Every time a gun goes off in Chicago, I cringe. Not in the way people cringe when they hear gunshots; from my comfortable home in the suburbs, I rarely hear them. No, I cringe because I know what’s coming. The cynical political game, particularly from conservatives, Pres. Obama’s critics, gun lovers, or any and all of the above. I can hear their snide remarks before they even say them:
Another killing in Chicago, the murder capital of America, they say.
See, they say, that proves Chicago is a corrupt, violent city; Barack Obama doesn’t care about Chicago’s young people; gun control doesn’t work …
Sometimes, though, the victim and the shooter are one and the same. And sometimes that person is just a troubled kid, not a gang-banger or drug dealer or whatever other caricature pops into the heads of people outside Chicago whenever they hear about another shooting here. That was the case with 16 year old Tywon Jones, who was fatally shot by police Sunday afternoon on Independence Boulevard on the city’s west side. The Chicago Tribune reports:
Relatives say a 16-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police after he fired at people on the street and then at pursuing officers suffered from a bipolar disorder. But they are still at a loss to explain what happened to their “playful, lovable child.”
Police say Tywon Jones was shot several times by Ogden District tactical officers around 4:10 p.m. Sunday as he rode a bicycle and fired a handgun in the 1300 block of South Independence Boulevard.
“He was bipolar, depressed,” said his mother, Jutuan Brown. “He took medication for it. He was sad sometimes, too sad, sometimes too happy.”
But Brown said Sunday was one of her son’s happy days. She remembers the last thing he said to her as he left to go out. “Mom, I’m gone,” she said. “It’s what he always said when he left the house.”
Police say the tactical officers had been driving north on Independence Sunday afternoon, approaching Roosevelt Road, when they heard gunshots. The officers made a U-turn and crossed the median and spotted Jones firing at people in a vacant lot as he rode a bicycle down Independence, according to a police source.
Jones fired at least three shots toward the lot, then turned around and fire two shots at the officers’ car, the source said. He turned toward the car a third time and police opened fire, hitting him several times, according to the source and the Cook County medical examiner's office.
Police say they recovered a .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun.
Assuming the police account is accurate, who knows why Tywon Jones opened fire Sunday afternoon. In all likelihood, we’ll never know because he’s not around to tell us. But with serious mental illness like bipolar disorder, a “good” day can turn into a bad day very quickly; so, you can’t rule out the possibility that his mental illness was the driving force. And if it’s true that Jones turned and fired at the officers knowing that they’d return fire, it’s also quite possible that the end result was exactly what he intended.
“Suicide by cop” is not a new or an altogether unusual phenomenon. In fact, just last month a cancer patient walked into the Vernon Hills, Illinois police department and pointed a gun at a police officer in the apparent hope that the officer would shoot and kill him. The patient was wounded, but survived. In his pocket the police found a note reading, “I apologize for placing your officers in this position. I am dying from cancer and couldn’t do the deed myself.”
The prospect of a troubled young man like Tywon Jones either killing himself with handgun, or firing at police officers so that they return fire and kill him, raises some uneasy questions that can’t be brushed aside with superficial political arguments. In this case, the good guys with guns may have saved innocent bystanders, but they couldn’t save Jones from himself.
And as much as I favor expansive, universal background checks for anyone buying firearms, that, too, likely wouldn’t have saved him. Last December, Sydney Brownstone and Erika Eichelberger of Mother Jones wrote a detailed analysis of mental health background checks under federal and state law, and, in particular, noted:
It’s technically against federal law to sell guns to people with a severe mental illness, but in practice the background check system is so flawed it rarely filters out those with disqualifying psychiatric problems. There are a number of roadblocks to enforcing the law. One of them is that only gun sales by federally licensed arms dealers require background checks. That means a huge chunk—40 percent—of private gun sales don’t require buyers to be vetted. (This is the so-called “gun show” loophole, though currently six states have laws that close it.) The law also defines disqualifying mental illness narrowly. It only forbids gun sales to people who have been determined by a court to be seriously mentally ill, or who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. This means that the system often overlooks dangerous and disturbed people who don’t have a paper trail.
As for Tywon Jones, none of the reports I’ve read so far indicates that he had been found by a court to have been mentally ill or was involuntarily committed. And so the system would never have flagged him as a potential risk. Until it was too late.
So it’s a complex set of problems for which there are no easy solutions. Kids like Tywon Jones need greater access to mental health services, and so do adults who suffer from those conditions. And it’s pretty obvious that a 16 year old with mental health issues should never have had access to a gun in the first place. But those are easy statements to make; putting those ideas to work is an enormously difficult task, especially amid a sea of cheap, easily available firearms.
In the end, I don’t know what the answer is. What I do know is, there’s a mother who struggled to do what she could for a 16 year old boy who suffered from bipolar disorder, and now she has a hole in her heart that will never be filled. Cheap political slogans won’t fix that.
Photo credit: Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune