Saturday, December 15, 2012

We Have a Gun Problem, Not Just a Mental Health Problem

In the wake of the horrifying attack by a lone, psychotic gunman on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, I am sick to death of all the rationalizing by "gun rights" advocates who insist that the problem is not the ease of obtaining guns, but the fact that mentally unstable people don't get treatment.

There isn't a single problem here - it's a complex problem-glob made up of several different problems... but EACH OF THOSE ELEMENTS IS A PROBLEM, IN AND OF ITSELF, and needs to be solved.

The first and most urgent of these is the fact that assault weapons should not be legal for civilians to buy or possess. Period. There is no purpose for an assault weapon other than killing lots of people quickly. No civilian has a legitimate need for that, our culture's adolescent "Red Dawn"-esque fantasies notwithstanding. Make these weapons illegal again and we can begin to rein in the ability of mentally ill people to get their hands on them during a psychotic episode.

The second problem is that it is too easy to obtain a gun of any kind. Owning a gun is a responsibility every bit as substantial as driving a car, but we require more of drivers than we do of gun owners. We need to review the entire process of acquiring a gun, complete with tightening and deepening background checks. This idea I've seen bandied about lately about liability insurance is a good additional precaution, but it's not an answer by itself.

The third problem is that we don't expect, legally, any substantial responsibility from gun owners. Institute - and rigidly enforce - laws that send gun owners to jail for hefty amounts of time if their guns are used by someone else to commit a crime or if a kid finds it and accidentally shoots someone, and then maybe we'll see some of these assholes actually securing their weapons in a responsible manner. Better still, maybe some of them will elect not to own a gun in the first place.

The fourth problem - and I admit it's no less urgent that the second and third ones - is the fact that we have so many people suffering mental illnesses who aren't getting the help that they need. This is so much more complex a problem than the others that the solutions are multiple and nowhere near as simple to implement as the gun-related ones. We need better and earlier identification of mental illnesses, sure, but the bigger issue is the overwhelming barriers to treatment experienced by many people. Just a few nights ago, a friend told me she'd been experiencing depression and had approached a large number of local therapists, only to be told they weren't taking any new patients. Fortunately, she's not in dire need, but what if she were?

Another issue with the mental illness angle is that it's not like getting diagnosed with pneumonia, where there are clear and standard treatments. Often, it's difficult to pin down the root of a mental or emotional issue, and a trial-and-error approach must be employed. Sometimes it even takes two or three different therapists before one is found who can give the right help. So what we need is to make getting treatment easier for everyone - even those who cannot pay - and to make sure that they have the ability to find the right provider, regardless of insurance provisions. This is not going to be easy to implement.

Neither will it be easy to solve the issue of early detection. The privacy laws regarding health information protect us all, but they also bind us in red tape when it comes to making sure a mentally sick person gets a diagnosis and treatment.

This is why we need to solve the gun-related problems of this problem-glob FIRST. Because they are concrete and much more easily implemented. And because they will help to keep guns out of the hands of someone who is having a full-blown psychotic break.

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