Mental health issue getting swept up in gun politics

There may be another casualty after the latest mass murder: the focus on the need for mental health care.

Against the hopes of those who had hoped that the nation was finally willing to confront its negligence on the issue, mental health care is now a politicized issue. It’s being painted as the anti-gun-control issue.

“Mental Health Legislation, Not Gun Control, Focus of Congress After Navy Yard Shooting,” the headline on a U.S. News story says today. There aren’t enough votes for gun control; there might be for mental health legislation.

Another Mass Shooting Renews Mental Health Debate,” a headline in Texas says.

Some gun control advocates say they detect an intention to shift the focus away from gun control and onto mental health, one conversation I monitored via Twitter today revealed.

An editorial in the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle seems to provide a basis for the belief. The website GOPUSA today posted the Georgia editorial and ratcheted up the headline:  “Knee-jerk gun control reaction delays necessary changes to mental health laws.”

Columnist David Frum has heard it too and isn’t buying it. He sees no reason why mental health needs to be pitted against a gun control debate:

Suppose somebody had argued back in 1965 that the “real” cause of car accidents was drinking. Suppose they had argued that it was useless to improve roads and a violation of automakers’ rights to require seat belts — that the one and only thing to do was to crack down on drunk driving. They wouldn’t have been wrong about drunk driving. But had they been listened to, much less progress would have been achieved.

Yet this is exactly how the debate over gun safety unfolds. After a mass casualty shooting, gun rights advocates direct our attention to the gaps in the American mental health system. They’re right, too! But it is also true that the easy availability of guns enables mentally troubled people to do much more damage than they might in another country where guns are harder to come by. Shouldn’t we pay attention to both problems?

After the Newtown massacre, President Obama promised to make mental health a focus of his solution. He promised to convene a meeting at the White House.

In June, they came, they talked, and they went home.

  • davidz

    Those who advocate for the ability to connect the dots ahead of a major incident are asking for a national database of all residents (citizens and non), and accessible to every police department, medical care provider, school counselor, workplace supervisor and other positions of authority. Then someone has to figure out what the patterns are that warrant some sort of major intervention. And then testing of those patterns must be done to weed out the myriad of false positives that will inevitably occur.

    Sure, looking back we can see points of data from the various people who have committed mass murder. But does anyone really think that we can go the other way ’round? From data on 300+ million Americans, day by day, to find the handful that commit heinous crimes? Without infringing upon the rights of dozens, hundreds, or possibly even tens of thousands of other American who exhibit many of the same behaviors but are not likely to commit those crimes?

    No one entity has the full picture that it takes to see what might possibly happen. And if you think that collecting phone call metadata is an infringement of the 4th Amendment, what about medical examination history, confidential counseling records, police contact reports, and all of the other information that comes out later? That would all need to be collected and correlated AHEAD OF TIME, meaning ALL THE TIME, in order to try to prevent this from happening again.

    Solving “mental health care” won’t solve mass murder. Nor will “gun control”. Nor will any other short-titled initiative. That’s because I don’t think anything can prevent mass murder. It has happened everywhere, and from the records we have, from time unrecorded. That not to say that we can’t do anything about it, and that’s where all of the aforementioned things come into play. This is a systemic problem, and must be addressed systemically.

    If you want to build up a giant information awareness program to monitor every aspect of a person’s life, and then enforce restrictions on people (even law abiding people) who don’t fit some curve of normalcy, then there’s a great deal that could be done to stop mass murder. At a great cost to our current civil liberties.

    But who will honestly advocate for such an Information Awareness program? It’s been tried before, and even in the shortly-after-9/11 rout of the Bill of Rights, the intelligence community’s plan for such a thing was shut down (mostly). And that was to prevent *TERRORISM* (the bogeyman of the last decade or more). I don’t see protection against mass murder taking a higher priority, even in the climate of 2013 (as opposed to 2002).

    A system problem requires a systemic fix. Which, alas, I don’t think our government is actually capable of providing.

    • Bob Collins

      Or we can just provide mental health care when someone says he’s hearing voices because it’s just the right thing to do.

      • davidz

        Oh, absolutely. “Won’t that mean everyone hearing voices would step forward and seek help. I should certainly hope so, sir” (to paraphrase The West Wing). But unless such a person is involuntarily committed, there’s very little that society can do to force any sort of follow-on care.

        But for some third-party to make a leap from “provide mental health care” to “prevent from buying a gun” or “prevent from being a federal contractor” is asking for societal powers that do not exist.

        I am all for providing whatever help we can at any of the “dots” where a troubled individual has an interaction with some sort of health care provider or law enforcement official.

        But trying to connect those dots isn’t feasible.

    • John Peschken

      True; Solving “mental health care” won’t solve mass murder. Nor will “gun control”, but each could put a dent in the numbers. Unfortunately, I do not think our legislators have the wisdom or the courage to compromise and make real progress on either issue.