the Indy

offices, giving anyone who cared to notice an invigorating blast of

sly mischief. At Maleka’s funeral on Tuesday, one my kids’

babysitters was sitting by the gravesite with Maleka’s family. The

mother of one of my daughter’s best friends went to school with

Maleka and counted her a good friend. Another of my daughter’s

classmate’s father used to encounter the shooter as part of his job

on a regular basis, and she rarely passed up the chance to chew his

head off. And it turns out a longtime friend of mine happened to

have lived right next door to the shooter.

Santa Barbara’s dramatically foreshortened degrees of separation

is what makes this town still work despite the growing gulf between

those who’ve got and those who’ve got squat. This certainly was in

evidence at Maleka’s funeral, a rare and genuinely multi-ethnic

refutation of the killer’s weird racial delusions. Looking around

at the 400 or more people circling the gravesite, you could not

help but connect the dots: one degree, two degrees, and so on. At

the same time, you couldn’t help but wonder at all the dots not

being connected.

The most obvious question, of course, is how could a certified

whack job like Jennifer Sanmarco—while in the full throes of an

accelerating psychotic fury—legally purchase a handgun? In 2003,

Sanmarco was placed in a three-day involuntary psychiatric hold

following an on-the-job breakdown so serious she had to be gurneyed

out of the Post Office with a sheriff’s escort. Still, she was

allowed to purchase a 9mm handgun from a New Mexican pawn shop.

This was no car-trunk sale in a deserted parking lot. Everything

was perfectly by-the-book and strictly legal. Despite her obvious

mental illness, Sanmarco passed the federally mandated two-day

background screening test as administered in the Land of

Enchantment. According to federal gun-control law, a judge would

have had to legally certify that Sanmarco was a “mental

defective”—nice language—for the pawnshop clerk to turn her down on

psychological grounds. And for a judge to make that finding under

federal law, it would not have been enough that she was placed on a

three-day hold against her will. Sanmarco would have to been

formally committed to a mental institution to qualify as a

“defective.” Based on my own relatives—and that’s just one degree

of separation, by the way—I’m here to tell you this standard makes

no sense.

Thankfully, the state of California does things differently. Had

she tried to buy the gun in California, Sanmarco would have failed

the background check. In California, it’s against the law to sell a

gun to anyone placed on a three-day hold within five years of the

event unless a judge says otherwise. In a less irrational world,

maybe someone would plug this loophole. But in the current

political climate, gun control lobbyists have all but given up

everything but holding on to what they already have. You can

understand why. In Florida, the legislature will debate a National

Rifle Association-sponsored bill that would make it a felony for

employers to prohibit their employees from bringing loaded guns to

work in their cars and trucks. A felony! Critics of this bill have

pointed out the grim but startling fact that murder ranks as the

number-one cause of workplace death for women.

The other obvious issue is mental-health spending. Despite

recent proclamations by the Bush administration that it takes

mental health seriously, the facts are to the contrary. It’s as if

he’s intent on driving us all crazy while removing our seat belts

at the same time. Under the Bush White House, the dollars allocated

to mental health treatment and prevention have been dwindling and

will continue to do so. Concern over the fate of the mentally

ill—and whether they could get their medication prescriptions

filled— prompted no less than 20 governors to declare states of

emergency in response to Bush’s recent Medicare reform fiasco. Will

they have to declare states of emergency again, in light of the $36

billion Bush has proposed cutting from Medicare, the government

insurance program that underwrites the cost of pharmaceuticals for

many of our mentally ill? And finally, Bush has proposed absolute

cuts—as opposed to reducing the rate of increase—for the Substance

Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. None of this is

good news.

The simple fact is none of this will bring Maleka

Brinley-Higgins Pineda—or any of Sanmarcos’s other victims—back.

It’s also a fact that most mentally ill people are not violent, but

the popular notion that they are prevents many from seeking the

help they need. It’s probably true that even with proper funding

and care available, many mentally ill people will refuse to take

their medications. It’s part of their sickness. It’s also the case

there are ways around even the tightest gun control laws. Had

Sanmarco failed her background check, no doubt she could have

bought a gun the old-fashioned way—on the black market. We will

always have mentally ill people. We will always have guns. We just

don’t have to make it so easy for the two to come together in so

deadly a combustion. That’s an obvious dot to connect, no matter

how many degrees of separation are involved.

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