September 19, 2013
Fixing the Mental Health Care System Needs Priority
NSSF will Continue Focus on FixNICS as Our Industry’s Contribution
Our nation’s mental health care system is broken. We have known this for many years. Inadequate community and hospital resources were made even more so by state spending cuts necessitated by the Great Recession, as the National Alliance on Mental Illness documented in a 2011 report. State, county and municipal budgets are all constrained.
In America today, families must struggle against a fractured system to get real help for their loved ones suffering from mental illness. In addition to services being stretched thin, laws written three decades ago intended to help protect individuals from arbitrary involuntary commitments now too often work against their families, sometimes even endangering them as well as the wider community, as Dr. Miguel Faria has persuasively shown.
Such was the case with Andrew Engeldinger, whose parents urged him for two years to seek treatment for his mental illness, even as he became increasingly paranoid and delusional. Under Minnesota law and in many other states, individuals cannot be compelled to undergo treatment without direct proof that they are a threat to themselves or others. In October of last year, Engeldinger went to his Minneapolis workplace, killed the owner, three employees and a UPS driver before he killed himself.
More recently, a school tragedy was averted outside of Atlanta. A level-headed school office worker rightly is given credit for defusing the situation and talking Michael Hill out of doing the worst at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy. She demonstrated great grace and compassion under pressure. But it would be wrong to assume that what Antoinette Tuff was able to accomplish that day would have worked with another unstable person at another time and place. For a glimpse into the problems with which the Hill family had to deal, see the on-air discussion between CNN host Piers Morgan and Michael Hill’s brother. It is both disturbing and instructive.
And earlier this week at the Washington D.C. Naval Yard in the person of Aaron Alexis, as we saw last December in Newtown in Adam Lanza, young men with quite different backgrounds and experiences, but both of whom were estranged, angry, isolated and filled with pent-up rage, carried out vicious and merciless attacks on defenseless victims.
Mental health is the common denominator in all these cases. And let us add Aurora mass murderer James Holmes, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords attacker Jared Loughner, and Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho to the aforementioned roster.
There seems to be widespread agreement on the need to do more to help those with severe mental illness who may have violent tendencies. Yet little action taken has been taken to date on the federal and state levels to even begin the work required to change laws and extend more effective treatment to assist the severely mentally ill and their families. This is a sad and extremely discouraging commentary on our society.
“Convicted felons and mentally unstable people forfeit the right to possess arms by virtue of the fact that are a potential danger to their fellow citizens,” wrote Dr. Faria. We agree. That is why NSSF has been working at the federal and state levels to raise awareness that the states must send all appropriate records, including adjudicated mental health and involuntary commitment records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) used by all federally licensed firearms retailers. Our initiative is called FixNICS.
We can report some real progress, but much remains to be done. Legislatures in Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi and New Jersey have acted to improve their reporting to NICS. Now is the time for Massachusetts to join these states. Already home to some of the most restrictive gun control regulations in the country, the Massachusetts legislature is considering the adoption of even more laws. Yet that state ranks dead last in sending records to the NICS system. So, we were pleased that at recent public hearings around that state, officials focused most of their remarks on the mental health issue. Massachusetts can fix its NICS reporting. So can other states.
We know that fixing a long-broken mental health care delivery system won’t be easy. We also know it is where common ground can be found in the always contentious debate on firearms. Those with the medical mental health credentials must take that lead. For our part at NSSF, we are working to FixNICS on behalf of our members because is the appropriate role for us based on our expertise in working on the front line to prevent firearms from being transferred to those who are prohibited under current law from having them, including the dangerously mentally ill. We are working to build coalitions of interested groups in the mental health, law enforcement and other communities also interested in helping to improve the background check system.
At the same time we will not shy away from continuing to defend our members’ interests as well as the Second Amendment rights of all Americans. As Dr. Faria wrote, “Let’s stop demonizing guns and end the shootings by incarcerating the criminals and healing the sick, for much work needs to be done in the mental health arena …”
Larry Keane is senior vice president and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @lkeane.