Tom Gabor – Blaming Mass Shootings on Mental Health Issues Alone is Disgraceful.

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Just one month after the worst mass shooting in modern American history in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in a place of worship occurred at The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The gunman, Devin Patrick Kelley, killed 26 people and wounded 20 others on Sunday with an AR-556 assault rifle.

texasPresident Donald Trump condemned the act as “evil,” and called it “a mental health problem,” not a “guns situation.” However, a study of 133 mass shootings has shown that, as in the Texas attack, most mass shootings have a domestic violence link, while in just 11% of the incidents were concerns about the mental health of the shooter brought to the attention of a medical practitioner, legal authority, or school official. That study also showed that when assault weapons or high-capacity magazines were used, an average of eight more people were shot, indicating the pivotal role of the weapon in increasing the carnage. Therefore, the prevalence of high-powered weapons in the U.S. is an enormous contributing factor to the growing frequency and lethality of mass shootings. The call to address the nation’s mental health issues is a familiar dodge of those seeking to avoid a discussion of gun policy.

If the president truly believes mass shootings are a mental health issue, why did his administration block the Social Security Administration from reporting mentally impaired recipients of federal aid to a national background check database? These are individuals on disability support who suffer from severe mental illnesses. President Obama had introduced an administrative rule to keep people with severe mental illnesses from purchasing guns, and Trump, demonstrating perhaps his support for the gun lobby’s agenda, signed a measure to overturn this policy.

The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, but over a third of the mass shootings. Rates of mental illness, while somewhat higher than other countries, fail to account for the enormous gap in the number of mass shootings between the U.S. and other advanced nations. Countries such as the U.K., Germany, and Japan have at most a few dozen gun homicides, and no more than one or two mass shootings per year. By contrast, the U.S. already has had more than 300 mass shootings this year. Therefore, the gap in mass shootings is too great to be explained by more modest differences in the rates of mental illness.

Psychiatrist Richard Friedman writes that psychiatry cannot protect us from mass murderers. He states that while many mass shooters have a severe personality or psychotic disorder, they often avoid the mental health system altogether, as they are not interested in treatment and do not see themselves as ill. He adds that it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict which individuals will become violent. While millions of Americans have a mental disorder or a serious anger management issue, just an infinitesimal fraction will commit these atrocities. Friedman argues that the focus should not be on detecting mass killers in advance, but on the availability of lethal weapons. He points to Australia, a country that has virtually eliminated mass shootings since automatic and semiautomatic long guns were banned.

A greater propensity toward violence also does not explain the disproportionate number of these massacres in the U.S. International crime surveys show that the U.S. is in the middle of the pack with regard to violence in general. But it’s an outlier in lethal violence. This finding suggests that it is the greater prevalence of lethal weapons in the U.S. that leads more altercations to escalate to homicides.

 

Those seeking reform are likely to be frustrated once again by the absence of bold national legislation, such as that adopted by Australia. We have a president who believes that mass shootings are not a “guns situation,” and a Republican-dominated Congress that has no intention of defying the gun lobby. Recent polling shows that gun rights advocates are more likely to be single-issue voters who are politically active than are those who favor reform. Partisan gerrymandering has also contributed to a more polarized political environment in which representatives in Republican-controlled districts resist gun policy changes, fearing that more conservative candidates, backed by the gun lobby, will challenge them in the primaries.

In this environment, the disgraceful avoidance of this issue by lawmakers is likely to persist, and one wonders what type or level of atrocity will stimulate bold action on their part. When will our elected representatives place a higher value on the lives of their fellow citizens than on weapons of war designed for one purpose: to kill the largest number of people as quickly as possible?

Tom Gabor is a criminologist, sociologist, and author of Confronting Gun Violence in America.

 

 

We Can End Gun Violence By ‘Fixing” The Mental Health System, Right? Wrong.

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Jeffrey Swanson has been conducting important research on violence for as long as I can remember, and now he and his colleagues have published a major study on mental illness and gun suicides with a major finding that people who have been briefly hospitalized for mental issues are more likely to then commit suicide with a gun.

Gun Nut Nation usually denies the existence of ‘gun violence,’ unless it is perpetrated by ‘street thugs’ or people who are seriously mentally ill. As to the former, the solution according to the NRA is to lock ‘em up and throw away the key; for the latter the mental health ‘system’ needs to be ‘fixed.’  Last August Donald Trump told the then-adoring media that two Virginia television journalists wouldn’t have been killed if the mental health system wasn’t ‘broken.’ Which happens to be the subject of Swanson’s research and, no great surprise, happens not to be true.

crime2           Because the problem isn’t whether mentally ill individuals receive proper treatment before or after they commit a violent act against others or themselves; the problem is whether the legal system, not the mental health system, allows such individuals to keep getting access to guns. The research by Swanson, et. al., covered more than 80,000 adults who received mental health treatment in two Florida counties – Dade (Miami) and Pinellas (St. Petersburg) from 2002 to 2011.  Of this total population, roughly one-third were prohibited from owning guns either because of a mental health disqualification (long-term hospital commitment, incompetent to stand trial) or a criminal record; i.e., conviction for a felony crime.  Of the remaining two-thirds of this population that had been treated for mental illness, none were disqualified from gun ownership even if they had been temporarily placed in a treatment facility against their will.

And what was the result of a legal (not a mental) system which allowed such individuals continued access to guns?  The results of the study were ambiguous as to the degree to which such people used guns to commit serious crimes, but it clearly showed a link between access to guns by this population and an increase in gun suicides, and this in a population that was more vulnerable to suicide given the fact that they had been treated for mental problems in the years leading up to their life-ending attempt.

Now I’m not going to spend one second responding to the loony emails I receive all the time from Gun Nut Nation telling me that the 2nd Amendment protects everyone’s ‘right’ to choose whether they want to end their own lives (I actually do receive such crazy stuff) except to say that people who attempt suicide and fail overwhelmingly state that they are glad to still be alive.  But using a gun to commit suicide usually doesn’t give someone much chance of surviving, and what this study found was that a majority of gun-eligible individuals who committed gun suicides had experienced one or multiple short-term, involuntary commitments which, in Florida, are not reportable legal events.

So here we come back not to the mental health system but to the legal system which needs to be fixed if some way is going to be found to cut the suicide rate among people who have not been legally disqualified from owning guns.  And guess which organization stands up and cries – foul! – every time an effort is made to fix the legal system in order to help protect some gun owners from themselves.  Because in case you didn’t know it, back in 1999 the World Health Organization defined violence as “the intentional use of physical force, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community.”

So let’s cut the NRA nonsense about how the mental health system needs to be ‘fixed.’ And while we’re at it, remember there are 146 days until we have an opportunity to send Donald Trump away for a much-needed mental health fix himself.

All We Need To Solve Gun Violence Is To Fix Mental Health, Right?

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The NRA will let one week go by and then they’ll issue a statement about the Elliot Rodger shootings in Santa Barbara.  Actually, they’ll issue two statements which they always have ready to go.  First they’ll say that the slaughter shows that the mental health system is ‘broken’ and needs to be ‘fixed.’  Then they’ll say that a ‘good guy’ with a gun would have stopped the ‘bad guy,’ and they’ll remind everyone that CCW is impossible to get in California so there are no ‘good guys’ walking around in Isla Vista anyway.

The truth is that neither statement is true and have never been true.  But they sound like they’re true, which gets the NRA off the hook.  They can promote gun sales all they want but also come down on the side of safety and responsibility because it’s the mental health system that needs to be fixed, right?

Last week Dr. Richard Friedman, a Professor of Psychiatry, explained that the link between mental illness and violence is tenuous at best and accounts for less than 5% of overall violence at worst. Which means that if every nut lost his guns, the 10,000+ gun homicides we endure each year would drop by a whole, big 500 or so.  Wow – talk about ending gun violence by “fixing” the mental health system.  Some fix.

free school                As for all those ‘good guys’ walking around with guns, the FBI says there are roughly 300 justifiable homicides each year, a number that hasn’t changed even with the CCW upsurge in the past year.  Yea, yea, every year armed citizens ‘prevent’ millions of crimes just by waving their guns around in the air.  I also know that Martians actually did land in Parrump.

The self-satisfied folks who really believe that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people,’ simply refuse to accept the fact that if you pick up a gun, point it at someone else and pull the trigger, that the result is going to be very serious injuries or loss of life.  There Is no other way, including running over someone with a car, that has such a devastating effect.  The NRA gets around that problem by promoting, with an almost mystical reverence, the notion of using guns for self defense.  John Lott’s nonsense to the contrary, there is absolutely no evidence which proves that guns save more lives than they destroy.

Now don’t get me wrong.  If you’re already sending a comment about how Mike The Gun Guy is really Mike The Anti-Gun Guy, why don’t you save the HP screeners a little time and at least wait until you read this entire blog?  Because believe it or not, I’m not anti-gun.  I have said again and again that 99.9% of all gun owners are safe and responsible with their guns.  I have also said, but it bears repeating, that we should be able to figure out how to end gun violence without making lawful and careful gun owners jump through more legal hoops, including expanded background checks.

This morning I received an email from one of the largest internet gun-sellers who is dumping new, name-brand  AR-15s for under 600 bucks.  These are guns that were selling for twice that much a year ago and, as the email warned, “any sudden media attention topoliticalsituations, restrictive laws and regulations can drive prices through the roof again overnight.”

The gun industry sits on the horns of a dilemma.  They can moan and groan all they want about gun control but it’s high-profile shootings that ignite the debate which then leads to stronger sales.  The NRA claims that it’s all about safe gun ownership but let’s not make it too safe.  Because if we do, it will be more than just a couple of Tea Party politicians giving away free AR-15’s.

When It Comes To Mental Illness & Guns, The NRA May Be Crazy Too

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Final_cover__08585.1377691165.220.290Available on Amazon.

 

 

In the wake of the Navy Yard massacre, the argument about gun control has shifted away from background checks and now has landed on fixing the mental health system.  This is my second blog on mental illness and gun violence and I’m going to write several more.  But here’s my latest thoughts on the subject so follow my drift.

I am an NRA-certified trainer and, as such, spent the weekend with a group of NRA trainers qualifying in a new training certification recently developed by the NRA.  Two things impressed me about the training. First was the character and caliber of the other trainers.  Many are active law enforcement or military personnel, all are ‘first responders’ and would think nothing of charging into a burning building to rescue me. Second, the NRA training course, like all NRA courses, mentions gun safety and gun responsibility on every page. Anyone out there who thinks that the “average” gun owner doesn’t know and understand the basic rules of gun responsibility doesn’t know any average gun owners and certainly hasn’t been paying attention to the endless calls for gun safety voiced by the NRA.

But when it comes to moving from rhetoric to reality, in particular the issue of mental health and gun safety, the NRA’s behavior is so at odds with their own rhetoric that they seem to be suffering from a new form of organizational schizophrenia that may only be found in the gun business and perhaps Wayne LaPierre can become an expert on this type of mental illness as well. He certainly seems to be an expert on mental health issues that lead to mass shootings, at least he never misses the opportunity to call for “fixing” the mental health system as a way to eliminate the kind of tragedy that just occurred at the Navy Yard in DC.

But here’s where the schizoid behavior of the NRA sets in, because at the same time that they call for more effective ways to identify and treat the mentally ill, they’re also try to make it impossible for medical professionals to figure out whether a patient who reports mental illness symptoms, such as depression or anxiety, is a threat to engage in gun violence at all.  Why?  Because the NRA, believe it or not, wants to prevent physicians and other medical professionals from responding to the earliest warnings about gun violence provoked by mental illness by criminalizing any attempt to discern whether a depressed or anxious patient has access to a gun.

In 2011 the NRA backed a law passed in Florida that made it a felony for any physician to inquire about the existence of guns in the home even if the patient reported symptoms of mental distress.  The rationale behind this stupidity was that such a question (not that a patient ever has to answer any question during a consultation) was an invasion of the patient’s right to privacy under the 2nd Amendment, as if the 2nd Amendment says anything about privacy at all.  In the arguments before Federal Judge Marcia Cooke, the NRA-backed attorneys rolled out their ‘slippery slope’ defense which basically says that any kind of gun regulations will eventually lead to total confiscation.  How do we know this is will happen?  Because the NRA says it will happen.

The good news is that Judge Cooke permanently blocked the legislation, but the NRA claims it will appeal the decision to the 6th Circuit Court.   But while the issue meanders through the appeals process, physicians and mental health professionals in Florida and elsewhere (similar bills sat in various state legislatures waiting to see what would happen to the Florida law) will actually have the opportunity to notify both the mental health system and the requisite law enforcement authorities when and if they learn that a gun-owning patient might do harm to himself or someone else because he exhibits or admits to mental distress.  Isn’t that how we should begin to “fix” the mental health system?  Sounds fairly logical to me even though mental health expert Wayne LaPierre will probably disagree.

Mental Illness Leads To Gun Violence: They Finally Agree On Something And So What?

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Final_cover__08585.1377691165.220.290 Available in print or e-book on Amazon.

One thing that both sides in the gun debate seem to agree on is the notion that we would suffer much less gun violence if we did a better job of dealing with people who are mentally ill.  After all, what normal person would walk onto a navy base and kill twelve people, or walk into an elementary school and end the lives of several dozen adults and young kids?

Wayne LaPierre

Wayne LaPierre

One of America’s foremost authorities on mental illness, Wayne LaPierre, made this point when he was interviewed following the massacre at the Navy Yard in DC. The NRA chief said, “This outrage was [because] of a mental health system that is completely broken.”  How do we know that Wayne’s a mental health expert?  Because he talks about it all the time.  He made the same, exact point in his first public comment after Sandy Hook, then he repeated his demand to fix the ‘broken’ mental health system in his speech before the membership of the NRA.

First time on my blog.

First time on my blog.

But Wayne’s only an executive of the NRA.  What if you’re the Chief Executive of the United States?  The President is also convinced that tightening up the process for getting mental health records into the FBI background-check database will also protect us from the damage caused by guns.  In January, the White House said it would help states remove barriers for sending mental health data to the FBI background check system known as NICS.    Then in April Obama directed the CDC to begin figuring out how to increase the flow of mental health information to the FBI without violating the privacy provisions of HIPAA and other privacy laws.

So while we can all feel pleased that the leaders of the pro-gun and anti-gun movements can finally agree on something, it’s not clear that this new-found alliance really means anything at all.  For one thing, calling someone “mentally ill” because they commit an outrageous act doesn’t mean that the way they behave fits the definition of ‘mentally ill.’  Consider the definition that is held by the real experts, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illnesss:   “A mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.”  The same definition is used by the CDC.

Note the fact that we are dealing with a ‘medical condition,’ which means something that should be treated by medical professionals.  But what does the treatment consist of? A visit or two to a therapist and perhaps a brief regimen of pills?  Not a single one of the recent mass murderers – Lanza, Alexis, et. al., – sought or received medical treatment that could have resulted in their names being added  to a mental health watch-list that would have been sent to the FBI.  And note that the definition of mental illness also incorporates the idea that the condition “disrupts” daily functioning.  Not true in the case of the Aurora shooter, not true for the young man who shot Gabbie Giffords, not true for Virginia Tech, not true, not true, not true.

Wouldn’t it be nice if all we had to do to end gun violence was to crank up the computers and stuff some more data into NICS?  If the NSA can record, analyze and store one billion cell-phone calls every day, it can’t be that difficult to enlarge the capacity of the NICS system to track a few million loonies who otherwise might be able to buy guns.

But it’s not the unfortunate individuals suffering from real mental illness who walk into a building and begin shooting everyone in sight.  It’s the guys you don’t notice, the ones who walk around seemingly normal and functioning who all of a sudden just snap.  Want to keep those types from getting their hands on a gun?  We’re right back to where we started arguing whether it’s guns or people who do the killing.

Do We Ever Talk About The Real Gun Violence?

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With all the talk and counter-talk this year about gun violence, I’m not sure that we have actually looked at the real issue at all.  And the real issue goes like this.

Last year there were roughly 11,000 homicides, of which approximately 80% involved the use of guns. There’s endless talk about how the US is much more violent, and really much more gun violent than any other advanced country, and we need to do something about it.  The NRA says that we need more armed citizens.  The other side says we need less guns.  Neither side can point to any definitive data to prove their point, but when did facts ever get in the way of opinions anyhow?

I want to talk about another kind of gun violence, the kind we don’t talk about at all.  For every person who was shot with a gun in a criminal affair, more than two people (roughly 18,000) shot themselves with guns.  That’s right. Gun suicide is more than twice as common as gun homicide, and I don’t notice anything in all the proposed bills floating through Congress that mentions this issue.

The one thing that everyone in Washington seems to agree on is that we need to add mental health records to NICS.  Now maybe that would prevent some crazy person from buying a gun and walking onto a college campus to shoot at a whole bunch of people, but it would likely have little impact on gun suicides.  In the majority of suicides, the victim actually saw a health professional within the last two weeks of their life.  That’s the real problem with suicide; it’s a very impulsive, very private kind of behavior.

The private nature of suicide and mental health in general makes it even more difficult to understand the extent of the problem.  Coroners and medical examiners are very careful when it comes to dealing with homicides, but suicides are usually family affairs, so even the cause of death is frequently stated as something else.  For a country that is obsessed with health, we draw a line when it comes to mental health and we prefer at best to discuss it rarely, or at worst to ignore it completely.

Precisely because it’s private and impulsive, a gun is the perfect tool to use if someone decides to end their life.  You don’t have to find a rooftop that you can get to, you don’t have to figure out how to tie a good knot around your neck, you don’t have to cram a fistful of pills down your throat.  No wonder that guns are successful in 95% of the times they are used as a life-ending device, whereas hangings work only 50% of the time and more than 90% of pill overdoses result in a quick trip to the local hospital to have your stomach pumped out.

The NRA has gone off the deep end with this bizarre attempt to criminalize discussions between physicians and patients about the ownership of guns.  When a patient tells a physician that he is feeling depressed, the doctor always asks whether the depression has provoked life-ending thoughts.  And if the patient responds in the affirmative, how can the physician or other medical professional then not ask if the patient has access to a gun?  If anyone reads this last paragraph and feels obliged to respond with the obligatory defense of the 2nd Amendment, do me and the other readers a favor and don’t waste our time.

I agree with the NRA that people who use guns to commit crimes need to be held fully accountable for their behavior and for the damages caused by the gun.  But people who use guns to kill themselves can’t be held responsible because if they were able to think rationally, they wouldn‘t try to kill themselves in the first place.  If we need a national strategy to deal with gun violence, it’s a strategy to deal with suicide, and that’s a discussion that hasn’t yet occurred.

 

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