Mental Health Issues Must Take Priority in Gun Control Debate

April 10th, 2013

Yesterday’s attack at Lone Star College where a 21-year-old student ran through campus stabbing fellow students once again illustrates that the source of senseless violence in this country may not rest as much with weapons as it does with mental health issues.

Since the Newtown tragedy, President Obama is pledging to seek tighter restrictions on guns.  Given that the perpetrator of that awful crime was a gamer with a penchant for violent video games and was known to have mental health problems, Obama is careful to include mental health reform in his discussion of the issue (although the issues of violence in our culture seems to be long gone from the discussion).  Unfortunately, questions involving mental health are buried in any proposal offered by the President or Democrats in Congress.  Instead, most proposals call for further research into the issue and that’s it.

That’s a shame because the problem of how we should handle mental health matters in this country should be the first priority, not the last.

Sadly, this is consistent with our nations’ tendency historically to dismiss mental illness as a strange human aberration we’d all rather not discuss.  Unfortunately, many people still treat the mentally ill with derision and attempt to hide the mental illness of family members from friends and colleagues for fear negative judgment by others.

From a cultural and historical perspective, this isn’t totally surprising.  When Robert Todd Lincoln took the extreme step of having his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, declared insane, he took great pains to make sure attorneys at her trial included testimony that insanity doesn’t run in the family.

Still one would think with so many crimes associated with some form of mental illness throughout our history, we would have come much further by now in making treatment of mental illness a priority.

For example, three assassinations or attempted assassinations of United States’ presidents included clear evidence of mental illness by the perpetrator.

The first was the case of Richard Lawrence, an unemployed housepainter from England, who attempted to kill President Andrew Jackson in 1835.  His plot attempt failed when both pistols he fired into the back of the president failed to discharge.  Following the attempt, Lawrence claimed to be the deposed King of England and thought Jackson was his clerk.  His prosecutor, Francis Scott Key, failed to gain a conviction (perhaps he was a better lyricist than prosecutor) and Lawrence was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

In 1881, Charles J. Guiteau unfortunately succeeded in killing President James Garfield but mostly because of the poor medical attention Garfield received after the shooting.  While most historians describe Guiteau as merely a disappointed office seeker, he was actually much more than that. As described brilliantly in the book, Destiny of the Republic, Guiteau clearly suffered from mental illness.  Friends, family, and even members of Garfield’s own Cabinet knew it long before he shot the president. Guiteau’s problems became most notable during his trial for the president’s murder when he undermined his own defense and acted out in the courtroom, shouting obscenities at the judge and reciting poetry.  At his execution, he requested that an orchestra perform behind him as he recited a poem he’d written before he hanged.  Denied his request, he settled for reciting “I am Going to the Lordy” before receiving his punishment.

Finally, John Hinckley, Jr., attempted to kill Ronald Reagan in an effort to get the attention of actress Jodie Foster following months of stalking her.  Like Lawrence before him, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and remains institutionalized today.

With so many examples associating mental illness with recent highly publicized crimes, it would seem basic common sense that addressing issues of mental health might actually go a long way towards stopping some of the violent acts plaguing our society.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.  Instead, our first course of action is attempting to ban certain guns and ammunition. After yesterday, knives may begin to join the list in some form.  Unless we seriously address mental health, however, I doubt we’ll find much of the solution we’re all seeking.

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