Reason and rampage


Another public shooting, another gunman who suffers from a history of mental health problems.

On April 2, at the Fort Hood military post in Killeen, Texas, U.S. Army Specialist Ivan Lopez killed three people and injured 16 with a .45-caliber handgun. Lopez had been receiving treatment for a variety of medical health issues, including depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances. He was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, having served four months as a truck driver in Iraq in 2001.

Lopez’s profile fits with other shooters in recent years. The attackers at Virginia Tech, Tuscon, Aurora, Newtown, and now again at Fort Hood all demonstrated mental instability before their outbursts. Considering this pattern, why do political efforts to curb public violence focus primarily on tightening gun laws, rather than enhancing mental health systems?

Which is not to argue against firearm restrictions. Bans on items like extended ammo clips and assault rifles can help keep military-grade weaponry off the streets — an undeniable boost for public safety. It is telling that Adam Lanza used “only” 30-round magazines for his assault on Sandy Hook, and left at home all his mother’s 10- and 20-round clips.

But too much of the political reaction focuses on gun control. Individuals who rampage with firearms represent a fraction of Americans who own or operate guns. The great majority of gun owners and enthusiasts fire their weapons legally and safely. Thus, one downside to stricter regulations is that they unfairly punish a large population of people who obey laws.

Moreover, one could imagine that Lopez, Lanza and the others might have sought alternative manifestations of violence had bans prevented them from acquiring firearms. The best safeguard against such unwell individuals, therefore, may be to get them help long before their psychological makeup deteriorates further.

In conjunction with sensible gun laws, politicians would do well to create and support mental healthcare programs. This could include greater means to identify and address those who exhibit potential warning signs. Before their violent sprees, many public shooters had displayed behavior that worried friends, teachers, associates, and even medical experts. Why did these people not take greater action to recommend professional help? Why is there not a state or federal program in place that can assist with arranging help?

Such a program could steer unwell people toward professional care. Once alerted, licensed psychologists could respectfully contact individuals, or their family or friends, and offer counseling and medical services. This is better than leaving someone alone and allowing them to slide deeper into internal torment.

One potential problem is that the “spot and report” aspect to the program could give it the feeling of a witch hunt. This would worsen the unjust stigma that already affects the mental health community. Accordingly, the program would have to be accompanied by awareness initiatives to educate the public about differences between common psychological issues and the abnormal likes of Lanza and Lopez.

There are many other ways that elected representatives could work in support of this cause. Following Sandy Hook, Connecticut leaders set precedent with some of the strictest gun laws in American history. Now they should put equal effort into making this state a national leader in mental health systems — for the betterment of both public safety, and the unwell individuals who do not receive the help they desperately need.



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