Tim Steller: Keeping guns from mentally ill a shallow fix

2013-01-20T00:00:00Z 2013-01-21T15:45:32Z Tim Steller: Keeping guns from mentally ill a shallow fixTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 20, 2013 12:00 am  • 

When Judge David Ostapuk ordered a woman into mental-health treatment in Tucson one day last week, he warned she can't have guns.

Arizona law says she'll have to wait a year, Ostapuk told her, citing laws by number. After that, she can ask a judge to restore her rights.

The woman didn't seem to hear. She just sat, bedraggled and distracted, beside her lawyer.

The most important thing Ostapuk did that day to prevent violence was order the woman into treatment, not bar her from guns.

People with mental illnesses - a very broad category that almost certainly includes people you know - aren't particularly dangerous. They have the same basic right to keep and bear arms as other Americans do, a right that shouldn't be taken away lightly.

Still NRA executive Wayne LaPierre is pointing to mentally ill people as the population we should target to prevent more gun massacres. The mass shooters in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., and, of course, Tucson all apparently had a mental illness.

"We have a completely cracked mentally ill system that's got these monsters walking the streets," LaPierre said on "Meet the Press" last month after the massacre of children at a school in Newtown. "We have no national database of these lunatics."

Leaving aside the insulting references to people with mental illnesses, what LaPierre and others are talking about is just a sidelight to the gun-violence debate.

A variety of studies have shown mentally ill people are either equally likely or just slightly more likely to commit violence than others. That likelihood increases if they're substance abusers or have a history of violence.

I talked with a local mental-health advocate, Scott Whitley, about this. He describes himself as a person who "lives with manic-depressive illness" and he's facilitates support groups, having attended 800 or 900 over 20 years, he said.

"I never once heard anyone say they want a gun to kill someone," he said. "Suicide is much more of a problem than homicide."

Under state and federal law, two main groups of mentally ill people are banned from having guns - those ordered by a judge into treatment, and those found incompetent in a criminal case.

Their names are supposed to be added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS. In Arizona, only about one-tenth of the 3,300 annual mental-health judgments make it into the database, although an effort to change that is underway.

It's tempting to think more people with mental illness should be barred from having guns, but who would we include?

Schizophrenics? People with psychosis - that is, detached from reality? People in the manic phase of bipolar disorder? What if they do well on medication? Should we ban them from having guns when they're not taking it? The permutations are endless.

After the court hearing, I spoke with Judge Ostapuk, and he had trouble imagining how we would put gun bans into place for more people with mental illness while respecting their due-process rights.

"Somebody would have to think through a whole new system," he said.

That likely would be pointless. A leading expert on the subject, Duke University sociologist Jeffrey Swanson, recently wrote: "There is no evidence yet available to suggest that filling the NICS with more records of people with gun-disqualifying mental health histories would have any measurable impact in reducing firearm violence in the population."

I asked Tucsonan Todd Rathner about this and, to his credit, the NRA national board member recognized the complexity of the situation. And he didn't call anyone "monsters" or "lunatics."

"The issue is what line must a person cross in order to be included in something as serious as the NICS database as a prohibited possessor," Rathner said. "You can't put every person that's got a Prozac prescription over the last 10 years in a mental-health database."

Even U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, who was shot and seriously injured by the floridly psychotic Jared Lee Loughner, told me we don't need to expand the categories of mentally ill people barred from having guns.

"The real issue is identifying people with mental illness, making sure they get treatment as early as possible, and making sure they get the correct treatment," he said.

It's as simple as that. We need to go beyond the hysteria over mentally ill people having access to guns and make it easier for them to get the medical treatment they need.

Tim Steller is the Star's new metro columnist. A native of Minnesota and father of two children, he has been a reporter and editor at the paper for 16 years. Find his columns on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. You can follow him on Twitter at @senyorreporter, or contact him at 807-8427 or tsteller@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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