Why Mental Illness Should Be Top Priority in Gun Control Debate

Celia Kokoris ’14

Despite my personal qualms with outspoken liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, one of my favorite documentaries is his 2002 Academy Award winning film, Bowling For Columbine, which thoroughly dissects the 1999 Columbine school shooting while also exploring our nation’s love affair with guns.

For those of you who have not watched it, the documentary spends a full two hours exploring our cultural fascination and preoccupation with guns and, thus, violence. Moore uses the Columbine massacre as a mere template, or foundation, to build off of, creating a narrative throughout the film that raises incredibly difficult questions about what triggered Columbine and why guns play such a major role in our nation.

Moore seeks answers in many inconspicuous places. He interviews people from Littleton, Colorado, the town in which Columbine resides and even goes so far as to ask various media persons about their takes on the issue. My favorite scene of the whole film, a scene that has stuck with me throughout the years, that invariably surfaced in my mind when the Boston Marathon shootings happened this past April, or when Newtown occurred in December of 2012, is when Moore interviews Marilyn Manson about the gun control issue. Post Columbine, the media blamed Manson’s heavy metal music as an influence in the crime. In the interview, Moore asks Manson, point blank, what he would say to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold if they were still alive. Manson responded with a stunning declaration: “I wouldn’t say a single word to them. I would listen to what they have to say, and that’s what no one did.”

The first issue we should begin to tackle in the ongoing gun control debate is mental illness, specifically our culture’s inherently complex relationship with mental illness- before anything else. I strongly believe that there are too many guns in this country and that our culture’s relationship with violence and guns is not only profoundly embedded in our history, but will continue to ruin the lives of so many innocent victims. I also believe that regardless of legislative reform, we must become increasingly aware of mental illness patterns in individuals in order to prevent such atrocities from happening again.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, Aaron Alexis, the 34-year old man responsible for the recent shootings in the Washington Naval Yard, was suffering from hallucinations “so severe that he called the Newport Police Department in Rhode Island where he told officers he was on business.”

The article goes on to say that bystanders who knew Alexis described him as “paranoid” and “delusional,” yet it is unknown whether or not he ever sought out any treatment. To me, and to many others, the fact that so many individuals who are suffering from mental illness are not only being misdiagnosed, but also not given sufficient treatment is profoundly frightening and unspeakably tragic.

Nnamdi Pole, a psychology professor who specializes in PTSD here at Smith College, also believes that understanding and bettering our society’s approach to individuals who are mentally ill, while further regulating gun control is a major factor in the prevention of more, widespread violence.

“It seems to be true that in many of these cases, guns are involved and mental illness is involved, so it does seem very reasonable to ask what can be done to curtail the mental illness,” said Pole.

Although states do have regulations regarding whether or not a person who has been diagnosed with a mental illness can legally obtain guns and some progress has been made in terms of effectively monitoring an individual who has a history of mental illness’ ability to access a gun, at the end of the day, the real issue is finding a more throrough and formidable technique in regards to handling a person who is mentally ill. Like Alexis, the gunman responsible for killing six people in Tucson in 2011 and James Holmes, who shot and killed twelve people in a move theater last year, were still able to legally purchase guns in America, despite the fact that all three showed alarming signs, or patterns of mental illness. The larger question that we must ask ourselves is how and why a mental health professional did not intervene in these given situations. We as a society must work towards finding a more thorough approach in preventing people who suffer from mental illness from committing such horrifying acts of violence. Does that mean we should automatically incarcerate them or stigmatize them? No. That does mean, however, that we as a culture must pay closer attention to resources for the mentally ill.

“I was surprised myself to admit that mental illness had such a role in this,” said Pole on the Newtown shooting that happened this past December. “But I think that we need to somehow persuade liberals to think more carefully about supporting something having to do with controlling guns for the mentally ill. It’s a complicated thing to do because our tendencies are to protect society from further stigmatizing the mentally ill, but something needs to be done.”

In a New York Times article, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who has been an advocate for stricter gun laws since the Newtown massacre, stated that mental health is “the key to unlocking the issue.” Blumenthal went on to state that he has become “more and more convinced that we should establish the mental health issue as our common ground.”

The relationship between mental health professionals and law enforcers needs to be strengthened, while also strictly regulating purchasing of guns by individuals who have a history or are showing signs of mental illness. It is only a combination of these efforts that will effectively dissipate gun violence in America. Of course, this is much easier said than done, but what is the alternative? Something desperately needs to change, beginning to efficiently prioritize and treat individuals who suffer from mental illness is the first step. We, as a society, must take this step in order to prevent more tragedies from occurring.

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