GUN CONTROL OR PEOPLE CONTROL? Part Two: Psych Beds and Psych Meds–Faster Than a Speeding Bullet?

As we pass the 13.5-month anniversary of the Newtown school shooting, and approach the 15-year anniversary of the Columbine school shooting (or, hell, pick a school shooting and do the chrono-math) we find ourselves struggling with the idea of stigmatizing people with mental illness in order to support easy access to guns and ammo—okay, not so much struggling as having to have a really stupid argument with people who love guns and people who know better than to engage in such a dangerous form of Objektophilie at the expense of fellow citizens, and while demeaning a particular group of citizens.

In an opinion piece that was posted on the Fox News web site just before the one-year anniversary of the Newtown school shooting, “Medical A-Team Member” Dr. Keith Ablow once again lends his severely-compromised credibility to the issue of gun control versus mental-health-system-blaming in order to craft an argument where fewer people would die if only there was increased access to psych beds and other psych services, and just as much, if not more, access to guns.

You can read the piece (all puns intended) here…

Dr. Ablow fires out a random assortment of gun- and mental-health-related ideas with the precision and deadly accuracy of a single blast of #9 shot, aimed to take down the elephant in the room—that no meaningful action has been taken to reduce access to unnecessarily powerful weapons and massive amounts of ammunition.  Of course, as with trying to take down an elephant with a single blast of #9 shot, all that Ablow does is irritate the elephant—or exacerbate the problem—by claiming that it is mental illness that is the real problem.

Ablow starts off by listing five mass shooters from recent years, and remarks that we “now know” that they were all severely mentally ill.  Ablow then abruptly shifts to talk about Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds, whose adult son, Austin (aka Gus), slashed/stabbed the Senator (with a knife) and then committed suicide (with a gun) in November.  (Note: this crime did not involve mass killing).

Prior to the stabbing and suicide, Austin was under an emergency custody order for a psychiatric evaluation, which expired before a psychiatric bed was secured for him.  Multiple hospital officials in Virginia later stated that they had open psychiatric beds at the time Austin was turned away.  It’s unclear exactly how things fell apart in this case, but it wouldn’t be impossible for a six-hour hold to expire while an overwhelmed staff at one facility needed to present the case for, and secure a bed for, hospitalization at another facility.  It is also possible that Austin did not meet grounds for (mental health) detention.

Dr. Ablow states that Austin was “discharged from an emergency room where he complained of severe psychiatric symptoms.”  But there are a number of problems with this statement.  For one, it comes in the context of one of Dr. Ablow’s “We know” statements—and “we” do NOT “know” what Austin may or may not have said or “complained” about.  Also, given that Austin was under an emergency custody order, chances are that he wasn’t voluntarily seeking help.  If Austin was willingly seeking help, and considered competent to do so, then the order wouldn’t have been necessary.

Unfortunately, if a client is not a clear threat to self or others, or in danger of harm due to being incapable of caring for him/herself, the client (generally speaking) cannot be detained.  Senator Deeds stated, after the incident, that while he expected conflict with his son, he did not expect his son to turn violent.  And in Virginia (mental health evaluation and detention procedures differ from state to state) a person cannot be detained if the emergency custody order expires before a psychiatric “bed” is found.  By contrast, in a number of other states, if a person is viewed as detainable for mental health reasons, they can be held (for example, in an emergency room) until a psychiatric bed becomes available or the client is stabilized.

At any rate, Dr. Ablow devotes a one-sentence paragraph to greatly simplifying what happened in the Deeds case, and ensuring that nobody who reads his column would understand anything about how laws related to mental health treatment operate, or what is required of patients and evaluators in detaining a person for mental health reasons.

As a bit of an aside, I routinely speak with people who think that all it takes for the state to send out an ambulance with a couple of guys and a straitjacket to cart away a loved one is three people who will pinky-swear that a relative or close friend needs to be “locked up.”  This is the kind of information that comes from old movies involving a group of people conspiring to get a relative “committed,” so they can usurp the family fortune.  As another bit of an aside, think of how much you agree with the idea that it should be legal for the state to lock a person up based on a consensus among three people that the person is “crazy.”

But Ablow’s interest is not in creating greater understanding, or making any kind of appeal to anybody based on, say, critical thinking skills.  It’s in telling us how guns are not a problem when it comes to people being shot.

Strangely enough, to make his pro-gun argument, Ablow then discusses Adam Lanza, the Newtown, Connecticut mass-shooter, in deeper detail.  Lanza, Ablow explains, was “allowed” to “learn how to shoot a firearm” by his mother, Nancy, who was the first victim of Adam’s shooting spree.  Dr. Ablow apparently hopes that readers don’t remember/can’t do an Internet search to find out that Lanza’s mother had numerous guns and a great deal of ammunition in her home (where Adam also lived), all purchased legally, and, shortly before the killings, had even written a check to Adam so he could go buy his own gun.

Also, as with the Deeds case, Lanza’s mother indicated that she did not fear violence from Adam, despite his statements and behavior to the contrary, and despite the large number of weapons she kept in her home.  Nancy Lanza’s sense of safety in opposition to all signs to the contrary is not unusual.  Most gun-rights advocates seem to suffer from some sort of collective delusion that they cannot be harmed with their own guns, although statistically speaking, gun owners and their family members are much more likely to be shot with those guns (accidentally, self-inflicted, or otherwise) than any bad-guys.

While ignoring Nancy Lanza’s love of guns, Dr. Ablow notes Adam’s obsession with mass murder, his playing of “violent video games (including one about school shootings)” and that Adam lived in the basement of his mother’s home, where he had covered the windows with trash bags and only communicated with his mother via e-mail during the three months before the shootings took place.  Dr. Ablow mentions Lanza’s Asperger’s Disorder diagnosis, and posits that he “may well have merited other diagnoses.”

Well, given that most people with Asperger’s Disorder don’t take up arms against grade-school children, I’d guess Dr. Ablow might be right about that diagnosis piece.  Lanza had also been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (neither of which tend to lead to mass killing), and had been prescribed medications related to his various diagnoses, but there was little follow-up by Lanza or his mother with regard to the psychiatric care.

This leads to another point regarding how pointless it is to claim that the “mental health system” is to blame for the problem of gun violence.  If the family members of someone like Adam Lanza did little or nothing to get him help, and actively encouraged his access to guns, it seems rather ridiculous to think a psychiatrist would be able to correct that situation with a few days in the hospital and some medications.

Strangely enough…whoops, I mean, “of course,” Dr. Ablow doesn’t mention where Lanza got any of the weapons and ammunition, but instead highlights just how weird (he assumes his readers will believe) it is that Lanza lived in his mother’s basement, and spent time on computers.  Remember, kids, video games kill.  Living in your mother’s basement kills.  Having a massive arsenal of weapons in the home is NOT the problem.

Getting all compassionate, Dr. Ablow goes on to say that “untreated or poorly treated mental illness is” a problem.  He even italicizes it.  Oh, wait, let me back up off of that statement a bit, so that we can see that what he actually says is that (and let this soak in), an “anti-gun agenda misses the point: Firearms aren’t the responsible variable in mass killings: untreated or poorly treated mental illness is.”  (His italics)

Well, I don’t know, Dr. Ablow…I’ve got a weird feeling that there are a lot of people out there with untreated or poorly treated mental illness who don’t commit mass killings, at least in part because they don’t have access to a bunch of guns and ammunition.  (My italics)

After his impassioned, italicized plea that guns don’t kill people, people with mental illness kill people, Dr. Ablow awkwardly segues to a brief mention of the 1927 Bath School disaster as the example of the “worst episode of school violence ever” and notes (italicized and underlined) that it “involved no gun.”  (Yes, his underlining and italicizing).

The Bath School disaster is one of those weird things that pro-gun folk like to cite as a reason why school shootings really aren’t all that bad.   Unfortunately, it kind of undermines their argument if you actually look at it—because the Bath School disaster was committed using dynamite and incendiary pyrotol—substances that are not generally sold in your local Walmart.  Those explosives in particular aren’t actually available much anymore, pyrotol having been banned for sale to farmers in 1928 (the year after the Bath School disaster—committed by a guy who owned a farm), and dynamite having largely gone off the market due to the availability of more stable explosives.

Another fun fact is that explosives tend to be rather heavily regulated by the government.  After that whole episode of Timothy McVeigh blowing up the Oklahoma City Federal Building, a whole lot of regulations got slapped on the seemingly innocuous components of his fertilizer-truck-bomb.  So, if you want to make a connection about the appropriate action to take after somebody uses a certain kind of “tool” to kill a lot of people, bringing up explosives isn’t really helping your case.  After all, we don’t encourage people to go buy more explosives to make sure the good exploders can explode the bad exploders.

Ablow also forgets to make any relevant connection between Andrew Kehoe, the man responsible for the Bath School disaster, and mental illness.  Certainly, given that Kehoe was homicidal and suicidal, he could have been detained by today’s standards if his intentions were at all known.  But from all accounts, he was a rather angry, vindictive individual, like a lot of people who commit gun crimes.  Ablow fails to delve into the possibility that Kehoe was constantly playing Grand Theft Auto XIV, eating Cheeto-and-kale sandwiches (on Dave’s Killer Bread), and drinking Baja-Blast Mountain Dew, while masturbating to animated monster porn.

In another odd turn that undermines his argument, Ablow then chooses to discuss untreated mental illness, saying (in relation to suicide of all things) that, “shooting victims don’t come close to the body count from untreated mental illness in the United States.”  Apparently, Dr. Ablow,  thinks that “shooting victims” who shoot themselves don’t count.  Because suicides make up about two-thirds of all gun-related deaths in the U.S.  And suicide by firearm makes up about half of all suicides.

To give some nice, round numbers, there are over 30,000 firearm deaths per year in the United States, with about 19,000 of those due to suicide.  There are about 38,000 suicides total.  The next-highest category of suicides is suffocation, which accounts for around 9,500 deaths.  But “suffocation” includes a variety of things such as hanging, cutting off one’s air with plastic bags over one’s head, and using one’s car exhaust to deprive an enclosed space (and, hence, oneself) of oxygen.

Along with failing to mention that suicides by gun account for the lion’s share (sorry lions) of suicides, Ablow also neglects to mention that a big piece in risk assessment and suicide prevention involves removing firearms from the homes of suicidal (and homicidal) people.  After all, why would anyone take the guns away from people who are suicidal or homicidal (or who are so paranoid as to think that the government is coming to take their guns away)?  Why would anyone take guns away as part of “fixing” the mental health system?

Dr. Ablow then makes the tragi-comedic statement that he wishes that in the year since the Newtown shootings the Surgeon General would have, “declared war on mental illness.”  I suppose Dr. Ablow means a declaration of war on mental illness—like where a lot of resources are committed to treating mental illness and maybe to getting rid of the stigma associated with mental illness—as opposed to declaring war on those with mental illness.  Because, in effect, blaming mental illness and the failures of the “mental health system” for mass shootings, instead of viewing easy access to the tools for killing (guns and ammo) is a rather shaky position to take.   As a general rule, “untreated mental illness,” which covers a huge range of possibilities, is not the vehicle by which metal projectiles end up penetrating children’s skulls.

Ablow goes on to compliment the Obama administration for providing additional funding for mental health care through the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. No, really, a guy on Fox news said the Obama administration kinda-sorta did something good.  But he then condemns the Obama administration for undermining mental health care by trying to ensure access to mental health care via “Obamacare.”  He says that insurance companies do nothing but try to block access to mental health care, and because Obamacare tries to bring down costs, it sucks that people are going to have access to mental health care and the insurance companies that want to deny them care.

So, I think Ablow’s point is that Obama tried to do some good, but failed because he didn’t devote enough resources to it.  Increased access to mental healthcare is good, but failure to provide enough money for the highest levels of mental healthcare is bad?  What’s the remedy for that?  Dr. Ablow apparently thinks the remedy is mental health spending in whatever amount is necessary to put all people dealing with mental illness of any kind into the ongoing care of a psychiatrist…because we all know that what helps people diagnosed with a mental illness…any mental illness…is somebody who prescribes them the right medications.  Right?

Let’s do it, then, Dr. Ablow: provide unlimited funding for unfettered access to psychiatrists for all people who are diagnosed with a mental illness.  What does that entail?  Monthly check-ins with a psychiatrist?  Weekly check-ins?  Daily check-ins?  It’s hard to know what Dr. Ablow is talking about, because he states that MDs need to be in charge of the care of any person who needs mental health care.  But unless we increase spending on mental health care by billions, and find a gusher of a grad school, spewing psychiatrists, his ill-defined proposal isn’t going to work.

What Dr. Ablow (very vaguely) proposes is sheer fantasy.  And the reason he proposes fantasy to deal with a real world problem is that if a real world problem has a fantastical answer, then that real world problem never has to be solved.  We can keep saying, “Fix the mental health system,” or, “Make sure the mentally ill can’t get guns” all while we ignore the fact that we have no intention or way to fix the mental health system in the fashion proposed.

Maybe a better solution is to allow mental health professionals to evaluate people who want to buy guns.  If you meet certain diagnostic criteria, you are not allowed to own a gun.  If you own a gun, everybody in your house must undergo annual psychiatric testing.  But, then, wouldn’t the desire to own a gun be an indication of mental illness, since the intent to own a gun to protect oneself from bad guys would indicate an intention to shoot somebody?  Well, nevermind, it would all be rather expensive anyway.

Dr. Albow leans toward closing his piece out by claiming that “We haven’t done anything to meaningfully coordinate police departments and the courts with the gutted community mental health system.”  Aside from the idea that the mental health system has been “gutted,” I think those involved in dealing with the “mental health system” might find Dr. Ablow’s statements false and offensive.  Because, despite massive budget cuts, and childish blame-cops-judges-and-mental-health-providers arguments like Dr. Ablow’s, numerous police agencies, court systems, and mental health agencies have been doing their damnedest to coordinate care, and provide community education into how to navigate the complicated legal knots of the system. They’ve also been doing what they can to get guns out of the hands of people who are potentially suicidal and/or homicidal, despite the best efforts of the NRA to make sure that everyone, regardless of mental health status, has access to guns.

Dr. Ablow actually closes out his piece by claiming that the Newtown school massacre was “entirely preventable”—which I guess it was, but not by anything that would happen in Dr. Ablow’s fantasy world where psych beds and psych meds negate bullets.  He states that the real surprise in the year since the Newtown school massacre is that there wasn’t “another” Newtown massacre.  But I’m guessing that the parents of the children who were the victims of the 27 school-shooting deaths and 35 gunshot injuries committed in schools in the year following Newtown might disagree with the idea that there was not “another” Newtown.   Sure, there wasn’t a single incident where the same number of people were killed and injured. But what kind of world is Ablow living in where he is willing to excuse even one person being shot at a school in a given year, and to blame mass shootings on mental health providers and people with mental illness, while choosing to support the right of gun manufacturers to continue to provide just about anyone with access to firearms and ammunition designed specifically for killing people?

GUN CONTROL OR PEOPLE CONTROL? Part One: The NRA’s Build-a-Bogeyman Workshop

It doesn’t matter how many shots are fired and how many bodies pile up—particularly in those attention-grabbing mass shootings—the cry goes out, crafted by the NRA, that it is something other than guns and ammunition that needs to be addressed. The most recent and prevalent pro-gun meme is that it’s the mental health system that needs to be fixed, while guns are just great. In fact, guns are so great that everybody should have them all of the time, except for criminals and those people with a severe mental illness. But if any criminals or people with mental illness try to shoot any of us good people, then we can all pull out our guns and shoot them back, and definitely shoot them better, harder, faster, and, just for good measure, deader.

Prior to the pro-gun, blame-the-mental-health-system meme, it was the, “We don’t need new laws, we just need to enforce the existing laws” meme. Of course, since the NRA lobbied to make sure that the existing laws wouldn’t be enforced, and, in fact lobbied to have laws enacted that made it illegal to enforce the earlier existing laws, they had to come up with a different cheer for team shoot-em-up. So, hence: guns good; mental health system bad.

There’s this other, less clearly- and less frequently- articulated position underlying the broken-mental-health-system argument, that people working with the mentally ill are incompetent, first of all, for allowing the system to fall into disarray, and second of all, for not being clairvoyant enough to determine which of the people they encounter who express some form of homicidal ideation are just talking nonsense and which really are stockpiling weapons or have access to weapons their family members stockpiled, so that said mental health professionals can then direct law enforcement to stop the future crimes. Okay, in fairness, there are ways to assess for danger—not that the NRA didn’t lobby to try to prevent anybody in the medical and mental health fields from even asking people anything as simple as whether they have access to guns.

But fortunately, the NRA has finally stepped up and has been instrumental in working to address real-life situations and offer up functional ideas for systemic changes, like, “You guys need to fix the mental health system so that people with mental illness stop shooting people, okay?” Except there’s that whole thing about how people with mental illness who actually commit violent crimes (a very tiny portion of them) are not generally compliant with treatment if they’re even in treatment to begin with. So not only do mental health practitioners have to accurately determine which of their clients might commit violence and make sure those clients are stopped from doing so, but they also have to ferret out all of the potentially violent people with mental illness, even if they have never even met them.

Anyway, what I’m saying is that the argument about fixing the mental health system is a nonsensical argument for a WHOLE lot of reasons…most notably that it’s an argument designed for inaction as far as gun laws go, while setting up a bogeyman that can spring out and yell ‘boo!’ anytime there’s a high-profile shooting. For instance, if somebody commits atrocities, such as shooting up a theater or a school, then we can all say, “Wow, this guy was obviously disturbed. Why wasn’t he getting any help?” Or if said shooter was in treatment, we can say, “How come more wasn’t done to make sure he wouldn’t hurt anybody?” Or if there are no clear indications that a shooter was, for example, psychotic or in treatment, we can always fall back on the idea of undiagnosed mental illness. The broken-mental-health-system argument is also convenient for all those 19,000-ish annual suicides by gun.

The argument to fix the mental health system is also nonsensical because it essentially allows the problem of gun violence to go on forever. That is, no set of laws is ever going to solve the problem of murder 100%, but when the argument is that guns aren’t problematic, but the mental health care system is, then as long as there are shootings, we can keep hemming and hawing, failing to enact simple measures like universal background checks, or tracking of Internet-based weapons and ammunition sales, or making certain classes of weapons flat-out illegal.

In addition, the broken mental health system argument allows gun manufacturers to rack up more gun sales. After all, what are a few dead kids if you can rake in some extra dough by letting 24-hour news networks scare everybody into thinking they need to arm themselves against a bunch of crazy people who are going to shoot their kids? (or invade their homes, or shoot them in a theater, a mall, a church…) Just check out how gun sales spike after high-profile shootings, combined with talking heads appearing on news shows to say stupid things about how the crimes would have been avoided if only everybody on scene had been armed. Check out the secondary spike in sales when the same talking heads suggest that gun laws are going to suddenly become so restrictive that nobody is going to be able to buy a gun anymore.

On top of that, the majority of the people who parrot the broken-mental-health-system meme have no idea how the mental health system actually works, or how it interacts with law enforcement, hospitals, and the court system, or what could actually be done to “fix” it. Nor do most of them care, since it conveniently props up their view of things, without them having to actually learn or understand anything. They’re super-familiar with arguments about why killers are going to kill just as many people whether they have clips with 8, 27, 92, or 412 rounds; why it doesn’t make a difference if a person has access to a pop gun, a hunting rifle, an AK-47, or a BFG-9000; and why any gun control measure at all is useless because criminals are going to get guns anyway, and then only law-abiding citizens will be left unarmed.

Don’t bother trying to point out that all kinds of laws exist that, just as the concept of law implies, are followed by law-abiding citizens, and violated by criminals, and that what makes a person a criminal is that the person violates a law. After all, the no-gun-control stance involves absolutist/absurdist arguments where ANY restrictions on guns and ammunition mean all law-abiding citizens lose ALL access to their guns and ammo, and criminals suddenly have unfettered access to all the weapons they could ever want so that they can create the maximum amount of mayhem. It’s an argument that requires a good dose of the paranoia that persons with mental illness who carry out violent crimes sometimes exhibit.

But the logical extension of the no-gun-control kind of argument is that we could get rid of “gun crimes” and “gun criminals” completely if we could just get rid of all laws related to guns, because then there would be no gun laws to violate. Then we only have to enforce the existing laws against murder. Yup, what’s really broken is the anti-murder system in this country. And if we all had more guns, we could solve that, too.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I would absolutely love it if we, as a nation, were going to get serious about “fixing” the mental health system (makes it sound so simple, doesn’t it—kind of like fixing a leaky faucet or fixing your basset hound). But getting that fix all taken care of isn’t happening anytime soon, since it takes a whole lot of money, a whole lot of changes to the legal system, enough well-trained mental health professionals working in tandem with law enforcement and other community resources, a whole lot more places to keep persons with severe mental illness while they get treatment, and a whole lot of money. Oh, I guess I touched on that money one already.

Of course, a big block to getting the mental health system fixed is that a lot of the same people screaming at everybody about prying beloved guns from cold dead hands and fixing the mental health system are the same ones screaming to slash taxes and remove all government funding from everything everywhere. A lot of them are the same ones who worship former President Ronald Reagan, who loved the idea of shutting down psychiatric facilities in favor of “privatizing” the oversight of people with severe mental illness, who need a lot more than a place to stay and a minimum-wage worker to watch over them.

And even with that “privatization” of things like residential homes and intensive outpatient programs, guess who is paying for mental health care for the people with the most severe mental illnesses. Go on, guess. If you said “the government,” then you’re right. And if it’s a puzzle to you why people with chronic, severe mental illness aren’t getting good jobs with great insurance plans to pay for all the medications, therapy, and hospitalizations they require, well, then I obviously can’t make you understand how we’re ever going to “fix” the mental health system.

So, how do you reconcile de-funding everything in the government, including the mental health system—particularly those long-term inpatient facilities where the people with the most severe mental illnesses stay (or, rather, used to stay)—with the idea that we’re going to fix the mental health system to keep all the most dangerous people with mental illnesses off the street so that we don’t have to have any new gun control laws? Well, the real answer is that you don’t, because it’s a nonsensical argument in the first place.

Now, happily—well maybe not happily, since it took multiple mass shootings and the NRA clamoring to prevent any gun control laws from being enacted while simultaneously screaming about the broken mental health system—mental health funding is kinda-sorta being restored to the very limited levels that existed back when G.W. Bush was president. Unfortunately, those levels are still not anywhere close to the level—comparatively speaking—that such funding was at when dear, old Ronald Reagan became President. So, thanks NRA—you are advocating for restoring all 40,000-ish psychiatric ward long-term “beds” for those with chronic, severe mental illness that went away back when Ronald Reagan was in office, right?

Beyond the complete insincerity behind the NRA’s argument that the mental health system needs to be fixed, the NRA is actively doing a disservice to the people of the United States—a disservice that actually serves the NRA well by scaring up gun sales. By creating a bogeyman out of people with mental illness, the NRA promotes the idea that people who are diagnosed with a mental illness are inherently dangerous, unhinged, and likely to kill us all. Never mind that the mental health system deals with a wide array of concerns, from situational depression to anxiety disorders, PTSD to schizophrenia, and that the majority of those people are never going to commit a violent crime. By squawking that gun violence is a problem of the mental health system, as opposed to a problem with multiple facets, most notably of ensuring easy access to guns, while provoking fear of one’s fellow citizens, the NRA sets the country on yet another course to doing nothing about gun violence, while spreading ignorance about what mental illness is or what it means. The NRA provokes more fear of a big portion of the population, perpetuates a culture where people will avoid seeking help for mental health issues for fear of becoming part of that bogeyman group, and provides an excuse for inaction that will see no end. After all, as long as there are shootings by people who can be labeled as having a mental health issue–bam–the mental health system failed. It’s got nothin’ to do with the guns themselves.

If you want to consider whether the NRA has anybody’s best interest at heart, consider that following the Newtown school shootings, more than 85% of the American people supported instituting ‘universal background checks,’ but the NRA managed to ensure no action would be taken through the power of the almighty dollar. The NRA can threaten to withhold money from political campaigns, or worse, to dump massive amounts of money into campaigns to take out politicians who do anything they don’t like.

The NRA, aka the gun manufacturer’s lobby, knows that an occasional scare is good for business—and having a bogeyman is the best thing possible—especially when that bogeyman is easily stigmatized, poorly understood, and getting the problem of the bogeyman “fixed” could take forever. The whole fix-the-mental-health-system argument put forth by the NRA is nonsensical because it posits that it is easier to “fix” a complex system that attempts to address the needs of people with a broad range of conditions that are not set, uniform, or easily managed than it is to restrict access to the things that people—many who avoid contact with the mental health system prior to committing heinous acts—use to kill people.



J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

And I have yet another follow-up to an earlier post regarding jokes about dads shooting their daughters’ boyfriends. For this entry, I’m looking at a recent commercial for the Buick LaCrosse, notable mostly for actually showing the abject terror of a threatened junior-high boy, and the irritated reaction of the daughter to her father’s insecure, childish behavior.

The ad shows a white Buick Lacrosse driving along as we hear, then see an adult male telling the radio to play multiple songs. The stereo instantly accesses the tunes, along with the information on the artists, which are shown in a big, color display on the car’s console, complete with album cover art. The songs include “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer, “I’ve Got Eyes Everywhere” by T-Booth and the Sensations, and “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by The Georgia Satellites.

Cut to a shot of a teen(?) pre-teen(?) girl and boy in formal attire, sitting at opposite ends of the back seat, the boy looking terrified. The girl, with a look of contempt on her face, says, “Alright, Dad, we get it.”

Gee, dad, thanks for setting such a low standard for the men in my life by threatening children.

Gee, dad, thanks for setting such a low standard for the men in my life by threatening children.

The car arrives at a school, where a banner outside announces there is a dance happening. A voiceover says, “With Intellilink…” There is then a shot of the kids walking away from the car, the dad looking out the window, his arm resting on the bottom of the window frame, a look of nostalgic longing and dickish smugness on his face. Dad says, “Have fun,” the tone in his voice indicating he is proud to have possibly just caused a 7th grade male years of situational impotence. The voiceover continues, “…all your music is ready to listen to. Even if some people are sick of hearing it.”

Dad fondly remembering the school dance where his girlfriend's dad beat him senseless out by the dumpsters for letting his hands stray.

Dad fondly remembering the school dance where his girlfriend’s dad beat him senseless out by the dumpsters for letting his hands stray.

To anyone who gives it any thought, the commercial raises all manner of questions, like when the voiceover says “sick of hearing it” what exactly does that mean? How many times has dad done this before? And, really, what does that say about him that, one, he is allowing his daughter to go on that many dates when she’s clearly not old enough to be dating, and, two, that he thinks his 13-year-old daughter is constantly having to fight off sexual advances from the boys she takes to school dances?

Now, I’m not saying that kids having sex as young as 12, 13, or 14 is unheard of, but why is it that dad is so obsessed with his 13-year-old daughter’s sexual behavior? That’s more than a little…err…unhealthy. I mean, if dad’s so willing to imply that his daughter and her dates need to be schooled on not having sex while he is driving them to a dance, don’t you think he could’ve had a more productive conversation with his daughter about how to keep herself safe, and how to choose appropriate behaviors? And did he get a look at her date? The kid doesn’t exactly look like the type who’s running around seducing and impregnating his classmates (although I don’t want to stereotype—maybe he really can talk any girl into bed, or into a bathroom stall at a junior high dance, or whatever).

But anyway, let’s give dad the benefit of the doubt on the “sick of hearing it” comment. Let’s say that despite the commercial’s obvious, intended meaning, all it really meant was that your kids don’t like to hear the music you want to play in the car. I can accept that as a true-to-life situation for most adults, particularly those who are too insecure to allow their kids a few minutes of pre-func music while on the way to a dance.

So, how about we look at the music selections that are conveying this threatening message of “I’ll kill you if you try to have sex with my daughter.” As noted before, selection number one is “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer. I’ll let the actual braggadocio of the song go (which has nothing to do with physical touching or sex) in favor of the heavily-sampled song underlying it—“Super Freak” by Rick James. Now was this some kind of sick joke suggesting that 13-year-old girls need to be kept in check, or just unintentional irony? The original Rick James song was about a woman who was rather well-versed in the further reaches of sexual behavior…”She’s a very kinky girl, the kind you don’t take home to mother.” I’ll leave it at that.

Selection number two, “I’ve Got Eyes Everywhere” by T-Booth and the Sensations, is a song (and band) so completely underground that it doesn’t actually exist…not that you’d realize it isn’t a real song from the few seconds of generic music that comes over the stereo. I’m guessing this pretend song had to be included because Rockwell held out for too much cash when Buick asked to use “Somebody’s Watching Me.”

Song selection number three, “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” by The Georgia Satellites functions as another entry in the unintentional irony category, as it is sung from the perspective of a guy trying to get his girlfriend to sleep with him—and it’s his girlfriend telling him ‘no’.

(Buick, call me. I can find tons of songs that might better convey the creepy message you want to get across—and from the knowledge base of a forty-something male who actually likes music).

And speaking of that…keeping in mind that I have no idea how Intellilink actually works…wouldn’t the better commercial involve the daughter and the dad having dueling song choices? (Well, for my comfort, let’s imagine the girl is several years older). Then we could get the girl throwing out some selections endorsing irresponsible teen/drinking/sex songs while dad tries to counter. It would make the boy’s confusion and fear marginally more entertaining…right? Maybe? Like this…

Dad: Play “U Can’t Touch This” (MC Hammer)
Daughter: Play “Hot in Herre.” (Nelly)
Dad: Play “Shot Down in Flames” (AC/DC)
Daughter: Play “Last Friday Night” (Katy Perry)
Dad: Play “Some Heads are Gonna Roll” (Judas Priest)
Daughter: Play “Locked Out of Heaven” (Bruno Mars)
And then the boy could freak out and call out some soft rock hit, like…
Boy: Play “Don’t Cry Out Loud” (Melissa Manchester)

Okay, so my version of the commercial is still playing on the same stupid sexual stereotypes that inform the original commercial, and it would’ve cost Buick a lot more to get the rights to at least some of those songs, but at least in my version the daughter gets to give it back to the dad for being such a dick, and suggests that if dad is going to make assumptions about her behavior, she might as well amp up his insecurities. Try and exert all the control you want, dad. Ultimately you don’t really have any.

Now, if I can get all moralistic on everyone again…what is this commercial saying? I’ve already touched on how creepy it is that dad is obsessed with his teen daughter’s sexuality to the point where he would try to ruin a date for her. Beyond that, dad’s obsession with his daughter’s sexuality leads him to act like a complete ass, and to threaten, or at least infer, violence toward a young boy.

What’s most problematic, though, is that the daughter’s exasperation at her father should speak volumes to him, but it apparently doesn’t even register, except to make him think he’s done his job. He doesn’t care what she’s thinking, and apparently believes it’s his job to act as the gatekeeper to his daughter’s body. But is that really what he wants his daughter to think? That she needs his permission before she can allow another person “access” to her body? Dad gets to lay a physical claim on her person, rather than teaching her about proper boundaries and trusting herself?

But dad’s not really thinking about the messages he’s sending his daughter beyond his desire to embarrass her, because he’s too fixated on scaring a boy who’s probably too young and insecure to even seriously be entertaining the thought that he’ll get beyond a slow dance or two and maybe a peck on the cheek.

As young as they seem, though, both kids in the commercial are certainly old enough to be having sexual thoughts. But is dad foolish enough to think that a junior high dance is the most likely place that any actual sexual activity would play out? Doesn’t dad recognize that maybe threatening violence to try and prevent any sexual activity is a sure-fire way to provoke your kids into shame and negative attitudes about sex? Doesn’t dad think that maybe his asinine behavior is projecting the message to his daughter that she is valued most as a sexual object (the exact opposite of what one would hope he is trying to convey) and that her body belongs to the men who lay a claim to it and can defend that claim through violence?

Also, while we’re looking into ideas about stereotypes and messages we’re sending, would this commercial work if the boy in question were, say, an obviously athletic football-player type? Would it make sense for a “jock” to be quaking in the back seat because of an MC Hammer song? Or if the boyfriend was more stereotypically “masculine” would that cause the message to stray into the territory of an actual pissing contest over the daughter, as opposed to the one that is portrayed, where dad has the obvious upper hand? If the boyfriend was more masculine, might the message run off the tracks, with the boyfriend thinking, “Threaten me to keep my hands off your daughter? Or what? Challenge accepted!”

You see, when you try to coerce somebody out of a particular action under the threat of physical violence, you invite the possibility that if that person can best you in a violent contest, then they are allowed to do what it is you were trying to stop in the first place—in this case, putting their hands all over your daughter. So, where does that leave your daughter’s choice in all this? Why is this not a call she gets to make out of the respect she is due as a human being, and based on her own desires? Certainly, any person as young as the girl in the commercial might not be the best at making thoughtful decisions that carefully consider all avenues of concern, but that’s where parenting comes in, which ideally involves providing guidance about things to consider when making important decisions.

And dads who actually think this is funny…why is it funny? How far would you take this? Would you hit a 13-year-old boy? Threaten to hit him? Why is it okay to threaten a boy with music? Putting it that way just sounds weird, doesn’t it?

So, let’s give Buick a new slogan: The 2014 Buick LaCrosse…for dads who are too immature to have an honest conversation about sex with their own children…but are willing to threaten other peoples’ children through the power of song.


This is something of a follow-up to last week’s post regarding jokes about dads shooting their daughter’s boyfriends. Such “jokes” are so prevalent that I come across instances of them almost daily, and in a variety of different formats. For this entry, I’m looking at a recent commercial for Taco Bell’s “Grilled Stuft Nachos” (their spelling, not mine)—possibly one of the most incomprehensible versions of this “joke” that I’ve ever seen.

Taco Bell’s ad starts with a shot of a teenage boy running up a street toward the camera, Grilled Stuft Nacho thing in hand, as we hear Portugal. The Man’s (yes the band is “Portugal. The Man”—I don’t claim to understand the punctuation or the high concept name) “Evil Friends,” with the lyrics, “Your mama’s got nothing on me. Your daddy’s got nothing on me.”

A voiceover says “Why would you ever need to eat nachos on the go? Let’s say her parents came home early. That’s one reason.” The boy looks over his shoulder, then turns to face forward again, and takes a bite of the Grilled Stuft Nacho thing, smile/smirk flitting across his face. We then see an adult male (apparently the father of “her”) burst out the front door of the house the boy has just come from, and chase the boy up the street, with a maniacally angry expression on his face, dog in tow. There are some product shots, and a brief product description, then the commercial cuts back to the chase scene, as the voiceover says, “Take the nachos and run.”

Now, just try to construct a narrative where the elements of this scene make sense. Sure, I get the parents coming home early to find the boy engaged in some form of kissing/heavy petting/sex with the daughter. (As he is running up the street, the boy is fully dressed, except for a jacket, which he is carrying. So either he had time to get dressed or he wasn’t undressed—we don’t know about “her” state of dress or undress.) So the boy runs away. And the dad goes chasing after him with—by the look on dad’s face—the intent to beat the living piss out of the boy if he catches him. Ha ha ha!! Hilarious!!

But just how does the Grilled Stuft Nacho get into this scene? Did the boy bring over Taco Bell food, knowing that the girl in question is such a big fan of Taco Bell that it would be her undoing—that she wouldn’t be able to resist him once she got a wiff of that Taco Bell stink? And if so, how long has that Grilled Stuft Nacho thing been sitting in the girl’s house? Aren’t the red, curly chip strips inside it all soggy by now?

Or, in a different scenario maybe dad came home, bag of Taco Bell food in hand, and the boy grabbed out a Grilled Stuft Nacho thing and ran away—and it’s really the Grilled Stuft Nacho that dad’s mad about. Of course, for this re-imagined scenario we need an alternate voiceover: “Why would you ever need to eat nachos on the go? Let’s say you stole them from your girlfriend’s dad. That’s one reason.”

Or if you want to keep it in the realm of sex, why not, “Why would you ever need to eat nachos on the go? Let’s say her husband came home early. That’s one reason”? At least in this version, the man’s anger makes a bit more sense, and we still get an inappropriate message about sexual behavior.

And keeping it in the realm of sex was apparently the real motivation Taco Bell had. I’m guessing it’s because of a number of factors, but most immediately, the appearance of the Grilled Stuft Taco, which we’ll just say bears a strong resemblance to…
Screen Shot 2014-01-04 at 4.47.19 AM
well, the cover of The Black Crowes’ “Amorica”—which was actually lifted from a Hustler magazine cover.
In this case, Taco Bell, or rather Taco Bell’s ad agency, decided to keep the commercial in the realm of sex because of the appeal to its target audience of young males, who (Taco Bell execs are hoping) won’t recognize that Taco Bell is just trying to sell another version of the same, old crap with an exciting new price point and the suggestion that the product is essentially the same as sex, or a vagina that can conveniently be eaten while running away from the vagina owner’s dad? Okay, the analogy fell apart there. But the real point is that the marketing strategy is as lazy as the whole idea of the “joke” of dads wanting to kill their daughter’s boyfriends.

If you don’t believe the visual evidence, or the other elements of the argument, just think for a few seconds of the kinds of things you can come up with that could have been used as the basis for a commercial about eating on the go (the alleged reason for the existence of the product in the first place)–late for a math test…caught in the running of the bulls…told a group of Republicans that Ronald Reagan really isn’t all that great. Essentially anything on Earth that you might be running to or from could have been the basis of the commercial.

So why use the dads-killing-daughter’s-boyfriends joke? Because it’s a pre-existing narrative that, in this case, doesn’t even have to make any goddamn sense. It is such an accepted part of our culture that teen boys are constantly trying to have sex with teen girls, and that dads are trying to catch and kill them for trying, that people don’t even think about how little sense it makes to attach Grilled Stuft Nachos to that storyline, or to want to advertise anything at all by using that storyline.

–It’s the product for teen boys who want to piss off their girlfriend’s parents (or the parents of some random “her”) by eating on the run after…well, who knows what? I guess the intended teen audience is supposed to think it’s something super-cool, like whatever teen male virgins imagine happens when you take Taco Bell food to a girl’s house when her parents aren’t there.

I can’t help but think that this ‘appeal’ should alienate consumers who actually think about the message being conveyed. I mean, aside from teen boys who think it would be really cool to, as Beavis and Butthead would say, “score” while eating tortilla-wrapped nachos, (nachos! nachos!) I’m not sure who else is supposed to want to buy this product. Hey parents—this is the kind of thing disrespectful teen boys eat. Hey girls—this is the kind of thing horny teen boys think they should bring over to your house in an attempt to get you to have sex with them. Hey teen boys—if you’re the kind of stupid dick who would fall for this, here’s the product for you.

Given that a portion of my work is with sex offenders, and that the scene inside the house is never shown, and that the dad is so angry, you don’t even want to think about the dark places my mind readily goes. I already deleted multiple…ahem…”jokes” about what might have been in the house for fear that I would be sued for causing readers’ hair to turn white, or otherwise traumatizing them. (The above ‘husband comes home early’ line was the tamest thing I could lay out here, and even that involves a sexual crime).

The question, then, is what is it we as a culture want to convey in, uh, Taco Bell ads? That teen boys need to sneak around trying to have sex with girls whose families see violence as a legitimate means to try and control those sexual behaviors? That teens are never to be trusted, and when they stray from our demands, we should physically attack them? That we were all asshole teens who couldn’t be trusted, and were beat up because of that, so we should keep that cycle going? Oh yeah, and nachos!!

So, how about this tagline: Grilled Stuft Nachos—because teen sex is always better with threats of violence, seasoned beef, and chemically-softened cheese product.


I suppose the title question of this piece is something of a moot point, or rather, the threat to shoot my daughter’s boyfriend would be an empty one, as I don’t have any guns with which to shoot my daughter’s boyfriend—or anybody else. I do have a potato gun.  Home invaders take note.

That said, this is the first holiday season where my (adult but still teen) daughter has had a “boyfriend” important enough to her that we had to consider their plans when making our family plans.  And, happily, she spent time with his family, and he with ours.  And I’ll say I like the guy.  I feel that my daughter has chosen wisely and connected with someone who compliments her, and vice versa.

After the Christmas round of holiday gatherings had come to an end, and I had returned back to work, I got to thinking about the all-too-frequent jokes and ‘memes’ I see in social media that involve threats to shoot boys who are taking peoples’ daughters out on dates (probably because I’ve seen several in the last few days—the most recent involving one of those Dick Dynasty beardos whose family values apparently include threatening to shoot other peoples’ children just for expressing an interest in dating his daughter).

Dads take note: if you want to shoot the boys who have had impure thoughts about your teenage daughters, you should probably shoot all the heterosexual teen boys who have ever seen your daughters.  Or so the predictable jokes go—relying on the idea that all dads used to be teenage boys themselves and so know how vile teenage boys are.  And is that how we as men think back on ourselves as teenagers?  That we really were so vile that we would have raped any time the chance presented itself?

And isn’t there some way that those “vile” and “impure” thoughts can be channeled into more positive outlets—say, like normalizing sexual thoughts and providing some guidance on how to deal with those, rather than tying sexual thoughts to threats of violence?  Or do we really believe that our sons are perpetually on the verge of rape?  Do we believe our daughters are so clueless that we cannot trust them with their own bodies?  Do we have to threaten violence against teen boys to make sure that our teen girls come home with their “virtue” intact?

And what if our daughters are not interested in maintaining that barrier?  Isn’t it better that our daughters are taught to understand what they’re comfortable with, and how to communicate that, and to seek out partners who respect that?  And while we’re at it, how about teaching our sons the same?  If boys know that it is okay for them to be “uncomfortable” with regard to sex, or to value girls for the same kinds of things they value their male friends for—common interests, for instance—they might feel a lot less pressure to be so gung-ho about looking at our daughters through such a narrow lens—they might be able to see our daughters as people rather than as sexual targets.

And beyond all that, what is it with adult males feeling the need to threaten the boys/young men who have expressed an interest in their daughters?  At it’s most base expression, this is a pissing contest over sexual access to the females of the species.  It is treating our daughters as property or livestock.  It is sending the message to girls not that their fathers want what’s best for them, but that their fathers don’t trust their judgment.  It sends clichéd messages that girls are not interested in sex, and that only men can be trusted with (and are never to be trusted with) protecting women’s lady parts.  On top of that, it, perhaps unintentionally, sends the message that all men are rapists that need to be stopped by other, more powerful men.

All of this takes on an even more twisted element when we look at how rape victims are treated in this culture.  Girls and women who come forward with complaints of sexual assault are viewed first in terms of what they must have done to invite the sexual assault.  Where were you?  What were you wearing?  Were you drunk?  Using drugs?  Why are you making these accusations?  Men and teenage boys are too often excused for rape, especially if they have some status in the community and/or if their victims can be shown to be (or it can be implied that they are) less-than-perfectly-pure in every way.

The whole “get my daughter home on time or I’ll shoot you” (read: you are not to have sex with my daughter or I’ll kill you) idea plays on the idea that boys/men are incapable of controlling themselves sexually when they have time alone with a girl/woman.  It plays on the idea that girls/women are not to be trusted with their own sexuality or sexual decisions.  Worst of all, perhaps, it plays into adolescent revenge fantasies where girls/women are perpetually the victims or prizes in contests between men–that girls’/women’s chastity counts, but girls/women don’t.

Men in our culture (myself included) are not generally taught how to engage their emotions in productive ways, but to channel everything into problem solving, feelings-dodging, and violence.  It is in this context that we tell our daughter’s boyfriends that we’ll shoot them if they “come home late.”  It is also in this context where we connect violence and sex on numerous levels.

If we as men think of teenage boys as little more than rape machines with faulty safety mechanisms, or worse yet, think that we were rape machines as teenagers, then we excuse the worst of male behaviors as nothing more than biology—hormones acting out the only way they can express themselves—violently.  And that’s simply not true.  It is not only as teenagers that people have powerful sexual urges, or multiple forms of confusion and angst over various aspects of sexuality and relationships; and it is never acceptable for those urges to be translated into violence.  It is as teenagers that we should really be learning how to navigate relationships in a positive fashion.  It is as adults that we should guide teenagers—and that means mentoring our daughter’s boyfriends, not threatening to kill them.

I would much rather welcome my daughter’s boyfriend into the family and make him feel comfortable than to threaten him.  But then again, I don’t imagine my daughter coming home with somebody who I would feel threatened by—someone I would feel the need to engage in a pissing contest.  This is not to say that I feel my daughter is immune to sexual assault, or even bad decisions in choosing guys to hang out with.  It is to say that I do what I can to convey my trust in her, but more importantly, to let her know to trust herself as a whole person.