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.
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.