Mental Health Again is Issue in Gun Control Debate

By John Thomas, Associate Editor
November 9, 2013

Mental Health Again is Issue in Gun Control DebateWhile it appears doubtful that there will be a re-run of the contentious debate over tougher gun control laws at the national level following the fatal shooting of 12 persons at the Washing-ton Navy Yard, the issue of keeping weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill has taken on added importance.

Democrats and Republicans and even the National Rifle Association (NRA) are in agreement that more resources need to be provided to better diagnose and treat mentally ill individuals that demonstrate tendencies toward violence.

On the national level, there are a few scattered voices calling for more mental health care as a way to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but mostly it has been on the state level where lawmakers are beginning to take steps to achieve that goal, but not always with the approval of psychologists and other mental health care professionals.

In Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 school children and six teachers or staff in December 2012, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, told The New York Times in August, “I’ve become more and more convinced that we should establish the mental health issues as our common ground.”

In a joint release, Sens. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, and Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat, said, “Given the clear connection between the recent mass shootings and mental illness, the Senate should not delay bipartisan legislation that would help address this issue.” The bill they support would establish programs to train teachers in how to recognize the signs of mental illness and how to calm potentially violent situations.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, referring to reports that Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter, suffered from delusions, added, “If you’re having auditory hallucinations, that’s a sign of schizophrenia.” Though he agreed such a person should not be allowed to purchase a gun, Coburn said he doubts Congress could come together to write a law like that. “It’s all politics.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, has introduced a bill with Republican co-sponsors, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, that would set new federal mental health care standards, such as requiring 24-hour crisis care at community health centers. “People are losing their lives,” she said. “And we are seeing this pattern of it being tied to lack of treatment, lack of resources. We need action now,” she was quoted in the media.

Part of the problem is that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is resisting any move to advance the mental health provisions, fearing such legislation would be used by those who oppose expanded background checks to close the door to future weapons restrictions.

Following the December school shootings, legislatures in Connecticut, New York, Florida and Illinois were among those that toughened gun laws to make it harder for the mentally ill to purchase firearms.

In New York, the so-called SAFE Act (for Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013) includes a provision that requires mental health professionals to report to local officials anyone who “is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.” If those officials agree with the assessment and the person owns a gun, law enforcement is ordered to confiscate it and revoke the person’s gun license.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals in New York don’t like this section of the new law, which went into effect the first part of the year. They say “likely to engage” is too hard to diagnose and reporting such activity would violate HIPAA. They also say such a provision discourages mentally ill people from seeking help. The Veterans Administration has already said it will not participate in the new law because its activities are governed by federal laws. Gun advocates have filed suit against the law but no court decisions have been reached.

In the first few months of the act, it was reported that more than 6,000 reports were filed, but action was taken on only 11. More than nine out of 10 reports came from hospitals or state psychiatric centers.

Connecticut lawmakers voted to require that hospitals report people who have been voluntarily admitted for psychiatric treatment to state authorities, who would then bar them from buying or possessing firearms for six months.

In Florida, the NRA came to the defense of the legislature after lawmakers enacted a law that restricts the sale of guns to people with a mental illness who voluntarily commit themselves to a mental health facility. Previously, only those who had been involuntarily committed to a mental health institution were not allowed to purchase firearms.

After Republican Gov. Rick Scott came under criticism for signing the bill, former NRA President Marion Hammer came to his defense. “There is nothing in this bill that will harm Second Amendment rights. In fact, it will help protect Second Amendment rights by keeping dangerous people from being able to buy guns and then their actions being blamed on law abiding gun owners,” she told Florida
public radio.

An Illinois law set to go into effect next Jan. 1 calls for a fortified electronic database that would require mental health professions to report patients they believe pose “a clear and present danger” to themselves or others. A combination of narrow reporting guidelines, privacy laws and loopholes that allow even the most unstable person to purchase a gun online makes the effect on public safety minimal, critics say.

Mark Heyrman, JD, a professor of mental health law at the University of Chicago who helped write the state’s mental health code was skeptical. “Given the leaks in the system, this does nothing to keep us any safer. It will only hurt people with mental illness and not do anything to protect us,” he told The Chicago Tribune.

Most, if not all, states have laws against certain people buying firearms, with California having the strongest. Many states refer to “mental defectives” and “adjudicated mentally ill” among those who cannot possess guns, without defining those terms.

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