Mental Health and Fire Arms Deaths

by Tim from LA, and Rev. Barbara F. Meyers
Again there is a school shooting, and again there are cries from many voices from both parties that the mentally ill are responsible for gun violence in our country.  It seems like this cycle of violence and blaming it on mental illness is never ending, as are ineffectual efforts to address it.  For example, Florida Governor Rick Scott weighed in:
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said at a news conference Thursday that he would discuss with the Legislature next week increasing funding for mental-health services and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.  Scott said, “If somebody is mentally ill, they can’t have access to a gun.”
The problem is, this is unconstitutional and denying someone a firearm is a violation of the Second Amendment…and they know that. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services,
“It is important to note that the vast majority of Americans with mental health conditions are not violent and that those with mental illness are in fact more likely to be victims than perpetrators.  An individual who seeks help for mental health problems or receives mental health treatment is not automatically legally prohibited from having a firearm; nothing in this final rule changes that.  HHS continues to support efforts by the Administration to dispel negative attitudes and misconceptions relating to mental illness and to encourage individuals to seek voluntary mental health treatment.”
Anyone who is not adjudicated by a judge deemed mentally incapable can legally purchase a firearm. So if you place yourself in a mental institution for mental health issues, come out, you can legally buy a pistol, rifle, or a shotgun. It’s your Constitutional right. To say that they will ban mentally ill folks from purchasing a firearm will not stand up in court and again, they know that. So the law they craft will get thrown out.
This political act is merely a way for politicians to appear to be concerned about the victims, but at the same time, kowtow to the NRA and other gun-lobbying groups. At the same time, create a stigma for those who are mentally ill.
You see, I, Tim, have mental health issues and am going through therapy. I also bought a rifle too. My background checks out, and I shoot at targets.  I am neither a threat to myself nor others, and the rifle was secured in a safe. In a gun store. I sold the firearm, and I can legally purchase another if I choose to do so, which I will not do, because, I hate cleaning after shooting. But then, even with my mental health, I have no problem determining what is right or wrong, as do many who suffer. Less than five percent of folks who do suffer, commit a crime. The two most famous are John Hinckley Jr. and Mark David Chapman. Both are found not guilty because of insanity.  Many who do kill and convicted try an insanity plea but are found lucid enough to stand trial.
Most of folks who are mentally ill end up as victims not perpetrators, but our elected officials tend to blame us than find a way to prevent future violence, as it is easier to put off responsibility to the people yet receive the political contributions from the lobbying group. Florida is proof of that. They never expanded Medicaid. Doing so would allow folks to receive the treatment they sorely need, as Governor Scott said that the shooter in Florida, Nikolas Cruz, is mentally disturbed, and should not have been able to purchase a firearm.
Just because we seek treatment does not mean we are inherently violent. There is enough stigma, cultural and otherwise compounding our desire to find that cure, but when our leadership does nothing to treat patients or even do anything to prevent gun deaths like having sensible gun laws, then expect more death and more stigma next time around. It’s tough living in Los Angeles and seeking treatment, but suffice it to say that it’s worse in states that have more concern for gun rights than human rights.
But there is a larger issue that is unaddressed by the focus on mass shootings.  Putting deaths by guns in context, mass killings are only a tiny portion of such deaths.  Far and away the largest group of people dying by gun fire are suicides.  Some estimates are up to 60% are suicides.  That is HUGE, given the massive number of gun deaths in the United States.  So, if we are going to make a real difference, we need something that works for deterring suicides as well as mass killings.  
We see some hopeful signs.  On a recent broadcast of The News Hour on NPR Professor Jeff Swanson of Duke University, a psychiatrist specializing in violence and mental illness, was interviewed.  He correctly stated that the vast majority of people who have diagnosable mental illnesses aren’t violent and never will be.  He stated that five states have laws where family members can ask law enforcement to remove weapons from the home of someone they believe might become violent.  These laws are sometimes called “red-flag” laws. This isn’t just in case of mental illness, but is also when someone is having anger issues, or is engaged in domestic violence, or is suicidal.  Professor Swanson was very positive about this kind of “red-flag” law being enacted and enforced in more states.  California, Connecticut, Indiana, Oregon and Washington all have some version of a red-flag law.  More than a dozen others, including Hawaii, New Jersey and Missouri, are considering them. In California, the weapons can be removed for up to a year, and there is pending legislation to allow school officials and counselors to request a “red-flag” for a student.  Swanson pointed out that there is due process which is important when you are talking about constitutional rights.  The NRA is against it, of course.
Earlier this month, ABC reported:
In a study published last year, researchers at Duke, Yale, Connecticut and Virginia estimated that dozens of suicides have been prevented by the Connecticut red-flag law, roughly one for every 10 gun seizures carried out. They said such laws “could significantly mitigate the risk” posed by the small number of legal gun owners who might suddenly pose a significant danger.
This gives us hope that some real change may actually happen.
We don’t think red-flag laws have yet been seriously contested in court.  We’re hopeful that if they are, the due process used and the successes will prove that it is not undue restriction of constitutional laws.  
We are happy to see something like red-flag laws being studied and positive results reported on a national broadcast.  And, we’re especially glad to hear how it might help with suicides, which is the biggest component of gun deaths.  But we can’t be complacent.  We know that there will be more killings and more blaming the mentally ill, and we need to be steadfast in pointing out the facts.

2 Replies to “Mental Health and Fire Arms Deaths”

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful essay. I heard about red flag laws via the news on NPR a few weeks ago, and this was the first time I heard about that, even though I have worked for mental health human rights for 42 years. At the very least, this topic deserves civil dialogue.

    A big part of the moral sickness in our country is silencing those who are marginalized, disempowered, and invisible. We in the general disability advocacy field need to amplify the voices of our people in the mental health system, now more than ever.

    If readers of this ever get on Facebook, please search for and join our informal and independent group: UU Mental Health Justice.

    This group is for anyone who values the worth and dignity of all. More than 200 of us, many but not all members of UU churches, are on this list. Join us and introduce yourself!

    Barbara and Tim, thanks again for your essay. And Barbara, thanks for your years of leadership for human rights in mental health via the UU ministry. Thanks for being on our FB list, this essay link was just posted there.

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