Editor’s note: USA TODAY asked me to comment specifically about mental illness and gun control. Here is my Op Ed that the newspaper is running on its website. (http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2012/12/15/pete-earley-on-shooter-and-mental-illness/1771203/)
My adult son’s voice was rattled.
“You watching the news about Sandy Hook?” he asked.
“Yes, 20 children and six adults murdered,” I replied.
He let out a sad sigh. “I’m trying to wrap my head around this.”
Like most Americans, my adult son was distraught about Friday’s murders. How could anyone not be? But for him the news was especially unsettling. That’s because he’s one of “them.” He’s one of the ones being demonized on television. He’s been diagnosed with a mental illness. He’s been arrested. He’s been hospitalized in mental wards.
My son has never shown an interest in buying or owning a firearm. He’s never physically harmed anyone. He’s a gentle soul. Yet, television pundits are blaming people such as him for the atrocities at Sandy Hook Elementary School. If only we could keep the guns out of the hands of the “nut jobs,” Time magazine’s Joe Klein opined two days after the Tucson shootings that killed six people and wounded 12 more. We would all be safe.
During the presidential debates, President Obama jumped on the bandwagon. We need better laws to keep guns away from “the mentally ill.” Even the gun lobby agrees.
Federal statutes already prohibit anyone who has been “adjudicated as (being) mental defective or has been committed to a mental institution” from buying a firearm. Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook shootings happened, prohibits the sale of firearms to anyone who has been found not guilty of a crime due to a “mental disease” or has been a “patient in a mental hospital within the preceding twelve months.”
Can we toughen existing laws? Of course. But the devil is in the details. Many of the police, firefighters and EMTs who responded to the 9/11 disaster in Manhattan reported feelings of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental illness. Many of our returning military veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have also filed claims for PTSD. Should we be afraid of them? What about the FBI agent who becomes depressed after his teenage daughter dies in a car accident? Should he not seek psychiatric counseling or take anti-depressants because it might cost him the right to own a firearm?
Ironically, the move on Capitol Hill has been to weaken existing laws, not tighten them. Sens. Richard Barr, R-NC, and James Webb, D-VA, want to give 127,000 military veterans the right to own firearms even though their psychiatric disabilities are so severe that courts have appointed others to manage their finances.
The National Institutes of Mental Health reports that about one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. That’s 57.7 million people. According to a recent article published by Public Health Law Research, gun restrictions on people with a history of mental illness, such as background checks and waiting periods, had no significant effect on homicide rates. The restrictions, however, did reduce the suicide rate, suggesting that people with mental disorders, especially depression, are more likely to kill themselves than others.
My aim is not to make an anti-gun control argument. I favor tighter controls, especially on assault weapons. What troubles me is broadside finger-pointing that increases stigma against persons such as my son. He didn’t ask to have a mental disorder anymore than I asked to have poor eyesight and asthma.
Early reports suggest the Sandy Hook killer had a mental disorder. The mass killers in Tucson and on the Virginia Tech campus did, too. It appears the Aurora, Colo., shooter has one. When 20 children lie dead in a school along with six adults, it’s hard to keep these mass murders in perspective. It’s hard to remember that only a small subset of severely disturbed persons commit them. A 2006 study found that the vast majority of violent acts in America are not attributable to mental illness. Persons with mental illness are more likely to be victims.
But those studies provide no solace to grieving Connecticut parents.
Asking how we can keep guns out of the hands of someone such as Adam Lanza is an important question. But it is not the only one that needs to be asked and it may not be the most important question to ask. The best way to keep severely disturbed individuals from committing murders is by getting them treatment so they can get help and not harm others.
Connecticut has an estimated 140,000 residents with severe mental illnesses. About half are not getting any treatment. Why? Between 2005 and 2007, the state closed 17% of its public hospital beds for treating psychiatric disorders. What happened to the patients who used to get help in those facilities? In my home state of Virginia, the Inspector General reports that persons with psychiatric problems who are dangerous are being released to the streets because there are no treatment beds available. Parents who want to get their children help can’t. As one writer said, it is easier to buy an assault weapon than to get mental health care in America today.
In addition to debating gun control, we need to ask why our mental health system is failing us.
As my son told me after our initial conversation, this is not about dividing people into groups. It is not about “them.” It is about all of “us.”