Drawing the line at Sandy Hook: Why America needs a frank discussion of gun control and the treatment of mental illness

There are obviously a lot of people discussing the school shooting last week in Newtown, Connecticut but, as a Connecticutter, this tragedy hit close to home and I wanted to add my voice to the conversation. It’s a conversation that needs to happen; after so many mass killings, it’s time we as a nation took a serious look at what we can do to prevent it.

We may never know what was going through Adam Lanza’s head, but we do know that he was mentally ill, and that he used guns to do what he did. Some people have tried to add other factors (media sensationalism, for example) or downplay the role of guns (if guns were unavailable, Lanza would have used another type of weapon, they say), but the simple truth is that we know that mental illness and guns were the major factors in this and nearly every other mass killing in the United States.

With that in mind, it seems logical for us to evaluate how we deal with guns and mental illness in order to prevent future tragedies. More importantly, we need to think of ways to prevent those two factors from combining to cause mass violence.

I think it’s important to make a distinction between gun control legislation and an outright ban. I think this is important because many of the people I’ve talked to don’t seem to understand the difference.

As with every other aspect of life, gun owners need to be able to compromise. They have been able to avoid a frank discussion on gun control despite numerous mass killings, using excuses like “it’s too soon, let people grieve,” or that “guns don’t kill people, people do.”

The fact is that rights come with responsibilities and, gun owners have become too cavalier. Newtown has historically been a gun-friendly community, with multiple hunting clubs and legal shooting ranges. However, a recent article in the New York Times noted that residents’ patience has already being exhausted by overly enthusiastic gun enthusiasts.

This doesn’t mean that all gun enthusiasts are irresponsible, or that overt carelessness caused the Sandy Hook tragedy. It just shows how accommodating people already are to gun owners, and how ridiculous it is that asking someone to stop shooting at night so a neighbor can sleep, let alone discussing gun control in the wake of a mass killing, is viewed as an attack on gun ownership as a whole. A minority is dictating policy to the majority.

The second factor in this and other mass killings is mental illness. An article published in Mother Jones last month notes that, in 61 mass killings studied, 38 perpetrators showed signs of mental illness beforehand. That was certainly the case in Newtown.

Like gun control, the way we deal with mental illness is a topic most people avoid. Perhaps some just don’t want to think about it, or don’t think they have to; they assume a combination of drugs, therapy, and specialized institutions has everything covered.

Unfortunately, many individuals slip through the proverbial cracks. Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, was declared mentally ill by a judge, which should have disqualified him from gun ownership, but this information was not made available to the appropriate authorities. Steven Kazmierczak, who killed five people at Northern Illinois University, stopped taking his medication. Charles Whitman told people he didn’t feel right before shooting his way into infamy, and was later found to have a massive brain tumor.

The Sandy Hook shooting has definitely made people aware of mental illness, but the question of what to do about is a long way from being answered. Singling out the mentally ill would be just as wrong as singling out responsible gun owners.

That’s why, in addition to stricter gun control regulations and more resources for treating mental illness, we need a way to preempt incidents like the one that occurred last week.

Mental health professionals are obligated to report child abuse, so perhaps a similar system could be set up to report imminent threats of violence. As with child abuse cases, this would create a procedure for everyone involved, from school guidance counselors to therapists to the police, to follow. It would ensure that all potential threats are investigated and dealt with.

Regardless of what form the solution takes, the important thing is that we find one. It’s time to stop making excuses about why we can’t discuss ways to stop mass killings, or limiting the discussion to why any potential solution will not work. As a nation, we have a responsibility to make sure the victims of Sandy Hook, Aurora, Northern Illinois, Virginia Tech, Huntsville, and Columbine did not die in vain.

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