Gun Control and Mental Health in America
Gun Control and Mental Illness
America’s Public Health Crisis
by Tanya Feke, MD
We Are All at Risk
When the tragedy at Sandy Elementary Hook took place in 2012, I lived in Connecticut about 40 miles away. I was a practicing family doctor, and I was working that day. My schedule was full of sick visits and physicals, but somehow I had found a moment to write a progress note at my desk. That was when my nurse rushed into my office to tell me the news. I could not believe what I was hearing. My instinct was to drive down to Newtown and do whatever I could to help, even though I knew first responders were already on the scene.
My son was 6 years old that year. The same age as many of the children who were lost by a gunman with mental health issues. What Adam Lanza took away could never be replaced. I cannot imagine the pain those parents suffer, knowing their children had innocently lost their lives while trying to learn, knowing their final moments were engulfed in fear and confusion. As a mother, as a human being, it breaks my heart.
Family members, not exactly sure where I lived in Connecticut, called frantically to make sure that my son had not been involved in the incident. The fear of not knowing if one of their own had suffered at the hands of a madman was too great.
Their sincere concern aside, it shouldn’t matter if it’s one of our own. We have become so acclimated to violence in America, that unless it touches us personally, we say “how terrible”, we “send prayers”, and we get back to our busy lives as if nothing happened. We should want to prevent tragedies like this from happening, not wait for them to make us victims.
The Rationale for Guns
You often hear people say, “We are safer than we’ve ever been.” While violence in America may not be at its peak, that does not make it any less dangerous. What makes things different in today’s day and age is that the violence is more readily showcased. Thanks to the wonders of technology and social media, we see the worst of humanity in our daily feeds every day. Sometimes we get the horrific distinction of seeing it happen live.
The stream of violence fuels people to want to protect themselves. Proud Americans hold onto their guns and the Second Amendment with added fervor. It is no wonder the NRA is the most powerful lobby in our country. They remind us that guns are not intended to incite violence. Guns are for protection, for hunting, for recreation. Guns are our right as American citizens.
Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.
That also means putting guns in the hands of the wrong people will kill people.
The Political Divide
According to recent statistics reported in The New York Times, the majority of Democrats want stricter gun control legislation while a third of Republicans feel current gun control legislation is already too strict. Nearly half of Republicans think current laws are just right. It should not surprise you to hear that more than twice as many Republicans and Republican-leaning independents hold guns than those leaning Democrat.
After all the tragedy we have seen in recent years, that rift is not going to close anytime soon. Not if we have not already come to a consensus after years of front page violence.
Since Sandy Hook, there have been 220 shootings on school campuses, whether from accidental or intentional gunfire. We have witnessed Aurora, Fort Hood, Orlando, and San Berardino. Dylann Roof shot and killed 9 people outside of their church in Charleston, South Carolina. James Hodgkinson took 60 shots at Republican Congressmen as they practiced for a charity baseball game. These are only a handful of the high profile cases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 33,599 deaths due to firearms in 2013 alone.
No one wants to be the victim of a crime, but the odds increase every time a gun gets into the wrong hands. Even if you are a gun carrier yourself, life can change in an instant.
Cutting Back on Gun Control Legislation
The majority of gun owners are responsible people, and they defend their right to bear arms. Rightfully so. The truth is that no one wants to take guns away from all Americans, not even the Democrats. What the Democrats want is to assure that your safety, and the safety of the public, is accounted for when someone purchases or uses a gun.
In that same article, The New York Times reported this interesting statistic: Whether Democrat or Republican, 89% of Americans, gun owners or not, feel that guns should not be sold to the mentally ill.
Despite this, President Trump rolled back an Obama-era regulation in February 2017 that made it harder for people with certain mental illnesses to buy guns. The law would have added people to the national background check database if they received Social Security Disability for a mental illness or if they were deemed unfit by a medical professional to manage their financial affairs. Of course, having a mental illness in and of itself does not make anyone dangerous, but if their mental capacity is so impacted that they are considered disabled or unable to manage basic life skills on their own, it could make it unsafe to handle a firearm.
Using a firearm properly and safely requires precision and calculation. If someone cannot make sound decisions or if someone cannot properly handle a firearm, their safety and yours could be at risk. No one argues that a person who is blind or someone who has seizures should not drive a car, but handling a lethal weapon should have no restrictions?
Targeting Mental Illness
Many Americans suffer from mental illness. 40 million American adults (18% of the population) have anxiety disorders, and 15 million (7% of the population) have major depressive disorder. Altogether, one in five Americans will suffer from a mental illness in any given year.
Mental illness is not something to be stigmatized. It is something to be treated so that people can live fuller and richer lives. It is something that needs to be addressed so that people can lead productive lives.
It is also true that some, not all, mental illnesses can lead to disordered thinking. Some people may experience hallucinations, delusions, or paranoia. This could lead to poor judgment and snap decisions that could lead to unsafe situations if a firearm came into play.
It is the reason we need to expand, not cut off, access to mental health services. More than 20% of Americans rely on Medicaid for health care, but that hasn’t stopped the GOP from proposing drastic cuts to the program, more than $800 billion over a decade, through the American Health Care Act/Better Care Reconciliation Act. The same legislation proposes cuts to essential health benefits, potentially cutting mental health services from anyone, not just people on Medicaid.
We need to reach out to those in need, not endanger them or the public by cutting off the resources that will keep them well.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Is our right to bear arms, even when we are ill, more important than our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? For the people who have lost their lives to gun violence, their life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were taken away because of someone else’s “right” to bear arms. Sometimes, we need to look to logic and reasoning. I doubt our founding fathers were looking to support mass shootings and unnecessary violence.
Background checks can be helpful, although they only go so far. It is often argued that people will find illegal ways to access guns anyway, but should that mean we lessen our efforts? If we can make it harder for violent criminals and people on terror watch lists to access guns, we should consider it. Increasing access to mental health services seems to be a critical piece of the puzzle too, yet current legislation attempts to decrease health care access. Current laws also decrease background checks for people with severe mental illness.
When can we look past party lines and have a rational discussion about what we can do to allow people access to firearms while also addressing public welfare? This is a public health issue. More than that, it is an American issue. We need to come together if we are going to a make a difference.
I do not want to read about another gun tragedy in my newsfeed. Do you?