Sandy Hook, Gun Laws, and Mental Health

Post Published on January 17, 2013.
Last Updated on April 3, 2016 by davemackey.

LG Health Exchange Legislation Testimony
LG Health Exchange Legislation Testimony (Photo credit: MDGovpics)

I’ve followed the news about Sandy Hook as much as most average informed citizens – reading articles, listening to NPR/BBC, and so on. I’ve also been following loosely the discussion that has arisen in the aftermath of Sandy Hook about what laws should or should not be made in order to prevent future occurrences of this sort of tragedy.

I wanted to comment briefly on the thoughts which have been circling around mental health issues and whether laws should be implemented to prevent individuals with mental illnesses from purchasing/owning weapons.

This concerns me as someone who suffers from mental illness (OCD, Depression, ADD) and as someone who frequently interacts with and ministers to the mentally ill. Why? Because for years now I have been encouraging folks to seek psychological treatment with the assurance that it won’t destroy their lives and limit their participation in various activities. Even with these assurances I still regularly receive strong kickback from folks who fear that being diagnosed or taking medications will make them an outcast of society, looked upon with suspicion by all. I have seen parents refuse treatment for children and teenagers desperately in need of care, fearing that a mental health record will limit their prospects as they grow older, afraid that the child will be angry when they grow to maturity that their parents took such limiting steps.

Now it seems that folks are considering making laws which would make those suffering with mental illness’ fears a reality. What would be the result of this? First, many innocents would be condemned and limited due to the aberrations of a very few. The vast majority of individuals suffering mental illness are not violent nor a danger to the public. In fact, pick out ten people you interact with on a regular basis and it is likely that at least one or two of them have a mental disorder – and you don’t know it!

What would be the end result of such laws? One of the clearest effects would be fear among the mentally ill to be diagnosed or treated. This would increase rather than decrease any violent potential among the mentally ill – as individuals who most severely needed help (as those suffering from paranoid delusions, etc.) would be the most likely to refuse help.

I find it also disconcerting that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is advocating mental health legislation as the answer – honestly, I’m quite surprised by this. Why? Because mental illness is a murky field and there is plenty more room for the “slippery slope” to take effect regarding mental health legislation than there is for legislation regarding assault weapons to progress to a wider weapons ban.

For example, as far as I have read or heard, the shooter at Sandy Hook had autism (and I haven’t heard of any criminal record?). We aren’t talking about banning some very small and clearly defined subset of mental health disorders – rather, disorders like autism are broad and range from mild to severe impairment. Those with the most severe impairment would not have the capacity to utilize a firearm and those with mild to moderate impairment would not be statistically more likely to utilize weapons in a violent manner than the general populace.

It would not be a large stretch to identify certain forms of religious or political belief as a form of mental illness – and to ban weapons for such individuals on this basis – this could have much wider long-term impact on the right to bear arms than an assault weapons ban.

As such, I am opposed to legislation based on mental health restricting the availability of weapons. I am unsure of what legislation will make a positive difference in situations such as Sandy Hook – the actions of shooters such as at Sandy Hook are so far outside the norm of human behavior that it is difficult to predict what could be done to stop them from acting in such a manner. I do think there are many legislative steps that could be taken to reduce violence generally – for example, prison reform (e.g. as Chuck Colson advocated for, using alternative reformative punishments for non-violent offenders).

In conclusion, I see reasons to legislate as mentioned above – but also believe that our best hope for reducing this form of extreme and horrific violence is through communal endeavors. Specifically, intentionally engaging one another. I don’t think a shooter reaches this place while surrounded by friends. If a shooter does reach such a place, I believe there will be numerous warning signs that friends and family can utilize to report and stop the shooter before any violence occurs. The thought patterns which lead someone to this path are likely formed in intense isolation – thoughts which could be confronted by us if we are willing to reach out.

Evil people, conspiracy theories, dangerous weapons, and mental illness are the band-aid treatment rather than the radical surgery required. The problem with the real treatment is admitting that it involves us changing – and changing in ways that involve us being more outward focused in ways that are self-sacrificing. Not fun – for me or you.

P.S. I’m not saying I am opposed to legislation regarding assault weapons. Honestly, I have no opinion. On the one hand, I see that assault weapons can allow one to kill faster. On the other hand, I think several smaller capacity weapons carried simultaneously would accomplish the same effect and with less difficulty in concealing them. Assault weapons seem more advantageous for individuals involved in violence that isn’t hidden – and this usually isn’t the case with these sorts of shootings – hiding the fact that one is carrying weapons is paramount for these individuals as they infiltrate places of safe haven.

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