Unfairly Treated: Gun Owners and People With Mental Health Concerns

Unfairly Treated: Gun Owners and People With Mental Health Concerns
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Ever since the awful shootings in Newtown, Conn., two groups have been treated unfairly. The first group is the law-abiding gun owners. The second group are people with mental health issues.

The issue of gun violence is near and dear to me. I spent a good portion of my adult life working in my state prison system and the nation's fifth largest jail system, respectively, and studying criminology. In these positions, my job was to promote evidence-based crime prevention. I don't care what the program is -- I care if it works. As a state legislator, I have the same philosophy.

Gun Owners
As this issue of gun violence is front and center, the first group who feels picked on are the legal gun owners. They are concerned that their pastime, their hobby, their right, the means of self defense, or their means of recreation are all being threatened by politicians who don't know what they are doing. I must admit, there is truth to this concern. Some politicians really don't get this.

The number one issue I heard about from voters in my first month as a legislator was about gun rights. As a legislator, part of my job is to listen to my Board of Directors -- the people who vote for me. In doing so, I have come to understand that there is a large culture within America who not only appreciate that we have a Second Amendment, but that it is more a part of who they are than being a legislator is who I am. Put another way, after I move on from elected office, the identity that gun owners have will persist well after I no longer identify as a legislator.

Law makers at the city, state and federal levels would do themselves well to be respectful of the culture of legal gun owners. First, they are not who we should be worried about. People doing crime is who we need to be worried about in the places that crimes are happening.

There is some truth to the idea that where there are more guns, there are more gun crimes. This is indisputable. But what we do about this fact matters immensely. Randomly throwing top-down gun restrictions will produce random results. We need to be calculated in how we try to reduce violence.

With respect to the shootings in Newtown and Aurora, as awful as high-profile examples are, it is important to remember that high-profile events are high-profile precisely because they are unusual and unlikely. Making policy based on high-profile events is a surefire way to overreact and make inefficient and, worse, ineffective policy. A high-profile event is good time to find out where a shortcoming of a policy or a failure of a policy might reside, but a high-profile event is not necessarily what policy should target. Doing so would result in the majority of cases being marginalized and a strategy designed around an unlikely event.

People With Mental Health Concerns
A lot of people want to see a decrease in the availability of guns in persons with mental health issues. While we don't want a gun in the hands of anyone who will use it incorrectly, I have two main problems with the current discussion on this issue.

The first is that we don't have a good way to define who has a mental illness or condition that would warrant someone not having a gun. No law-abiding American should ever want to have the Second Amendment restricted. And law-abiding Americans should defend one another's rights to bear arms. But what if the law-abiding American was diagnosed with depression 10 years ago? What if that person has it now and is successfully living with depression? What if a woman once had postpartum depression? Doesn't she deserve the right to bear arms? What if a 30-year-old lawyer, teacher, doctor, truck driver, etc., wants to carry, shoot or collect bu he or she was diagnosed with ADHD as a child? Does it matter if the person is successfully or unsuccessfully living with a mental health condition? Clearly we don't want someone who thinks the world is out to get them to have a gun.

My point is that the discussion on 'we need to keep the guns out of their hands' has been very shallow.

The second issue is that of the 11,000 homicides a year, an extremely small percent is done by people who are afflicted with a mental illness. Why then should we discriminate against the majority of people with mental illness who are not a threat or danger to anyone?

Gun rights advocates don't want anyone discriminating against their rights based on the actions of a few; why then discriminate against people with mental illness based on the actions of a few? Most people who have or have had a mental illness are not a danger to anyone, including themselves. If this sounds strange to you, my advice to you is to read up on mental illness and mental health.

The pro-gun lobby has been advocating to keep the guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, the insane, or the lunatics, whatever each of these means. But what do we do when someone who is a law-abiding gun owner is successfully living with a mental health issue? Do we take his or her gun away? I personally don't think we need to unless the person is a clear danger to himself or others.

If you have read this far, I hope you see that the presence of a mental illness isn't enough to deprive someone of their Second Amendment right. There is no easy answer to the issue of mental health and guns. It is more complicated than saying 'keep the guns out of their hands,' because who they are is very hard to define.

Final thought -- If we are worried about people with mental illness possessing a gun for our sake, we are missing the point that we are not thinking about them for their sake. This is wrong, it is self-centered and it is disingenuous.

There are ways to reduce gun violence without infringing on the rights of law-abiding citizens. In fact, to waste time trying to reduce violence where it is not happening by people not doing the crimes takes time away from reducing crime where it is happening by the people doing the crime. A good strategy should take this into consideration.

I don't have all the answers -- no one does -- but I do have principles to follow. Is it Constitutional? Does it work? Can we prove it works? Are we discriminating?

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts. He previously worked for a prison and a jail, and he has a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at paulheroux.mpa@gmail.com.

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