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John Hornik & Judith Cameron: We must not conflate mental illness, gun violence

Those startling statistics from the Children’s Defense Fund’s 2013 “Protect Children not Guns” report are the outcomes of a gun culture that is absolute in its support of Second Amendment rights to the exclusion of reasonable debate on reforms.

The intensive media coverage of mass shootings – often at the hands of a man later labeled as mentally ill – only serves to mask the root cause of gun violence. Mental illness and guns are two distinct public policy issues and must not be conflated.

The two issues must be separate if we are to make progress in reducing death and injury by guns and improve the mental health system, creating a network of services and supports that assists all people in need of help.

The task will be neither simple nor easy. After all, blaming a deranged killer for a massacre is much more appealing than examining our conflicted love affair with guns.

Our gun culture is born out of the iconic American patriot and his musket, the settlers who conquered the western wilderness with their wits and guns and an entertainment industry that glorifies violence. In his blog, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera stated, “There are an estimated 300 million guns in America, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. But to read The Gun Report (which Nocera and an assistant created to list daily shooting incidents across America) is to be struck anew at the reality that most of the people who die from guns would still be alive if we just had fewer of them.”

Despite years of research and scientific breakthroughs, there is much we don’t understand about the brain and mental illness. However, we do have ample evidence to prove that the vast majority of people who are violent are not mentally ill and that the vast majority of people who are diagnosed with a mental illness are not violent.

What we do know is that factors such as prior history of violence (for example, stalking and domestic violence), being young and male and active substance abuse are more reliable predictors of future violence than mental illness. In fact, studies have shown that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.

From communities in western Massachusetts to those across the country, change is needed. Gun rights advocates must stop scapegoating mental illness as the cause of gun violence. We must reduce the prejudice and discrimination directed at persons experiencing mental health problems and assure access to comprehensive and compassionate services.

We urge our elected leaders to heed their constituents. We need new public laws and regulations for preventing gun violence. Failure to do so will continue to mean tragic death and heartache for survivors.

And, equally important, we need public policies for building a community-based mental health safety net that is wide and deep. Failure to do so will continue to mean unnecessary emergency room visits, hospitalizations and homelessness, as well as emotional pain for individuals and families.

John Hornik is president of the Western Massachusetts Community Mental Health Area Board. Judith Cameron is a past president. Their guest column was endorsed by the full board last week.

Legacy Comments5

Oh, good grief. Stop regurgitating the leftist revisionist pap. America is in love with guns because guns are THE icon of individual liberty, and our liberty was WON with guns in the hands of the people. It is at the very core of this nation's soul. Progressivism seeks to possess the United States like Beelzebub possessed young Regan in The Exorcist. In case you haven't noticed, the protests of real Americans are rising like the welts on Regan's chest, pleading "Help me!" Here's a message to the progressives: "Christ COMPELS you!"

How many gun deaths in Hampshire and Franklin counties since November. How many heroin deaths = 20.

New public laws and regulations keep guns out of the hands of children in the same way strictly enforced drug laws and regulations prevent our children from using drugs. They don't. Perhaps if we lived in a culture that told the brutal truth about drug use to our children, and normalized the topic instead of treating it as taboo, or with a catch all like Just Say No, (which failed, as did DARE), they would think twice before using. If we teach our children when they are young about how drugs destroy lives, and keep the conversation open, they will be less reluctant to engage in drug use. The curiosity, and feeling of empowerment that comes with secretive drug experimentation will be diminished. Having open lines of communication will allow people to reach out to friends and family without fear of being shunned or arrested........................ Public laws and regulations won't prevent gun deaths. Education will. Guns aren't going anywhere any time soon. Create all the policies you want. In the long run, what we are going to have is a generation of people who will view guns as mysteriously empowering. Owning them illegally will give people a false sense of strength at times when they feel powerless. Actually, this is exactly what is happening now. What happens when people's curiosity about guns, and their knowledge of gun use don't match? Death. Normalize guns for law enforcement, military, hunting, and home protection. Teach children about gun safety, and eventually, proper gun use. Do it before they decide to do it themselves. If you think what I'm saying doesn't make any sense, ask yourself... after the tragedy of Newtown, what happened in gun shops? Answer: Shelves were EMPTIED. Simply talking about policy caused people to panic and buy guns. Now, this was just the legal purchases. Can you even fathom the number of illegal gun purchases at that time? Now, ponder this: If you are told to either register your gun, or destroy it, and you don't want to spend the money to register it, and you refuse to lose out on the money spent on it, what do you do? You either keep it illegally, or sell it illegally. Take a look at recent gun deaths in Connecticut. Talk to people. I am anti-NRA, and far from conservative, but I realize that creating new laws WILL NOT stop gun use. I agree, we definitely need to separate the connection between mental illness and shootings. Without a doubt. But we also need to separate the connection between political conservatives and gun use and policy. We need to stop looking at gun use as a political topic, and instead as the public health issue it is. What do we do with a public health issue? We educate.

Very well said, Theresa! And a tough opinion to articulate in today's black-and-white political climate!

Thank you.

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