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

Even if there were a registry of persons who had ever been diagnosed with a mental-health problem, it is not clear Newtown shooter Adam Lanza would have been on it.

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

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What we do know is that Lanza was withdrawn socially and lived with his mother who liked to collect guns.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.

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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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