Mental health gun-control dodge misses the bigger point

Ask a politician where he or she stands on gun control legislation and it’s likely you will get an answer that involves “mental health.” Many say they support the common notion of second amendment rights, make a slight nod towards some flavor of legislation and then promptly seek safe haven in the call for better treatment of mental illness.

In Missouri, the responses are fairly similar no matter where you look on the political spectrum. From Roy Blunt:

The right of law-abiding citizens to own firearms is an individual right guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the Constitution and broadly interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Our Founders clearly understood that one of the most basic rights of Americans is the ability to defend themselves and their families… I do believe it is important that we have a serious national discussion about preventing these senseless acts of violence and protecting our children in their schools…

Equally important, however, is an effort that more broadly addresses ways to spend federal dollars more wisely when it comes to treating and identifying those who are mentally ill as well as intervening before they tragically impact their own lives and the lives of others.

to Claire McCaskill:

As you know, the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees Americans the fundamental right to bear arms.  I strongly support legal and safe gun ownership by law-abiding citizens and have consistently voted to uphold this constitutional right… At the same time, we have to make sure that guns do not fall into the hands of individuals who should not have them… We should have sensible, constitutional controls on gun ownership that address safety in our communities… Recent tragedies, such as the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and the horrific events in Newtown, Connecticut, have made it clear that our nation’s current gun laws should be reconsidered… Knowing that those responsible for some of the most prominent mass shootings in recent history have suffered from mental illness, it is equally clear that we must also consider mental health services available to our citizens.

It’s a safe dance. Who can argue with better mental health treatment? Dr. Richard Friedman brought a little perspective in a December 17 article in the New York Times:

All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group. But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.

Then the New York Times took things an important step further in a February 24 editorial. The paper points out that a risk greater than mental illness lies in the mixing of alcohol and firearms.

Focusing on the mentally ill, most of whom are not violent, overlooks people who are at demonstrably increased risk of committing violent crimes but are not barred by federal law from buying and having guns. These would include people who have been convicted of violent misdemeanors including assaults, and those who are alcohol abusers. Unless guns are also kept from these high-risk people, preventable gun violence will continue…

The evidence linking alcohol abuse and gun-related violence is compelling. One study found that subjects who had ever been in trouble at work for drinking or were ever hospitalized for alcohol abuse were at increased risk of committing homicide and suicide. Other studies also suggest that alcohol abuse is a factor in the association between gun ownership and the criminal justice system.

Politicians may claim they are dealing with gun violence by focusing on mental illness, but they do so at our peril. There’s a lot at stake and so much more that can be done.