Gun Control In America: Sandy Hook Tragedy Puts Focus On Mental Health, But Is An Assault Weapons Ban Necessary As Well?

 @LauraMatt
on March 01 2013 9:05 PM
Gun-Control Protester
People hold signs memorializing Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 children and adults were killed in a mass shooting last December, as they participate in the March on Washington for Gun Control on the National Mall in Washington on Jan. 26. Reuters

It was a Friday when Connecticut mom Kara Baekey, 41, sat in her office at an advertising firm in New York, drinking a coffee and eating a bagel. Then she saw on Facebook there had been a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 30 minutes from where she lives in Norwalk.

Baekey immediately thought about the safety of her own two children: a daughter, 9, and a son, 6. Although the children were attending a different school, her initial reaction was to go get them, if only to hold them.

By early afternoon last Dec. 14, there were 26 victims confirmed dead at the school. The fatalities included 20 children -- all 6 or 7 years old -- and six adults: the school's principal, its psychologist, and four teachers. The gunman had also killed his mother at her home first, and took his own life at the school last. Baekey broke down. The incident had hit so close to home. She was physically sick on the train ride from New York to Norwalk. When she got home that evening, her children were already there, safe with their father.

The discussion in the Baekey household that evening was whether to tell the children what had happened earlier in the day. She and her husband decided against it. The television did not go on that night. Her daughter’s holiday dance-show rehearsal was the next day, however, so the family couldn’t hide the incident much longer for fear the little girl would find out about the mass shooting from friends.

“A bad man with a mental-health problem shot and killed kids and teachers at the school,” Baekey told her daughter.

The child responded, “Could this happen at my school?”

“As a parent, all you want is to protect your children, so I said, ‘No,’” Baekey said in a telephone interview. “I looked at my husband because I knew I had just lied to her. I was just rocked to my core.”

The heartbreak over the Sandy Hook shooting wasn’t confined to the Baekey household.

That mass murder has reignited the national debate over the right to bear arms and efforts to protect vulnerable citizens. Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza, while not diagnosed with a mental-health problem, had been a maladjusted teenager almost-unanimously described as exhibiting signs of likely mental issues. Along with the debate on gun control, the mass shooting led to a discussion about mental health and about access to firearms by people who are -- or might be -- mentally disabled.

But there are concerns whether these developments are going to lead to a comprehensive solution. After all, there are mass murderers who were not identified as mentally ill before committing their unspeakable crimes, and some experts say mental-health screenings will do nothing to stop their like.

“It shouldn’t take mass murders to motivate us to do things that are appropriate and smart,” said James Alan Fox, professor of criminology, law, and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston. He has been studying mass murders for decades. He noted: “Most mass murderers will not be prohibited from buying a gun because of mental-health issues. These are people who don’t think they need any help. They blame others for their problems. They don’t think they need treatment. They think, ‘They are the ones who should treat me better.’

“It concerns me we are now interested in expanding mental-health treatment,” Fox said, adding that mass murderers tend to kill people they know or target specific people for specific reasons. A list of mass shootings since 2005 compiled by the nonprofit Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence show many incidents have familial connections. “Is it because we care about the well-being of those suffering or [is it so] that those suffering will not harm us?”

Gun-Rights Advocates Argue Lawmakers Should Focus On Mentally Ill

A divided U.S. Congress has been called on to create meaningful legislation that strikes a balance between the defenders of Second Amendment rights and those who favor an assault-weapons ban and a limit on ammunition magazines. And within that arena one of the conundrums is whether to focus on legislation that centers on access to guns or deals with mental health.

In late January, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that, if passed, would expand mental-health first-aid training. The measure would also provide funding for training programs to help the public “identify, understand, and address crisis situations safely.” The group included Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Jack Reed, D-R.I., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

“To help prevent future tragedies committed by people with mental illnesses, we need measures like this to help identify early-warning signs and better respond to these conditions and addictions,” Rubio said in a statement. “But most importantly, this will help our people get the treatment they need so they can continue to live their lives.”

Mental health is among the areas President Barack Obama has identified as the country attempts to tackle gun violence, which he has urged Congress to address. Some of the president's recommendations are requiring background checks for all gun sales and the strengthening of systems conducting those checks; reinstating the 1994-2004 assault-weapons ban; limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds; ending a freeze on gun-violence research; and clarifying rules requiring insurers to cover treatment of mental illnesses.

“While we may not be able to prevent every senseless act of violence in this country, if there is even one thing that we can do to reduce it -- if even one life can be saved -- we’ve got an obligation to try,” Obama said.

The violent-crime rate in America has been on a steady decline since 1991, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports. Still, more than 10,000 people die each year by homicide. Handguns, shotguns, rifles, and unspecified firearms are the biggest causes of those deaths. In 2010, the FBI reported, murders were committed with handguns in 6,009 cases, shotguns in 373 cases, rifles in 358 cases, and unspecified firearms in 1,939 cases.

The fact remains that mentally ill people can get their hands on a firearm more easily in America than elsewhere. With its liberal gun laws, the U.S. has the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world. It is estimated that there are nearly 300 million guns in America, almost one for every citizen. That translates to a firearms ownership rate is 88 per 100 people, according to GunPolicy.org. The same source showed the comparable rates are 15 for Australia and 6.7 for the U.K. Even the gun-loving Swiss have a private gun ownership rate that is about one-half that of America, 45.7 per 100 people.

A 2011 study in the Journal of Trauma found that, when America is compared with similar high-income nations such as Australia, Canada, Japan, and the U.K., the U.S. homicide rate was 6.9 times higher. This is largely because of firearm homicide rates that were 19.5 times higher.

Citing FBI data for the years between 1980 and 2010, Northeastern University’s Fox said there has been an average of 20 mass shootings a year in the U.S. with an average annual death toll of about 100.

Wayne LaPierre, CEO and executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest pro-gun lobby, has argued that the NRA will support solutions that include fixing the mental-health system.

But LaPierre said that for the past 20 years the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, “has failed to include records of those judged mentally ill by a court of law. If we can’t even get those records into the system, are we truly to believe that government can require medical professionals to add the records of mentally disturbed patients into the system? You know the answer to that.”

For LaPierre, it is individual Americans who will need to take responsibility for their own safety and that of their children.

“We are proud to exercise that right, are not ashamed of it, and deserve nothing less than absolute respect and admiration as lawful American gun owners under the Constitution of the United States of America,” he said. “And for our Second Amendment freedom, Mr. President, we will stand and fight! We will not be duped by the hypocrisy in the White House or the Congress who would deny our right to semi-automatic technology and all the magazines we need to defend ourselves and our families.”

David Hemenway, professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, said he believes the focus at this time should be on prevention.

Hemenway, one of the researchers in the above-referenced Journal of Trauma study, said he thinks that in this gun-control debate a number of things can be done on the manufacturing and distribution side to make it easy to catch criminals. They encompass creating guns with unique serial numbers that are hard to remove; personalizing guns so that if they are stolen, they do not work; and raising the price of guns so that people will not make purchases.

“Let’s look upstream,” Hemenway said. “People don’t look upstream enough. Make it hard for people to behave badly. ... Change the social norms about the glamorization of guns. You don’t necessarily need legislation to tell you it’s bad. Social norms change when things are no longer glamorous.”

And, because the cause of mass shootings varies, Louis B. Schlesinger, professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said there is no one solution to the problem.

“Tighter gun control is obvious,” Schlesinger said. “But there are other problems as well. ... You can’t legislate this sort of thing. If you get rid of the weapons, it’s not going to solve it, but it would help.”

When asked about the U.S.’ violent-crime rate -- and comparable rates in other countries where guns are widespread -- Northeastern’s Fox replied: “We are not the same countries demographically and economically. The United States is a melting pot. People don’t care about their neighbors.”

Some think we should start doing so.

“Change social norm,” Hemenway said. “If your child or friend is going through a rough spot, get the guns out of the house. This should be common sense. If that was the social norm, then Adam Lanza would be alive, his mom would be alive, and 26 innocent victims would be alive.”

That is a sentiment echoed by other experts.

Jooyoung Lee, assistant professor of sociology at University of Toronto, focuses on crime and health. The question that drives his work is why crime is bad for your health.

Lee said at a societal level people need to start taking care of others who are really vulnerable and at risk of being victims or perpetrators.

“I don’t know what that model will look like,” Lee said. “I don’t think that’s trivial. I think it’s something that will have a big impact.”

As for Baekey, the Connecticut mom is hopeful about change -- and is concerned with gun ownership, not mental health. After Sandy Hook, she became an activist, launching the Fairfield County chapter of One Million Moms for Gun Control, which has since changed its name to Moms Demand Gun Sense in America. Now she marches for the cause and protests at gun shows, sometimes with her daughter, not for the government to take guns away from Americans, but for it to enforce training and licensing rules, perform background checks, and ban certain types of weapons.

“I just don’t understand this group that thinks carrying around an assault weapon is OK when in 15 seconds it can kill plenty of people,” Baekey said. “We have bastardized [the Second Amendment]. What has happened in this country is terribly unfortunate.”

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