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Would a national mental-health registry have prevented Sandy Hook?

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REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
People with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.

Wayne LaPierre of the NRA has called for more guns in schools. He contends that new laws restricting access to guns and restrictions on the types of guns and high-capacity magazines will not work. In addition to more guns in schools, what he thinks will work is a national registry of persons with mental illness.

Randall W. Bachman
Randall W. Bachman

One of four households in the United States has a family member with mental illness. Six percent of the population has a serious mental illness. Are we going to register a quarter of our population, many of whom have firearms already?

Even if there were a registry of persons who had ever been diagnosed with a mental-health problem, it is not clear Adam Lanza would have been on it. From what we know so far, he may have had Asperger’s disorder, a mild form of autism. There is no evidence that persons with Asperger's are any more prone to violence than the general population. No evidence has emerged that would have revealed that Lanza was a danger to the public.

What we do know is that Lanza was withdrawn socially and lived with his mother who liked to collect guns. Using LaPierre’s logic, it would make more sense to develop a registry of socially isolated young men who lived in households with access to firearms than it would to develop a registry of citizens with mental illness.

More likely victims

Persons with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. Laws are already on the books that make it illegal for felons and those who have been adjudicated mentally ill and dangerous to obtain firearms. How well these laws work can be debated. What is clear, as Fareed Zakaria points out in a recent Washington Post article, is that tightening gun laws can reduce gun violence. He notes that in Australia, a highly individualistic country with a long tradition of gun ownership, in 1996 after a ban on all automatic and semi-automatic weapons, gun-related homicides dropped 59 percent over the next decade. We have gun control already in the United States — individuals are prohibited from possessing automatic weapons and sawed-off shotguns, for example. So the issue is not whether we have gun control. The issue is what kind of gun control will effectively reduce the slaughter of the innocents while respecting Second amendment rights.

As someone who was involved with changing the commitment law in another state, I can testify how difficult and contentious making even a common-sense modification of such laws can be. We were trying to amend the statute to allow the courts to take into account past history when considering commitment, not just immediate danger. This process was a classic clash of civil liberties versus public safety. Tragically, it took the murder of mother who was actively involved in mental-health advocacy by her paranoid son to get the legislature to finally adopt the new statute.

Given the difficulty of modifying laws already on the books that restrict individual freedom, how likely does LaPierre think his proposal to develop a registry of the mentally ill will be?

Proposal is a diversion

Clearly the NRA’s proposal is a diversion from the real issue: the fact that our gun homicide rate is 12 times higher than that of other developed countries, and that the rate is caused primarily by the easy access to guns, particularly those that are designed to fire off many rounds per second without reloading.

The problem is not that our prevalence of mental illness is higher, although I am all for better access and funding for treatment and prevention. The problem is not violent video games, although I am all for a reasonable dialogue on how we can reduce exposure to gratuitous violence.  The problem is the NRA’s refusal to even consider reasonable gun safety laws, and reasonable restrictions to certain kinds of firearms and high-capacity magazines.

Randall W. Bachman is the executive director of AXIS Healthcare in St. Paul. He is the former Director of Mental Health in Utah.

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Comments (5)

Australia

In 1995, the murder rate in Australia was less than half (about 1.9 persons per 100,000) of what the US's murder rate is now (about 4.7 per 100,000 persons), and our murder rate has decreased in that time. In other words, Australia was not similar to the US either before or after the ban in 1996. However, if you're going to compare, the US murder rate dropped from 8.5 per 100,000 in 1995 to 4.7 per 100,000 in 2011, a drop of 45%. Granted, by percentage, that's not as impressive as in Australia, but any change when you get closer to zero appears to be huge percentage-wise. You'll find a similar trend over that period of time in most developed nations, regardless of gun control status. And violent crime rates continue to drop here (despite what you might glean from the violence-worshipping media) and elsewhere in the world. No one really knows why.

For what it's worth, I don't think a mental health registry would be either wise or helpful. Nor would keeping a list of socially isolated men with access to guns result in the intended outcome (too little, too late). However, making this debate about the weapon rather than the social aspects that lead to violence certainly won't help anything, either. Instead of talking about why we were different from Australia before their gun ban, or even being honest about how the numbers really compare, we're making assertions about causality from numbers that show no such thing. As an example of using the numbers in an inappropriate way, yet a way that numerically makes sense, you might consider that the US murder rate is lowest when we have a deployment of soldiers in another country. The murder rate between 1960 and 2010 would certainly support such a thing. However, it's probably unlikely, since the murder rate began to rise before Vietnam was officially over, and the murder rates have not spiked since so many of our troops have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Anyone consider such a list

Anyone consider such a list of possibly dangerous people should look at the ignominious history of the "no fly list". Getting on the "list" is a mysterious process (even contaminated by politics?) and once on the "list", it is virtually impossible to get off.

It is a sure sign of the limited tool chest of the NRA to deal with the issue for them to propose a wide-reaching, personally-invasive, life-changing data-base with even more potential for abuse and trouble than a well-maintained list of gun-transfers and sales (personal and retail) that the NRA vociferously opposes.

How about access to existing data?

Both Federal and Minnesota law prohibit persons who have been committed as mentally ill from possessing any firearm. See Minn. Stat. §624.713 Subd. 1(c). Transfer of firearms to a person who is mentally ill is also illegal. §18 U.S.C. 922 (d). Persons who have been prohibited from possessing a firearm due to a commitment can petition to have their rights restored. See Minn. Stat. §624.713 Subd. 4. Sheriff's are required to determine if a person has been civilly committed as required by Minn. Stat. 624.714 Subd. 4(a) when the sheriff is conducting a check in response to an application for a permit to carry.

So there is a mechanism to make these determinations. What is lacking is a mechanism that works. A commitment is a public record and can be found in a search of court records in Minnesota.

So it would seem that the broad brush used by Mr. Bachman only attempts to cover over what already is law and frankly what seems to make sense. I doubt that any thoughtful person would want to create a registry willy nilly, but I also fail to see why existing data based on court proceedings ought be cast aside. We need to make the data more accessible to law enforcement so that sound processes can be employed to enforce existing laws.

Agreed

We should use what we've already got and paid for, for sure. However, one flaw is the difficulty of getting commitment. Many mentally ill simply end up in jails. While some aren't legally permitted to have a firearm by court order, that's an individual determination. So, some may be missed due to the funneling of the mentally ill into the prison system rather than a more appropriate place. In any case, the money we spend on incarceration for those individuals might be better spent on treatment and/or commitment. The result would probably be better for those who are treated or committed and would allow the application of the statutes you cite to be applied more consistently.

Treatment for Mentally Ill

Why doesn't the President tell us how much money he has cut from the budget in the last 4 years for the treatment of mentally ill. Close to a billion dollars and it has affected every service provider in the US. TENS OF THOUSANDS HAVE BEEN CUT OFF FROM TREATMENT BECAUSE OF BUDGET CUTS.