Perspectives in Policy: Gun Violence & Mental Health

Issue 2, 7/1/2013

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Articles in This Issue:

Gun Violence & Mental Health

Communities across the United States have seen their share of violent shootings over the last several years. Immediately following, there is often a great deal of speculation about the reasons and intentions of the alleged shooter or shooters. Often the shooter(s) take their own lives and we rely on their families, friends, teachers and neighbors to provide an answer to the question most people have: why?

Judgment and prejudice often replace facts and objectivity following acts of violence involving the use of guns. The race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and/or mental health of perpetrators may be immediately called into question. This was evident following the recent bombings in Boston, Massachusetts with public safety officials and investigators attempting to find answers while the media was speculating and provided premature and false statements to the public. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter often make these false assumptions worse, when anyone is able to share information with the world whether founded or not.

Violence, in particular gun violence, is a crime committed by people from all walks of life and each situation is unique. However, gun violence is often, sometimes wrongly, associated with individuals with mental illness. To that end, the gun control debates taking place across the US have focused much attention on ensuring that people with mental illness do not have access to guns and other firearms. Yet, a majority of individuals with mental illness do not have any history of violence and consider gun violence a terrible and unacceptable act. This underscores the importance of focusing on facts and not stereotypes, which too often stigmatize entire groups of people.

This issue of Perspectives in Policy will explore the varying perspectives around the current gun control debate as it relates to mental health and illness. This debate has been happening for decades but has recently been fueled by the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut where children and teachers were gunned down while attending Sandy Hook Elementary School. Varying solutions have been proposed by many interest groups including background checks, reducing violence in the media and video games, banning assault weapons, among many others.

Ultimately, the goal should be to reduce the accessibility of potentially dangerous weapons to any individuals who have potential to abuse the intention of the weapon. In this issue of Perspectives in Policy you will hear from a variety of stakeholders, from law enforcement to advocates and individuals living with mental illness about their thoughts and observations on the subject

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NAMI's Perspective

The U.S. Surgeon General has determined that the likelihood of violence from people with mental illness is low. There are many reasons why violence occurs in our society, many of which have nothing or little to do with mental illness.

Federal law speaks in terms of individuals “adjudicated mentally defective” a term that is not only highly offensive, but has no practical meaning. Likewise, terms in the law such as “civilly committed” require practical definition.

In 2007, NAMI testified before Congress, explaining how current definitions in the law are vague, leading to holes in compliance and enforcement. To date, there has been no effort in Congress to change the law—thoughtfully and carefully—in a way that is not only overly broad, but also avoids unfair, damaging discrimination.

One paramount concern is to avoid creating a situation where people are in fact discouraged from getting help when they need it because of speculative fear over stigma.

It’s worth having public dialogue about making gun laws more effective. But extreme, broad-brushed rhetoric that ignores medical science, modern definitions and actual risk factors will only detract from the discussion.

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NRA's Perspective

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has a long-standing record of strongly supporting the Second Amendment to the United States which states, “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The NRA has stood fast against recent attempts to pass gun control legislation in Congress.

More recently, the NRA has supported legislation to ensure appropriate records of those who have been judged mentally incompetent or involuntarily committed to mental institutions be made available for use in firearms transfer background checks. The NRA will support any reasonable step to fix America’s broken mental health system without intruding on the constitutional rights of Americans.

In a recent visit to Iowa, NRA President David Keene discussed 2nd Amendment rights and shared his and the NRA’s perspective on gun violence and mental illness. Keene said, “One thing that we are very fearful of is the classification of large groups of people that firearms rights could be denied. If you have a fundamental constitutional right, it cannot be taken away willy nilly and that’s what’s happening in Maryland and New York – where they want to classify whole groups of people as people who shouldn’t have firearms rights”.

Keene shared other examples of legislators who have tried to classify veterans, for example, as an entire group of people who are “crazy” and should not have firearm rights. Keene notes the NRA position is clearly stated that there must be an individual adjudication by a judge or a court that someone is not mentally capable of owning firearms. “Our position is that there has to be an adjudication and there has to be a way to recover those rights,” Keene said emphasizing the right to eventually recover the right to own firearms if, after a period of time, the person is determined to be capable of owning a firearm.

Keene also made an important distinction between mass shootings and gun violence. He said, “If mental health is the problem – and it is in these mass shootings – you know the President likes to talk about gun violence, he’s really talking about two different things: he’s talking about the mall, the school, the theatre shootings, these are not perpetrated by criminals…these are people who are really sick, these are really mentally ill people who are not being treated by the system and therefore go out and do these things. The other side is gun crime, and we know how to deal with that. If you want to deal with gun crime, you punish, detain, incarcerate, gun criminals.”

The NRA strongly holds our mental health systems in this country is flawed, broken and underfunded and are committed to seeing it improved. However, they believe the constitutional right to bear arms is as fundamental as it gets. A core right the Founding Fathers intended to last throughout our country’s history. No group or groups of people, including the mentally ill, should be denied their right to bear arms unless they are individually told by a judge or a court they are incapable of carefully exercising that right.

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Law Enforcement Perspective

-Sheriff Michael Fitzgerald, Story County

As Immediate Past President of the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA), my perception on the gun control debate and its effect on people with mental illness echo the sentiments of the NSA. The role of Sheriff is to ensure public safety while enforcing and defending the Constitution and laws therein. Therefore, it is imperative that as we proceed in addressing the concerns brought to the forefront of the national debate by acts of extreme violence, we remain steadfast in our commitment to protect the rights of the individual.

There is no single approach that will solve the problem of extreme violence in our culture. A multi-faceted plan needs to be discussed to address the relevant factors concerning gun violence and mental health. Specific issues the National Sheriffs’ Association recognize as vital to ensuring public safety and addressing the needs of the mentally ill are:

  1. Law enforcement access to records of those prohibited by law from possessing firearms
  2. Law enforcement access to mental health records
  3. Expansion of mental health treatment resources
  4. Vigorous prosecution of those who violate current gun laws
  5. Promotion of safe and secure storage and usage of firearms
  6. Enhanced law enforcement training to address active shooters
  7. Acknowledging the culture of violence that is prominent on television, in movies, on-line and in video games and its influence on our youth
  8. Commitment to protecting our youth in schools and in their neighborhoods

How will this impact people with mental illness? The outlined approach to dealing with issues such as records law, access to mental health treatment, and weapons safety will help address some common sense solutions that can have immediate as well as sustained impact on extreme violence. For example, if those with mental illness can have their needs met by expanded mental health treatment resources they may not violate the law. If those with mental illness do violate the law, placement in a mental health facility would often be a much better option than a county jail. If law enforcement is given access to mental health records and know they are contacting a citizen with mental health needs they may be able to better serve the individual as they are now being trained in mental health first-aid. Mental health is just one aspect in addressing extreme violence, but it is an important component that cannot be overlooked.

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Family Perspective

-Dave & Joan Becker

Although our son, Mark Becker, just happens to fall in the less than 1% category of those with mental illness that did actually result in violence, my husband and I feel very strongly that our nation is unfairly associating gun violence with those who have a mental disability or illness. The real problem for those with a mental illness is access to proper diagnosis and treatment!

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Advocate Perspective

- Jessica Tull

Allowing law enforcement to access mental health records is a bad idea. There are two main reasons I believe this: First, it would deter individuals from seeking mental health care in the first place. Gun owners are intelligent and responsible individuals, and the responsible thing to do when experiencing mental health symptoms is to treat those symptoms.

Many gun owners, including myself, value our right to own guns as much as our right to vote. If there is a possibility that a doctor or counselor is providing personal medical information to the police, many people would choose not to receive treatment to preserve their privacy and their 2nd Amendment right. Secondly, providing access to these records is unnecessary. Mental health workers, while ordinarily bound to confidentiality, are required to report individuals who threaten violence against themselves or others. This is already standard practice. Additionally, anyone who has ben involuntarily committed for mental health reasons and who attempts to purchase a gun will find their background check rejected.

The discussion of gun violence and people with mental illness has been oversimplified. In condensing the story down for popular consumption, the message has been sent that all individuals with mental illness are violent and should have their freedoms restricted. This isn’t the case. If anything, it’s more likely for someone with a mental illness to be a crime victim than to commit an act of aggression. Passivity is the overwhelming problem: many people with chronic mental illness have lost their self-esteem and become accustomed to others making decisions for them.

Jessica is a 2009 graduate of the Iowa Peer Support Training Academy and has worked as a peer support specialist in the mental health field since 2007. She is also a NRA Life Member and shoots competitively in the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) matches. She is finishing degrees in psychology and journalism at Iowa State University.

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An Update on Federal Gun Control Legislation

It has been over six months since the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and the incident has renewed a national discussion about gun control policy in the United States. Since the shootings in Newtown, President Obama has pressured Congress to pass gun control laws that keep guns out of the hands of individuals who should not have them.

In April of this year, Congress and the President reached a bipartisan agreement on expanded background checks. That agreement, which would have expanded background checks on firearms sales and also banned some semi-automatic weapons modeled after military assault weapons, fell apart and no additional measures have gained enough support from either the United States House or Senate to move forward.

In recent weeks, leaders in Congress have been meeting with President Obama on this issue and while they say their discussions are positive, little has been done to advance the issue. It is assumed that many in Congress are concerned about a vote to control firearms and the impact it may have on them in the upcoming election in 2014.

The discussions though are likely to continue over the course of the coming months and perhaps years as gun control and second amendment rights remain a priority for many US voters.

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