Let’s Talk About Guns (and Mental Health)

In the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, we’ve been inundated with rhetoric about guns from both the right at the left. At the most extreme ends of the spectrum, we’ve heard people calling for the complete ban of all firearms, and we’ve also heard people calling for their complete deregulation. Neither of these scenarios are plausible. Instead, we need a combination of two things: more regulations for guns, and increased access to mental health services.

Gun violence is a problem that must be addressed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. has 3.7 gun-related homicides per 100,000 people. While this number appears fairly low, it’s high enough to place us at fourteenth in international rankings (just ahead of Costa Rica, whose rate is 3.32 gun-related homicides/100,000 people). When we compare the United States to other highly-developed countries, however, we move up significantly in the rankings. According to U.N. data, the United States ranks first among other developed/industrialized nations–including former members of the Soviet Eastern Bloc, where the firearm-related homicide rate is well below 1 per 100,000. This is similar in non-European (but developed) nations such as Canada and Australia.

Compared to these other developed countries, the United States has the loosest gun control laws and the highest rate of gun ownership–88.1 guns per 100 people. In Japan, most guns are illegal, and almost no one owns one. In that country, there are 0.6 guns for every 100 people. In 2008, there were eleven firearm-related homicides. Total. Let me say that again: Japan had eleven firearm-related homicides in 2008.

In the United Kingdom, there are 6.72 firearms for every 100 citizens. Gun control in Britain is much stricter than in the US–in order to own a gun, you must obtain either a five-year firearm certificate or shotgun certificate from police. In order to obtain these certificates, the police must be convinced that “good reason” for owning the firearms exists, and that the individual can be trusted with it “without danger to the public safety or to the peace.” Good reason, according to British law, consists of sporting purposes, collecting, or work-related needs. But that’s not all: After the previous steps have been completed, the individual applying for the permit must provide a verification of their identity, two references who can verify their good character, an approval of the application by the applicant’s family doctor, an inspection of the premises in which the guns will be stored, and an interview by a Firearms Enquiry Officer. A background check on the applicant is then completed. If the certificate(s) are issued, they must be renewed every five years. Perhaps these strict regulations (and complex process for obtaining a gun) are why only eighteen Bretons were murdered with a firearm in 2009.

The logic of the pro-gun movement is that we’d be safer with more guns, not less–that shootings in Aurora and Newtown would have been less severe if a bystander had been armed. But when compared to other highly developed nations, this logic doesn’t make sense. According to the argument that more guns = more safety, less guns should mean less safety (and that has been almost explicitly articulated by the “if only someone had been carrying…” rhetoric). Almost the opposite holds true, however. In Europe, Canada, and Australia, less guns have meant more safety.

Since the incident in Newtown, I’ve also heard the argument usually articulated as “criminals carry out these shootings, and criminals don’t obey the law, so therefore more laws aren’t the answer.” While I could go on and on about the ridiculousness of such a statement (I mean, murderers are criminals, and criminals don’t obey the law, therefore we should get rid of laws that prohibit killing each other), there have been numerous studies to dispute (or disprove) this line of thinking. According to a study done by Mother Jones, the overwhelming majority of individuals who committed mass shootings over the past two decades in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. In fact, 49 of the 63 shooters obtained their weapons through legal avenues. Of the 142 total weapons used, over 75% of them were legal. Below is a chart detailing the weapons used in the attacks.

Of the 63 mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. since 1982, over 75% of the weapons used were obtained legally.

Of the 63 mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. since 1982,                                                                   over 75% of the weapons used were obtained legally

Based on these statistics, it’s clear that the vast majority of mass murderers use legally obtained weapons to commit their respective crimes. The one incident in Newtown (in which the shooter stole his mother’s guns) cannot be used as a textbook case to justify the deregulation of firearms.

One proposal that’s gained some traction (but has also seen severe backlash) is a ban on assault weapons–namely semiautomatic weapons. Such weapons are quite popular when it comes to mass shootings, according to statistics published by Mother Jones. Of the 142 weapons used in the mass shootings in the U.S. since 1982, 103 of them have been semiautomatic handguns or assault weapons, while revolvers and shotguns account for only 39 of the weapons. These numbers are broken down below:

Mass shooters overwhelmingly prefer semiautomatic handguns and assault weapons.

Mass shooters overwhelmingly prefer semiautomatic handguns and assault weapons.

Of course, at the center of all this debate is the Second Amendment and its interpretation. The Amendment reads “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.” This Amendment is rooted in the bygone era of militias as the primary form of defense from foreign belligerents. At the time, the primary form of defense in the United States were minuteman militias, composed of volunteers who could (and were) readily activated into service. The muskets of the time were the primary weapons of these units, and the peoples’ right to own them was of great importance.

Fast forward to the present day, when the United States has one of the largest and most well-regulated standing armies in existence. When the muskets of yesteryear (which could take up to fifteen seconds to load) are treasured antiques, and the weapons of choice have the capability to kill dozens of people in the time it takes to load one musket. Doesn’t complete deregulation seem a bit extreme? Would the Founders really be supportive of the peoples’ right to own automatic weapons capable of mass murder? I certainly don’t think so.

And I’m not wholly anti-gun, don’t get me wrong. I understand that firearm ownership is an embedded cultural value in this country. We live in a country where a lot of people (including some of my own relatives) are avid hunters and gun enthusiasts, and regularly exercise their Second Amendment rights. However, I simply cannot believe that the intent of this Amendment was to stick an assault rifle in the hands of anyone who wants one. The Founders intended for people to be able to defend themselves at a time when an army of our current class did not exist, and police forces were largely nonexistent. A more modern interpretation is necessary, and this interpretation includes restrictions on gun ownership, including licensing, education on how to use guns, mental health screenings and comprehensive background checks for all guns, not just some. Such regulations would not infringe upon our right to gun ownership, but would better weed out the mentally ill people who perpetrate crimes like the ones in Aurora, CO or Newtown, CT.

And a note about mental health–the study done by Mother Jones indicates that a majority of the mass shooters of the past two decades were mentally ill, and exhibited signs of this illness prior to their crimes. Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, also showed signs of mental illness throughout his life. These people need help, but treatment is wholly inadequate. According to an anonymously written open letter (I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother), the author’s own son has severe mental problems, but help for him is virtually nonexistent. She writes, “When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. ‘If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,’ he said. ‘That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.'” The criminal justice system is not the answer for the mentally ill–that’s punishment, not treatment. And prisons are now becoming hubs for the mentally ill. The author writes “With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill — Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011.”

The United States needs a better mental health care system. The only way to accomplish this is to do what nearly every other industrialized nation has done by adopting universal health care. In the United Kingdom, all mental health services are free of charge. The same holds true for Australia, Canada, and Japan. In fact, nearly every country with lower rates of gun violence (mass shootings, in particular) have more universal health care systems which allow individuals to seek mental health treatment. In the United States, cost serves as a big barrier to mental health treatment. According to a study published by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 45% of those who needed mental health treatment but didn’t seek it cited cost as the main barrier to seeking care. Isn’t it plausible that the reason we have so many mass shootings in this country is because our mental health care is inadequate?

Much of the rhetoric from the pro-gun lobby features the phrase “I’m fat, and it’s the fork’s fault.” In other words, the anti-gun faction places too much blame on the gun and not on the person holding it. Some middle ground between the two must be forged. While we should be placing all the blame in the world on mentally stable individuals who go out and shoot twenty people, we cannot be so quick to blame the mentally ill who do so. Yes, what they do is evil, and I don’t by any means condone their actions or sympathize with them. But we need to recognize that this is a broader societal issue–these people go largely without any kind of help, simply because our system cannot meet their needs. These people need our willingness to help before they commit crimes, not our hatred after it’s too late. A friend of mine recently said that Adam Lanza’s mother should have “locked him up a long time ago” to prevent something like this. This could not be a more ignorant stance–Lanza’s mother is one of the victims here. She was killed at the hands of her own son. We cannot know the hardships she faced and the battles she fought raising her son. How do we know that she didn’t seek help, but was turned away or ignored?

Mass shootings have become an alarming trend in the United States–in the past twenty years, there have been 63. That’s an average of 3.15 per year. If we’re going to stop future slaughter, future bloodshed, we need reform now. We need to reform our gun control laws and make them stricter. Evidence from around the globe indicates that such action is effective at reducing overall rates of gun violence. But we can’t stop there–we need health reform as well. A comprehensive, universal health care system can provide the treatment to mentally ill individuals who might otherwise enter a crowded mall and open fire. In light of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, our biggest mistake would be to pretend that there isn’t a problem and take discussions of reform off the table. We need to talk about this, and the longer we wait, the less likely we are to get anywhere. How many more innocent people have to die before we’re ready to talk?

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