The gunman who perpetrated the latest mass shooting in America, this time in Santa Monica, was suffering from untreated mental illness. Like the killers in the Gabby Giffords case, the Aurora case, the Newtown case, the Virginia Tech case, and too many others to mention, the dangerous mentally ill represent a persistent threat to public safety. Yet the Obama administration and Democrats have chosen to focus on guns. Gun violence is actually down nationally over the past 20 years, while gun ownership is up. But mass shootings and other violence by the mentally ill have become more common.
Conservatives have devoted a lot of energy to defending gun rights, and that’s fine. But the need for reform of our mental-health system is also an urgent concern that too few are talking about.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, the mother of a mentally ill young man who eventually committed suicide summarizes the sad reality of the system we’ve created — a system that respects the “right” of the mentally ill to decline treatment. It fails both the mentally ill themselves who are “free” to wander the streets beset by delusions and preyed upon by street criminals, and it fails to protect society.
Here is the letter:
I’m the mother of an adult son who suffered from severe and persistent bipolar disorder. His downward course was aided by this country’s broken mental-health system, a system that prevents families from getting loved ones timely, humane treatment. He took his life six years ago.
Judges at commitment hearings would take the easy way out and release him time and time again, ruling he was not an imminent danger to himself or others, many times against the recommendation of the treating psychiatrist. On release, he would eventually resurface in another city, another state, at which time he would again be arrested and the commitment process would start all over again. Most states have such strict commitment laws that it is almost impossible to get people committed for treatment until they are in deep crisis.
Allowing my son to roam the country in his untreated psychotic, bipolar world under the pretense of protecting his civil right to refuse treatment is absurd. He had a civil right to receive treatment even though his illness precluded his ability to recognize he was ill. And the general public also has a right to be protected from the consequences of nontreatment of potentially dangerous mentally ill individuals.
When my son told me of his plan to exercise his constitutional right to bear arms to protect himself from federal agents he felt certain were trying to assassinate him, I feared he might actually purchase a gun and shoot innocent victims he mistook for federal agents. I inquired how to register his name with the appropriate authorities to prevent this from happening; I wanted to at least confirm that his name was in the FBI database that licensed firearms dealers use to run background checks on prospective buyers. Due to the privacy laws, I was unable to even confirm my son’s name was in the database.
Unable to get him treated, unable to prevent him from purchasing a gun, my hands were tied. If we want to prevent the next Newtown, we must reform our mental-health laws. Mental illness is treatable. It doesn’t have to be terminal.
West River, Md.