The Misguided Debate on Guns

The recent mass murder of school children and the heroic school officials who tried to shield them from harm was a game changer. It was an act so horrific that elected leaders and advocacy organizations were expected to quickly overcome their ideological differences and coalesce around a series of reasonable measures that may not prevent such atrocities in the future, but could at least reduce their frequency and the loss of life.

Indeed, within a few short weeks, Senators and Representatives introduced bold new legislation, the White House convened a series of forums to develop policy recommendations, and even the National Rifle Association said enough was enough, and it was time to do something.

It has all been an absolute farce.

Let's begin with the NRA. The purported champion of hunters and collectors has grown into a political juggernaut by convincing its members that Washington is waging a holy war against law abiding Americans. There is afoot, apparently, a surreptitious Valkyrie-in-reverse plan to disarm the citizenry and replace our Constitution and representative government with a freedom-hating tyrannical state.

The NRA has wrapped itself in the Bill of Rights, a tactic both so shrewd and effective that even many of the most ardent backers of gun restrictions feel obligated to hug the Second Amendment at every opportunity. It is a curious thing. While I understand that our Founder Fathers use of the King's English can be challenging to decipher, I'm unable to grasp how the notion of "a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" has morphed into an absolute, regulation-free right to gun ownership.

Silly me. I thought the Second Amendment was adopted in an age where our Constitutional framers, having liberated themselves from a monarchy and a massive army of Redcoats, were trying to balance a strong central government with the rights of individual states. My read of those simple 27 words was that of an 18th Century national guard, where each state could form its own militia comprised of musket-bearing citizen-soldiers to be called upon when needed. But I can be obstinately literal at times. Better that we entrust the interpretation of James Madison's words to the likes of Oliver North and Ted Nugent.

Lest anyone think I am shilling for gun control advocates, think again. Banning assault weapons and large ammunition clips and requiring background checks are all sound policy measures. But let's acknowledge there are some arbitrary lines being drawn here. A fistful of ten-round magazines can be as lethal as a single high-capacity magazine, just as a semi-automatic handgun can be as lethal as a semi-automatic rifle. There are literally hundreds of thousands of semi-automatic weapons in America; are they going to vanish should these proposals become law?

Nonetheless, I support these proposals because they are reasonable and would do so much more good than harm. Yet I can't escape the fact that more gun regulations will not prevent an imbalanced individual who is committed to mass violence from finding the means to their end. And as we endure the cacophony of politicians and pundits clamoring for gun control, we continue to lose sight of the most germane aspect and single common thread among the shooters in Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut and elsewhere - the presence of severe mental health problems.

The politicians don't like to talk much about mental illness. Darn it, it makes people uncomfortable, and the complexities involved are not easily compressed onto bumper stickers and billboards.

After I wrote about my brother's battle with bipolar mania and depression, and his subsequent suicide two years ago, I was taken aback by how many friends and total strangers shared with me their own personal experience with mental illness. Either they were coping with some degree of depression or bipolar, or they had a family member, colleague or friend who was struggling with it. It was then I understood just how pervasive this disease is.

The Vice President's panel recently put forward a series of recommendations designed to reduce violence, and to their credit, improving coverage and access to mental health care services was one of them. Unfortunately, of their nine policy recommendations, this was the ninth one. It might as well have been an asterisk.

And then there is the shameless demonizing of those with mental health problems. As the chief spokesman for the NRA said on national television, "we have no national database of these lunatics," lamenting that "these monsters walk the street."

Lunatics and monsters? National database? So people with mental illness are now the moral equivalent of child predators. While I'd like to think these are the mere rantings of one immensely uninformed individual, it sadly reflects the perceptions of too many Americans. That is what needs to change.

Getting the issue of mental health out of the shadows is a start. We should prevent those with mental illness from getting to a point where they are a danger to themselves or others. This means providing greater access to assistance, counseling, medication, and, when appropriate, institutionalization. It means identifying the policy gaps and resource limitations that inhibit so many individuals and families from getting the help they desperately need. And while the federal government can help raise awareness and provide greater funding, it is state and local agencies and the non-profit community that are really on the front lines of this issue.

We owe it to all these victims to have a more thoughtful discussion that stretches beyond the shortsightedness of a less guns versus more guns shouting match. America needs to have an adult conversation about mental illness.

Or maybe it is just easier to talk about guns.