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

Last modified: Tuesday, April 01, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — One child or teen dies or is injured from guns every 30 minutes. More children and teens die from guns every three days than died in the Newtown massacre. The number of children under five killed by guns in 2010 was higher than the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty that year.

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.


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