Gun Control and Mental Illness, Another Tragedy

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. (

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. AR-15 Rifles is what one can get but one needs a lot of responsibility while owning such equipment.

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.”

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Chrisa Hickey says

    Every time – and I can’t believe I just typed, ‘every time’ – one of these tragedies happens, every part of me clenches. I feel as if I grieve for the loss of another percentage of a chance my son will have to be accepted by society, as much as I grieve for those lost.

  2. Is there a way to get more roundtables, seminars, tv specials or even webinars with families that have battled “the mental health system” and jumped through the “hoops” with their mentally ill loved ones so that people can be shown the truth. Like the one you participated in Pete, with the doctor, the lawyer, the judge, the psychiatrist, the consumer, the civil liberties lawyer, etc.  The same cast should get together, because that show has a unique impact in the way it was presented. We need to have more of those roundtable shows and find a way to get more publicity for it and shown all over the tv again ASAP.

  3. Please, Pete, never stop writing, speaking, advocating.  I will Share this on FB.

  4. Lynda Johnston Vance says

    Once again, my dear friend, you hit it on the nail head. I may not always agree with you, but I respect your opion

    PS aside the grey hair you you look the same as you did 40 years ago. Do you have a portrait hidden somewhere? Dorian Grey can’t be the only one!

  5. Great article Peter! There were also rumors on the news stating that Adam had autism. It’s unbelievable how much the media skews and misrepresents the facts missing completely the real issues at hand. Whenever these shootings happen, I always wonder about the emotional state of the shooter and think, “what could possibly cause someone to do this? …why did no one notice that he/she needed help?” It is just heartbreaking. Thank you for writing such a valuable piece and for sharing your personal family perspective with others. It gives people some real insight on the underlying causes of such a terrible disaster.

  6. Marti Cockrell says

    How do we go about advocating for this to be part of the country’s conversation now? NAMI should be all over the issue of lack of adequate treatment.

  7. Michele Kinzel~Peles says

    I am especially worried about how the media is planting seeds
    of ignorance to demonize the mentally ill and
    generate public fear that the mentally
    ill are just waiting for their opportunity to be the next mass murderer.  We all know that not all of the mentally ill
    are violent, and those that can develop violent tendencies are not always a danger
    to society.  Sadly, though, as in my
    mother’s case, the reality is that some who are afflicted with severe mental
    illness are violent enough to be a danger to society, and the fallout from
    their psychotic breaks are to be justifiably feared.  Their families are on the front lines trying
    to protect everyone; suffering through the daily exhausting, expensive, frustrating
    and painful process  to gauge, manage,
    and treat their loved one’s severely violent mental illness.  For many of us, we start holding our breath
    at our loved one’s sudden disappearance…and a little deeper when alerting the
    authorities doesn’t amount to much.  We try to stay positive, hoping beyond hope
    that this time, he/she will be return home safe and sound.   In my mother’s case, my more desperate hope
    was that if mom ended up not being ok, her illness didn’t take anyone with her –
    as it had already tried.  At a young 60
    years old, Mom died two years ago – after a violent altercation with another
    psych patient.   Mixed with the despair o
    f losing my mother is the relief that I no longer have to battle her mental
    illness to keep everyone  – including
    random members of society – safe from the fallout of her psychotic breaks.  It’s a sad reality that many families suffer
    through in silence.

    • Sincere condolences to you, Michele, for your mother.You write beautifully. As a mental health survivor with my illness in remission, I hear the voices of my siblings echoed in your words. Many times of sleepless nights and fruitless phone calls they have weathered my storms. Though they will not burden me with tales from years of concern.Now my grown child is being ‘groomed’ just in case. I am truly on all sides of the fence, with another child lost in the ineffectual maze of the mental health system.
      My parents sufferd in silence, long before anyone dreamed up NAMI.
      You were a kind, attentive daughter, with such exemplary devotion to your mother.Sometimes just one loving person in the life of one with a mental illness can make it all worthwhile. Until there’s a cure – there is love.
      Bless you as you move through your mourning.

  8. advocate4treatment says

    I’m surprised that no one has mentioned just how broken our mental health system is and that parents bear almost all of the responsibility of trying to help their loved ones with mental illnesses. In my state, the individual with the illness controls what type of treatment (if any) they receive, even when they have a severe mental illness and lack insight to seek or accept treatment. Our treatment laws require a high level of clear and present danger to self or others before involuntary treatment is provided. In the case of this tragedy, no intervention by the mental health system would be provided until the shooter’s finger was on the trigger, obviously too late. Laws that require mental heath providers to treat individuals too ill to help themselves are needed. Preventive treatment is humane and it works.

  9. KristenKringle says

    People have to blame it on the “mentally ill.”  It’s more comforting than accepting that there are people out there who are evil and have no conscience.  I fear what will happen with my rights, now, will I and everyone out there with a diagnosed mental illness have to pay

    • Hi Kristen, Perhaps the reason we don’t yet have a cure for brain diseases is the exact opposite: it’s easier to blame the most severe symptoms of brain disorders on “evil” than to accept that there is a small minority who will hurt themselves or others without treatment.  Schizophrenia affected 3 of my loved ones differently — 2 wouldn’t have hurt a fly  and 1 ultimately died by violent means (and when treated he was a kind, gentle soul) Same brain disorder, different severity.  The stigma will not stop until we embrace all, treat all, cure all.  Please stand up for all.  We need you.  K

      • This is such a crucial point.  There are thousands of people diagnosed with schizophrenia, thousands with bipolar with psychotic features, thousands with major depression, but the different levels of severity and how the severity interacts with the temperament of the  person creates a multitude of behavioral consequences.  Embrace all, treat all, cure all.  Very good words.

  10. Terri Wasilenko says

    My son’s first thoughts were about discrimination and misdirected blame on an individual with a brain disease. My family was shocked by the killings, felt deep sorrow for the grieving families and upset about the inevitable increase in stigma toward persons with mental illnesses. It’s not about the guns. It’s about the lack of access to mental health services that needs to be the focus. Thanks for writing this pertinent article, Pete.
    Take care.

  11. Oddly enough, i have cousins who live in Newtown, CT with children who luckily attend a different elementary school. I also have a son with a diagnosed mental illness.
    Tonight on NPR news I listened as preparations for mourning the young victims were being made at a local church.  Sadly, we can’t even grieve as a nation without the truly EVIL individuals who would halt this necessary process by phoning in death threats!
    The one encouraging thing I heard was the need to look into how mentall illness is being treated.  My sincere wish is that mental illness and all that is connected to this no fault brain disease gets more than a cursory glance as we look to place blame.
    We have placed blame on the individuals with mental illness thinking that it will placate the public. These crimes associated with mental illness and violence have culminated this time with the loss of 20 elementary students and 7 adults.  I can’t think of a more tragic loss of life than when it is snatched away from those who are just beginning their lives! 
    Imagine now how the children who survived this assault will be the tools of further stigma that is branded on those with mental illness UNLESS they are told the truth about menatl illness.
    Let us use this tragedy to say ENOUGH and get to the root of the problem!  We can’t even begin to speculate what was going on through this very disturbed young man’s mind when he decided to end his life and the lives of others.
    WHEN will we learn that the scope of the problem is infinitely much grander than a mentally ill individual with a weapon?  RESEARCH and AFFORDABLE means of treatment are needed. 

    What are we waiting for??????

  12. The last comment was written by my husband, BART.

  13. Peggy McClanahan says

    Thanks for a good article, Pete.

  14. Pete, thanks for staying on this so consistently.  My son is doing fine now, living in a group home, staying on his meds and living his life.  But it took years to get him treatment.  I am currently with my daughter in Australia and learned that after the Port Arthur Massacre of 35 in 1996, the  Australians banned the sale, importation and possession of all automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns and created a national buy-back scheme. Between 1996 and 1998 more than 700,000 guns were removed and destroyed which is equivalent to 40 million guns in the US.  Reasonable gun control and mental health issues need to be addressed right now while there is so much emotion in the air.  Our do-nothing politicians need to take this on NOW.  

  15. KristenKringle says

    Guest, the mental health professional pundits who always appear at times like this do not  know if this person even had a mental illness or if he did that it was a mental illness that caused him to plan and carry out these violent acts.  They do not know this.  Have they examined him?  No.  I expect the media to jump to conclusions and stereotype, they never disappoint, but I expect more from mental health professionals.  They do not have any business whatsoever offering any assessment of a person they have never assessed.  Most know this and don’t do it, but there are a few who jump at the chance to be on tv any time a person does something violent that makes big news.  I find it disgusting and hurtful because it only serves to reinforce the violent stereotype.

    Why assume the cause of this is mental illness?  His friend was interviewed and noticed nothing wrong with him.   Apparently his mom who lived with him wasn’t too concerned about him as she had plenty of guns available to him.

    Why do so many jump to the conclusion that mental illness is the cause of this?  Isn’t it just as wrong to blame it on him being a male in his early twenties?  After all, if we look at the statistics males in their teens and twenties are more likely to be violent than any other group of people.  Perhaps we should put them in a database so we can monitor them?  That seems to be what people want to do with the “mentally ill” as we’re called.
    What do people propose?  Anyone who acts a little odd and doesn’t have a lot of friends, should we force them into treatment?  That would involve quite a few professors I’ve had, who though perhaps a bit odd, are not spree killers. 

    People should not assume this was caused by mental illness based on some news reports any more than they should assume it was because he was a male in his twenties. 

    I would be willing to admit that if this happened in the inner city, rather than in an affluent Connecticut
    town mental illness would not be assumed. 

    Thanks to those who jump to conclusions without evidence the stigma so many of us fight against is reinforced yet again.

    I’ve read the horrible comments. “They should lock up those crazies…”  “This happened because of deinstitutionalization…” and on and on.  We should just lock up the mentally ill and throw away the key, seems to be the sentiment.  Why do I even bother seeing a psychiatrist if I am going to get lumped into a group with a monster like this?

  16. Thank you, Pete, for bringing to light the ‘everyday mental health issues of the everyday worker/citizen who sometimes seeks mental health care for ‘everyday criseses’. Truly, law enforcement, military will be further put off from seeking medical treatment for mental/emotiional discomfort, if the reward is loss of job,
    for being banned to carry a weapon. Of course, we can envision laws that would sidestep or exclude these folks! Always a loophole!
       I said this 15 years ago, but not loud enough :
       It is time the well-mentally ill, well organized and supported, marched on Washington. History review – the Civil rights in the 1960’s led by Dr. M.L.King.
    All over Washington, and other cities. The Million Man march. The Women’s Liberation movement held many marches on Washington. The gay rights’
    lesbians and homosexuals have had their marches in Washington.
          Please, lets be mindful – their is much improvement in racial issues now.
    Women’s rights are all but unaminously accepted now. And the Gays? Finally
    a few states are giving them the matrimonial rights they are seeking.
         Would any of these issues be so addressed if not for the maases that marched
    in our capitol, to help get the ball rolling?
         Are congressmen, political pundits, the average Joe, the Supreme Court reading these blogs? Are they reading Bring change 2 Mind, or NAMI blogs?
         Probably not –
         We are talking rights – -the right to treatment, the right to good and helpful treatment, the right not to be covertly discriminated against, in the workplace
    or anywhere.The right not to be misrepresented, for in misrepresentation, therein lies the seeds for stigma.
          Minorities today would shout out, if people called them dirty and lazy, as was once very common. Women libbers would go to court if told they can’t work the same quality as a male. A gay person’s family would cite the hate crime law if their loved one was beaten to death.
          So far, the mentally ill population, does not stand up for itself with as much fervor and passion as these minorities mentioned, have, and successfully.
            Yes we need to write every elected official in the U.S. congress and senate.
    Individually and as a collective united group of well-mentally ill. The task is hard,
    but not daunting and very neccessary. The well-mentally ill can’t do it alone. We need to make sure our brothers and sisters who are not yet recovered are spoken for as well. We need support from advocates such as NAMI and others.
          What do we propose? Education from preschool to college on mental health
    isssues. If bullying can be legislated into public schools most certainly mental health awareness can. A plea to religious institutions to include mental health differences with their teachings on love. An insistence for overhaul of the existing
    mental health care protocom, with an emphasis on wellness, instead of managed
    care. The one basic right that is daily trampled on is the mentally ill person’s right to become well. Stigma is such that it permeates the entire clinical staff from psychiatrist to social worker to high-schooled untrained case manager worker.
    It is rare for one to be encouraged to return to one’s community. Social clubs and
    client circles are encouraged for non- integration, which leads to languishing in a
    mentally unwell state. This is a blatant abuse of a human right and should be unlawful. It negates the ‘pursuit of life liberty and happiness in a direct way.
            I have lost count of the mentally ill victim-murderers who have murdered many in this last year. Since the media is all over them, why not give them,4-6
    individuals who happen to be living happily and successfully with a mental illnes that they are managing?  Sure, a lot of us want to keep our diagnosis private,
    but life for the mentally ill in this country will never change unless a few of us
    are willing to ‘go front page’ with the real story of what mental illness usually is.
        I think the nation would be astounded, to see just how many, from all walks of life, coworkers they might recognize, lawyers, teachers, movie stars, writers, young, old, rich and poor, would be willing to march in Washigton, rally peacefully,
    bravely putting their faces in the national spotlight, risking more stigma, yet for a much overdue cause.
          Change -the stigma root is steeped in fear.Perhaps deeper than the prejudice that the Civil rights, Women and Gays faced. But it has to be uprooted –
    Why not learn from the oppressed groups that have tackled justice and won?
           I’ll check back to see… any interest… actionable ideas…