When Tragedy Hits the Slippery Slope: Mental Health & Gun Control

With the hysteria following the mass shooting in Las Vegas on everyone’s minds and in their hearts, two topics seem to be on everyone’s tongues: gun control and mental health.  Whenever there is such a senseless tragedy, our knee jerk reaction is to stomp out whatever we believe the problem to be so that nothing like this ever happens again.  But it is a slippery slope.

So many people are shouting for firmer gun control, stating that if the shooter hadn’t had so many guns, there wouldn’t be so many dead.  However, it is important to recognize that gun legislation would only affect law abiding citizens purchasing guns for hunting, recreation and protection.  Gun regulation would not affect people who commit mass shootings because they do not go through legal channels to build their arsenal.  Doing so would set off red flags and thwart their plans.

Likewise, anyone looking to commit mass homicide would not be stopped by taking away their legal access to guns.  A person looking to commit a crime rarely goes through legal channels because they are hoping to remain undetected and anonymous.  Furthermore, guns being removed completely from the equation would not prevent homicides.  Periodically in the news there are stories about mentally unbalanced individuals attacking people with knives or driving their vehicles into crowds or planting bombs or adding poison to food or water supplies.  Taking away access to guns will not stop someone intent on harming others.  Restricting access to guns only affects the ability of law abiding citizens to own guns.

Whenever that argument is presented, someone always inevitably counters with the fact that a person would not feel that way if they had ever been a victim of, or been close to anyone who has been a victim of, gun violence.

As a person whose life has been completely devastated by gun violence, I can tell you firsthand that is not the case.  When I was sixteen, my mother went to SUNY Albany where my father worked and shot him twice.  I sat in my high school on lock down for hours because the authorities did not know where she went after the shooting or whether she would be coming for me, as well.  I know all too well what it is like to sit in the ICU watching a loved one fighting to live, seen the damage a bullet has caused by ripping through their flesh.  I know all too well the widespread panic that follows a shooting, not knowing if anywhere is safe or what might happen next until the shooter is apprehended.  I know all too well the life-changing impact guns can have on a person’s life.

But I also know that responsibility for that shooting does not rest with that gun my mother used.  Nor does it rest with the guns used by the shooter in Las Vegas.  They are inanimate objects used by someone who was not mentally stable to commit a horrific crime.  You can not even blame shop owners or the ease in obtaining guns because large arsenals like what was used in Las Vegas are usually acquired illegally as not to arouse suspicion.

Unfortunately, untreated and undertreated mental illness play a large part in situations like this because quite frankly nobody who is mentally stable and well would consider committing such an act.  Mental illness makes the perfect scapegoat because there is so much stigma already attached.  Mental illness cannot be seen by the naked eye.  Mental illness is widely misunderstood.  People suffering from mental illness are seen simultaneously both as dangerous monsters likely to snap at any given moment or slightest provocation or as jokes and punchlines, easy to ridicule and mock.  When someone who is mentally unstable commits such a horrific act, it is an easy leap for people to declare that something needs to be done with the mentally ill to stop the violence before it gets out of hand.  As scary as it may sound, you can almost imagine throngs of villagers, armed with pitchforks and torches, rounding up all the “crazies” for their own safety and the safety of others.  Yet there are people actively questioning why someone who was mentally ill was even out on the streets, as if someone needs to lock them all up before a tragedy like this happens again.

Again, the argument about not fully understanding the situation unless you have been in it comes into play.  There are people who will say someone cannot fully understand the impact of mental illness on a person’s life unless they have been there themselves.

Once again, I can say without a doubt that I understand all too well.  Not only did my mother suffer from untreated and undertreated bipolar disorder for years leading up to the shooting, but I have struggled my entire life with mental illness, as well.  I have been diagnosed with major depression, anxiety disorder and ptsd.  I know all too well the stigma attached to mental illness and have dealt personally with people assuming my mental illness meant I was either unbalanced, unhinged and crazy or treated my illness like a joke.  I’ve listened as others, not realizing I suffered from mental illness myself, declare that the world would be safer if they just put all the “crazies” back in mental institutions like they used to do.  I understand all too well juggling the fear of judgment with the need to receive help for my condition.

But I can also tell you firsthand that I have never even remotely considered doing anything like the shooter in Las Vegas has done.  I’ve met many, many people over the years struggling with mental illness, as well, and could not fathom any of them doing such a thing, either.  In the mad flurry to lay blame somewhere, few people stop to consider that statistics show that the mentally ill are many times more likely to be victims of a crime than perpetrators.  Millions of people struggle with mental illness every single day without ever harming others or going on a homicidal rampage.  People such as the shooter in Las Vegas are an extreme rarity in the very large pool of mentally ill people.  Locking up all the mentally ill for the safety of others or their own personal safety would be punishing millions of people for the actions of a small handful.

What is a person to do if removing legal access to guns or locking up the mentally ill are both out of the question?  Everyone wants to find a solution because we never want a tragedy like this to happen again.  We can all agree that something has to be done.

As far as gun control, it isn’t legal gun ownership that needs to be targeted.  Gun manufacturers should be held accountable when they cut corners that allow their weapons to be easily modified by purchasing kits online.  There also needs to be more programs for getting illegal guns off the streets.  Perhaps even institute programs where people caught with illegal firearms must attend a certain number of funerals of gun victims and grief counselling groups to see the impact their actions may have caused.

There are also laws on the books regarding guns and mental illness that need to be revisited and reconstructed.  Currently in my state, for example, there are laws stating that if a person has been treated for mental health issues, the government can seize their guns at any time.  While on its face, that law might appear to be in the interest of the safety of all, what it has resulted in is many people struggling with mental illness who avoid getting the treatment they need because they fear having their rights stripped away.  This extends beyond people who own guns for hunting and protection.  Members of law enforcement and the military who are struggling with job-related mental illness have a legitimate fear that disclosing their mental health will result in the loss of their livelihood.  Laws like this need to be reconsidered and restructured so that no one has to choose between their mental health and their right to bear arms.  It is better to have a gun owner receiving ongoing treatment for their mental illness than to have their condition exist unchecked because they do not want their rights stripped away.

When it comes to mental illness, there needs to be more access to mental health treatment and better screening.  Usually when tragedies occur involving someone who is mentally ill, there is a mention in the news story about “a history of mental illness”.  Each time such a history is mentioned, I must question how that person fell through the cracks.  If a person is openly struggling with mental illness and is under treatment, that treatment should be ongoing for as long as it is needed and should not lapse.  People suffering the symptoms of mental illness should be able to reach out for treatment, as well, without fear of the shame or ridicule of the stigma attached.  Whenever a celebrity commits suicide, everyone clamors that this is the perfect time to open up a dialogue about mental health.  Tragedies like this work equally as well.  Too many people are struggling in silence or aren’t receiving the treatment they need.  Mental illness has become a global epidemic.  Enough people have died, both at their own hands and the hands of others.  The silence has to end so that the treatment can begin.

We must be careful in our response to tragedies like the shooting in Las Vegas.  Our first knee jerk reaction is to lay blame and eradicate the cause to prevent it ever being repeated.  We must be careful, though, when we start talking about stripping away rights, whether it be the right to bear arms or the rights of the mentally ill because it is a slippery slope.  When you start taking away rights, it isn’t long until you find yourself with no rights at all.  We need to take a deep breath and look not at what rights we can take away to possibly make everyone safer but what we can implement in the future to prevent others from falling through the cracks and creating another senseless tragedy.

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