Price of Safety

inkblot4.jpgPeople enjoy parodying the National Rifle Association’s mantra: Guns don’t kill people; bullets/rappers/Chuck Norris do(es). The NRA itself has provided the latest update: Guns don’t kill people; the mentally ill do.

Science does not seem to support this thesis. A 2006 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that mental illness played a part in 5 percent of violent crimes. Granted, that was a study of Swedish populations, but unless mentally ill people in Sweden are proportionately more peaceful than those in the U.S., the figures should be eye opening for Americans who contend that gun violence is somehow a mental-health crime. Still, the connection is too convenient for politicians to pass up: Conservatives use it to deflect the call for stricter gun control laws; liberals are using it as evidence of the need for greater public mental-health funding.

In Nevada, a bipartisan team of state senators—Democrat Justin Jones of Clark County and Republican Ben Kieckhefer of Washoe County—began the process of examining the connection at a Health and Human Services committee hearing on firearms and mental illness.

The hearing began with a recap of the September 2011 shooting at a Carson City IHOP, where Eduardo Sencion shot 12 people, killing four of them. Before that day, Sencion had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and taken into police custody for mental-health commitment. Yet he still acquired firearms “legally.”

The Sencion shooting is a tragic and compelling incident, but may not be the best evidence for new legislation. For one thing, given that 95 percent of violent crimes are apparently unrelated to mental illness, it doesn’t illustrate an opportunity to significantly reduce gun violence in general. (As a Duke University psychiatry professor put it in a recent article, “Any policy targeting mental illness as a specific risk factor for gun violence will have a limited impact on the overall problem.”) For another thing, there’s the obvious fact that—as a Nevada HHS researcher testified at the hearing—the vast majority of mentally ill people are neither homicidal nor suicidal.

Nor does the Sencion incident illustrate a lack of mechanisms to report mentally ill people’s intentions to harm themselves or others. Psychotherapists have the so-called “duty to warn,” which waives their client confidentiality responsibility in cases where it protects the client or others from harm. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act also prohibits people whom a court has deemed “mental defectives” from having firearms.

In other words, we already have legal means for preventing gun violence by the mentally ill. The problem is that we don’t effectively use them.

Julie Butler, who oversees the state’s Brady reviews for gun-purchase requests, succinctly summarized the problem of under-reporting by the official agencies who are supposed to provide her with information: “Our records are not complete.”

Senator Tick Segerblom, D-Clark County, pointed out that Butler doesn’t have the budget to fix the problem. And she probably won’t get it, either, judging by the state’s financial situation.

Keeping weapons away from anyone—mentally ill or otherwise—who would use them to harm others isn’t a bad idea. Dreaming up more programs the state won’t pay for, without committing fully to those we already have in place, is.

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