Politics & Policy

Public Puts Mental Health, More Police above Gun Control

(Gallup, Inc., December 18, 2012)
Policy makers should focus on what might actually work to prevent massacres.

Despite what amounts to an all-out propaganda campaign in the mainstream media calling for more gun control, the American people remain unconvinced and think there are better ways to avoid massacres like the one that happened in Newtown.

A CBS News poll taken after the shootings found just 26 percent of Americans believe stricter gun laws would have done a lot to prevent the carnage. A Rasmussen poll found only 27 percent think stricter gun control would be the most effective preventive measure. Almost half (48 percent) of those surveyed told Rasmussen that taking better action to treat the mentally ill would be most effective. Another 15 percent think focusing on violent movies and video games is best. An astonishing 86 percent told Rasmussen that they want the United States to take more action to identify and treat those with mental illness.

A recent Gallup poll has the most interesting findings. It surveyed 1,009 adults on Monday night and found that after four full days of media coverage focused on gun control, people felt that  increasing police presence at schools (viewed as “very effective” by 53 percent), improving mental-health screening and treatment (50 percent), and decreasing the amount of violence in TV, movies, and video games (47 percent) were the preferred courses of action. Restricting the sale of assault and semiautomatic guns was viewed as a “very effective” strategy by 42 percent of respondents — 61 percent of Democrats, but only 26 percent of Republicans and only 36 percent of independents. Having at least one school official carry a gun was backed by half of Republicans but only a third of independents and a quarter of Democrats.

Those who call for a ban on “assault weapons” or “semiautomatic” weapons are fooling themselves. A semiautomatic weapon is one that ejects an empty shell case and loads the next round into position for firing. And an “assault weapon” is simply a semiautomatic weapon with military-inspired features. CNN’s Piers Morgan claims that they act “like machine guns,” but that is preposterous. Most handguns held today by both criminals and the law-abiding are semiautomatics. A federal ban on some 19 models of “assault weapons” was in effect from 1994 to 2004 and did not measurably decrease the incidence of mass shootings. Overall, the total U.S. homicide rate has fallen by over half since 1980 — which means that, despite the media focus on mass shootings, we are safer as a country than we have been in decades.

Despite whatever executive orders President Obama may conjure up (he has issued controversial orders on recess appointments and privacy issues), the chances for major national gun control being enacted by Congress are very slim. The political tip sheet Hotline notes that while pro-NRA Senate Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia are making rhetorical noises about studying the need for more gun control, in the House “GOPers remain legislatively essential to anything getting done.” So far, there has been no major breaking of ranks on guns in the Republican House.

A key reason, beyond the conservative philosophical consistency of House Republicans, is simple politics. A majority of the House consists of Republicans elected from districts that supported Mitt Romney for president, so their base electorates are conservative. Anyone voting for gun control in those districts would almost ensure a primary challenge and opposition from the NRA. The 219 Republicans in Romney districts can also count on several of the nine House Democrats who come from districts that voted for Romney to block all but cosmetic gun-control measures.

In the Senate, gun-control advocates aren’t much better off. Only one of the 14 Senate Republicans up for election in 2014 is from a state that voted for Obama (Susan Collins of Maine). But Democrats have six incumbents standing for reelection in states where Romney won by 14 points or more.

We would all be better off if the federal government and the states focused on policies that are likely to be more effective than gun control and could much more easily be approved by legislators.

Connecticut has the fifth-strictest gun laws of all 50 states, a fact that did nothing to stop Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter. But it is one of only six states that lack an “assisted outpatient treatment” law, or AOT. Such a law allows a state to compel a mentally ill person to accept treatment if it has reason to suspect the person is in danger of doing harm to himself or others. It applies only if the person has a history of violence, incarceration, or hospitalizations resulting from problems related to mental illness.

This spring, a modified AOT law was debated in the Connecticut legislature. It would have allowed people with psychiatric problems to be medicated if without such treatment they would put themselves or others in harm’s way.

The proposal didn’t even make it out of the state senate’s Judiciary Committee after it was fiercely opposed by the ACLU and state mental-health bureaucrats. “If this went through, I think this would be a significant step backward for the state,” testified Patricia Rehmer, Connecticut’s commissioner of mental health. The Connecticut Mirror reported that “she worries that [an AOT law] would backfire, breaking down the opportunity for a respectful relationship and leading to more difficulty engaging” the mentally ill.

Since two-thirds of recent mass murderers have exhibited signs of mental illness observable to others before their crimes, we might do better to worry about the ways in which doing too little to track and treat the mentally ill can “backfire.” Properly medicated, the mentally ill on the whole are no more prone to commit violence than the rest of the population. Untreated, they can be ticking time bombs.

On the federal level, it is imperative that laws be rewritten so that parents can gain access to medical records from doctors treating their children. Currently, “privacy” laws block doctors from telling parents what is wrong with their kids or what treatment they need.

“We have to change the patient confidentiality laws so parents can help prevent tragedies rather than become a punching bag for the public when something horrific happens,” D. J. Jaffe, executive director of MentalIllnessPolicy.org, wrote in National Review on December 17.

Adam Lanza raised enough concerns in high school to be assigned a psychiatrist to monitor him before he was removed from school by his mother Nancy. Marsha Lanza, her sister-in-law, told Britain’s Daily Telegraph that Nancy “battled with the school district” as she fought to ensure Lanza was getting the support he needed.

Grace-Marie Turner of the Galen Institute, a health-care think tank, told me the questions the Newtown killings raise deserve attention: “Who knows whether Mrs. Lanza tried to get access to her son Adam’s medical records and what the circumstances were. But these excessive privacy laws are a chronic problem in interfering with the relationship between parents and children.”

It’s easy and tempting to focus on the gun, the inanimate object that is used in mass shootings. The media has flocked there like a moth to a publicity flame. The supposed need for more gun control is an easy story to tell. But the reality has a lot more to do with people — the troubled mentally ill, administrators at treatment centers who have seen their budgets cut and their authority reduced, school personnel struggling with the children under their charge, and parents who often are at sea without adequate information about what to do with problem children.

It would be more effective — certainly in the short term — if we focused on the people at the center of these tragedies rather than the instrument with which they commit their evil deeds.

— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.


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