My Turn: Should people with mental illnesses own guns?
In this photo taken Wednesday July 17, 2013, gun enthusiast Dennis Tolentino, fires a 1911 TCM caliber 45 pistol at the firing range of Armscor, the Philippines largest gun factory, at their plant at suburban Marikina city in the outskirts east of Manila, Philippines. The factory makes about 70 types of guns from pistols to rifles including15,000 handguns per month for export mainly to the United States and 59 other countries and produces about 12 million ammunitions a year for different calibers. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
General manager Steve Alcairo holds an HK USP 9mm handgun while being interviewed at High Bridge Arms Inc. in San Francisco, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012. Anxious parents reeling in the wake the Connecticut school shooting are fueling sales of armored backpacks for children emblazoned with Disney and Avengers logos, as firearms enthusiasts stock up on assault rifles nationwide amid fears of imminent gun control measures. At Amendment II, sales of children's backpacks and armored inserts are up 300 percent. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
In this photo released by the Portland Police Bureau shows a replica firearm recovered a crime scene Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012, in Portland, Ore. Portland police say a man they shot and killed Wednesday morning had a replica handgun he pointed at them. The police say the man, 21-year-old Bradley Morgan, was on the roof of a parking garage, where he called 911 and said he wanted to be killed by police officers. He threatened to jump. (AP Photo/Portland Police Bureau)
Handguns fill up a trash can for recycling at the LA Memorial Sports Arena in Los Angeles Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012. Los Angeles police offered groceries for guns in a buyback program that was moved up in the wake of the Connecticut tragedy. Weapons can be turned in with no questions asked. Handguns, rifles and shotguns can be exchanged for $100 Ralph's grocery store gift cards. An automatic weapons will earn a $200 card. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Should people with mental illnesses own guns? The shooters in the recent massacres in Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Virginia Tech (and many more) all had mental illnesses. If we could have kept guns out of the hands of those individuals, then those tragedies would never have happened. On the surface, it seems pretty obvious that people with mental illness should not be allowed access to guns.
But the category of mental illness is pretty large. Many people have varying degrees of mental illness from Alzheimer’s dementia and autism, to bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia to name just a few. The vast majority of them take their medication and are well controlled, but often patients stop their medication out of a belief that they are “cured” and no longer need to be treated. Should every category of mental illness be an exclusion to gun ownership?
Statistically, people with mental illness are more likely to harm themselves than to harm others. Take depression for example. Seven percent of all Americans suffer from major depression (21 million), according to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation. And 19,000 of those commit suicide by firearms, representing half of all suicides in America, according to a 2010 National Hospital Ambulatory Care survey. Should we take guns away from every American diagnosed with major depression if 0.1 percent commits suicide with guns? Should we exclude gun ownership from people diagnosed with any depression?
For starters, we can start by screening people for mental illness and monitoring their treatment program. However, 20 percent of our population has no health insurance and use only emergency room health care. Emergency rooms are not set up for screening, and even the best have a limited system for monitoring follow up. Here in New Hampshire, we have cut funding to the inpatient and outpatient mental health facilities so that screening and monitoring treatment are “luxuries” in a system unable to keep up with crisis management.
Even if we had a system that could identify an individual who is likely to harm himself or others, we have no laws to remove legal access to firearms.
Apparently, in the eyes of most lawmakers, people with mental illnesses have as much right as everyone else to own a firearm. In fact in Florida, doctors can be arrested and jailed for even asking a patient if they own a firearm.
Rather than focus on guns, we need to focus on the people most likely to use a firearm to harm themselves or others. But that means we need to enact legislation, like Medicaid extension, that increases access to health and mental health facilities.
It also means that we need to enact legislation that takes firearms out of the hands of those individuals identified as dangerous to themselves and to society. Our law enforcement agencies have a tough enough time tracking down illegal firearms; we should help them by decreasing the number of legal gun owners they have to worry about.
Finally, we need to restore funding for mental health screening and treatment (and treatment monitoring) in
New Hampshire. That might mean a small increase in taxes, but it would be more than offset by increasing the number of taxpayers in our workforce.
An untreated mentally ill person is on Medicaid, but a treated person is able and willing to work and pay taxes. Restoring mental health funding will also decrease the risk of another Newtown or Aurora here in New Hampshire.
Please note: If you are depressed or know someone who is depressed, see a doctor and get treatment. If you or a loved one is depressed and has a gun (or several guns), then have a friend or family member store those guns safely until you (or your loved one) is successfully treated and monitored.
(Dr. James Fieseher is a family physician in Portsmouth.)