Guns & Mental Health: Many Quick Fixes; Long Term Solutions Require Study

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

On December 14th 2012, Adam Lanza killed 20 children and 6 adults at the Sandy Hook elementary school.  He had killed his mother before going to the school.  He killed himself while there.

“Tragedy” is too trite to describe the incident, and doesn’t begin to describe the event and its effect on the national conversation.  It didn’t take too long for many to capitalize on the situation for political gain.

Guns are now an active part of the political conversation.  On the national level, limiting the size of gun magazines and clips and prohibiting the sale of nebulously defined “assault-style weapons” headlines the wish list of gun control advocates.  Making background checks mandatory on all gun transactions is also part of a proposed solution.

At the state level – where the 2nd Amendment holds a bit more reverence – the legislative angle is in the opposite direction.  Eliminating restrictions on where guns can be carried is the popular political solution du jour.  Colleges, churches, public buildings, and bars are all under consideration where Georgians will possibly be permitted to legally carry their weapons.

It seems that the short time between the funerals in Newtown and the start of the Georgia General Assembly’s session allowed for many to get themselves on the “right” side of the gun issue.  At least 36 bills were introduced dealing with gun ownership this year.  In an era where the national conversation is about placing restrictions on gun sales and ownership, many see good politics in pushing back at the state level.

Many on the gun rights side of the debate explain the events at Sandy Hook not as a guns issue but as a mental health issue.  Mental illness remains the common thread behind all of the mass murders, and yet most of the policy reactions are along the politically expedient and incendiary issue of guns, rather than the complex, difficult, and expensive solutions of mental health delivery.

There were four bills or resolutions proposed that deal with the mentally ill and gun ownership.  Three other bills deal with improvements or changes to mental health care delivery outside of the guns issue.  They aren’t generating the same headlines of “guns rights” bills, but need to be as does the general topic of mental health.  After all, if mental illness is to be blamed for Sandy Hook, then making the system that identifies and treats mental health issues a better one should be at center stage, not whether or not we can bring our Glocks to a pool hall on Saturday night or into the church sanctuary on Sunday morning.

Solutions should not be knee-jerk quick fix legislation to generate headlines rather than systematic improvement.  To that end, an attempt to develop an accurate assessment of mental health care delivery and how it affects individual gun rights has been proposed by Representative Kevin Tanner of Dawsonville.  House Resolution 502 would establish a joint committee to study the issue and Georgia’s policies and procedures and recommend changes.

The sign that the study committee will receive traction comes in Tanner’s co-sponsors.  They include Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, Majority Whip Ed Lindsey, and Majority Caucus Chairman Donna Sheldon.  A strong indication that the approach should be bi-partisan is that Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is also a signed Co-sponsor.  The resolution has passed the House and is near passage in the Senate.

The work of this committee will not be easy, as the problems itself are not as obvious as they may seem.  Georgia law currently says anyone hospitalized for mental illness cannot legally carry a gun.  But this also includes those who seek voluntary treatment.

A distinction in this circumstance could end up covering returning veterans who are encouraged to seek treatment after leaving war zones for post-traumatic stress disorder.  A law barring legal gun ownership for those seeking or who have sought mental health treatment could keep a wide swath of soldiers and veterans from carrying.

Or, more importantly, could keep many from seeking needed temporary assistance in the first place.

One solution will focus more on those who have had involuntary treatment.  The recommendation could include a legal review in a judicial setting – rather than merely a doctor’s signature – before constitutional rights can be removed.

That is a quick and superficial description of one of the many issues the study group will face.  But unlike the quick and superficial proposals to expand gun owners’ rights, legislation that should be proposed by the group should have been well thought out and seasoned for effectiveness that lasts beyond the headlines of the current news cycle.


  1. Noway says:

    How about a Breaking and Entering Registry, Icee? Burglary Registry? Car Jacking Registry? Criminal Damage to Property Registry, Icee? All of which would be more beneficial in your neighborhood knowledge idea.

    I say there is no “legitimate excuses” for not having the other ones I’ve listed!

  2. Michael Silver says:

    Charlie, to your point about due process for involuntary hospitalization, Georgia law has a very robust process including legal counsel, second opinions, hearings and appeal process. Someone in Georgia doesn’t get involuntarily committed to the hospital just on the say of a random official.

    The fix to the gun license hospitalization language in HB512 is a good move on the part of the Legislature. It will remove a hindrance for seeking help on your own.

    After my neighbors husband passed away, she went through a very difficult time with depression. Eventually, her daughter convinced her to seek in-patient help. Her two big holdups were, what will people think and her carry license. Losing the ability to defend yourself is a serious matter and shouldn’t be stolen from people seeking help.

    Federal law on gun possession only restricts involuntary hospitalizations. Georgia’s law was overly expansive and the efforts to reign it in will benefit a lot of our neighbors and family.

  3. Mike Stucka says:

    Just to make a point not explicitly made by Charlie — there may well be some veterans or active-duty soldiers who should not be carrying due to mental health status.

    There’s some federal legislation to reconsider where to draw the line; some efforts say veterans declared incompetent to handle their own affairs shouldn’t be carrying, and others say they should need more due process.

    Balancing due process vs. expediency vs. public safety is going to be an interesting process.

    Here’s some background on the veterans issue:

  4. Noway says:

    Mike, just a question: Have the been examples of the vets or soldiers coming back and harming others? I know a ton are committing suicide and that’s sad in its own right, but are there cases where they’ve “gone nuts” on others? Not trying to be a jerk. I’m just wondering if the legislation limiting those who may be depressed or have PTSD is just trying to premept a problem that might present itself?

    • Trey A. says:

      According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 66% of U.S. gun deaths in 2011 were suicides. That’s a significant gun/mental health crisis. A study linked in this article shows that people who committed suicide in a given year were 17 more likely to live in homes with guns than in those without.

      A recent Harvard study, also mentioned in the article, shows that high gun states (>50% gun ownership), have almost twice as many suicides than low-gun (<15% ownership rate) states–yet, there is little to no variation in the two groups of states in the rates of suicide by hanging or poisoning.

      I imagine these are the types of things this study committee will look into. There appears to be legitimate ground to tie limits on gun ownership to mental health.

      • Trey A. says:

        One interesting suggestion in the article is a public health advertising campaign that would mimic past successful campaigns targeting drunken driving: Increase awareness and try to make it socially acceptable for people who are going through rough times to hand over their guns temporarily to relatives or trusted friends.

  5. bowersville says:

    Chris Kyle, the author of the best-selling “American Sniper,” and Chad Littlefield, 35, also a veteran, were gunned down on Saturday while shooting for fun at a Texas gun range, law enforcement officials said.

    Eddie Ray Routh, 25, a former Marine who told police last year he was suffering from post traumatic stress, was held on a capital murder warrant, authorities said.

    Kyle and Littlefield often helped veterans with PTSD. Currently federal law prevents a sale of a firearm to anyone adjudicated as mental defective or committed to a mental institution. The VA is making administrative decisions determining as “mentally incompetent” to handle financial affairs. The article linked quotes Tom Coburn of Texas concerning veterans “found by a judicial authority to be a danger to themselves or to others” before the vet loses gun rights.

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