In a study just presented to Congress, the Congressional Research Service concludes, “The estimated total number of firearms available to civilians in the United States (is) approximately 310 million: 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns.” Think about that. That translates to about one firearm for every man, woman and child in America. Mindboggling.
To my mind, however, it is not about the numbers so much as it is about the mental health of the person using the gun. Now, hold that thought a moment.
Millions of words have been written about the horrific tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Many of the stories contain a call for more gun laws. Keep in mind the guns that 20-year-old Adam Lanza used were legally purchased by his mother in a state that has some of the toughest gun-control laws in the country.
To be certain, America should explore more restrictive laws on where guns are sold and what type of guns are available, more uniform background checks and how bulk ammunition is purchased. But to limit the national discussion to passing more laws is a foolish mistake.
We must have a serious dialogue about mental health services and what has been afforded — or not afforded — to those who have caused such unspeakable carnage. Experts may argue, but I believe anyone who takes guns into a school, a mall, a movie theater or any other public place and opens fire must be, by that very act, mentally sick.
Mother Jones magazine reports these killing sprees are on the rise. Over the last 30 years, America suffered through some 62 incidents of mass murder by firearms. There were three last year resulting in a total of 40 people injured or killed. This year, there have been seven mass shootings with a shocking 138 victims. Something is radically wrong.
However, let’s be honest. The vast majority of gun owners in America act very responsibly. They keep their firearms safe and use them only for sport, hunting or their constitutionally protected right to defend themselves and their families. Since the right to bear arms is included in the very fabric of our country, there is no way 300 million guns are simply going to disappear.
So, what do we do to try to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill? Well, first, when a person is declared mentally ill, the court must immediately place the name on a mandatory do-not-sell gun registry.
Families burdened by an unstable family member must not keep guns in the house — period. And by no means should a family follow the lead of the late Nancy Lanza and take the mentally disturbed relative (in her case, her son, Adam) to the shooting range as a way of spending family time together.
Next, we have to realize that what was trendy in the 1960s and ‘70s doesn’t work now. We shut down psychiatric hospitals and deinstitutionalized patients by sending them out into the world with a prescription and a prayer. It didn’t take long to see that community-based treatment wasn’t feasible. Today, there are simply not enough psychiatric beds in hospitals or specialized clinics to keep up with the demand.
The result of our past action can be seen sleeping in tattered clothing on street corners and aimlessly pushing shopping carts along alleyways. Worse yet, we systematically toss the mentally deranged into prisons, where treatment options are nil.
Perhaps most important, we have to set up a new system to help the ever-growing number of desperate families looking for treatment for their troubled children. Ever since the elementary school shooting there have been a number of heart-wrenching personal essays published from parents of disturbed children with absolutely nowhere to go. One, titled “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” has gone viral.
The mother of an academically gifted 13-year-old relates how her son scares her to death. “A few weeks ago,” she wrote, “Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7- and 9-year-old siblings knew the safety plan — they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to.”
Imagine living like that, knowing that someday your boy will be too physically strong for you to hug into submission.
Imagine asking a social worker about options and being told, as this mother wrote: “He said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. ‘No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.’” She concludes the essay by declaring, “No one wants to send a 13-year-old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail.”
I know I don’t think that’s a suitable option.
Make no mistake, today’s troubled kid could be tomorrow’s next mass murderer. Adam Lanza’s mother complained and worried about how to help her painfully awkward son, and while people are now careful to say we are not sure mental illness was a factor in the deaths of those 20 small children and seven adults, what else could it possibly have been?
No sane person does what Adam did. Or what Michael does to his family on a regular basis. If helping the mentally ill isn’t a priority now, then when?