I live in central Pennsylvania where there are a large number of hunters, many of whom are members of the National Rifle Association (NRA). It is also a place where this week, one man was immediately arrested after allegedly making terroristic threats that he would go on a “shooting spree” and where this morning in Blair County (the county immediately southwest of where I live), four people were killed and three others wounded after another man went on a shooting spree.
In both of these cases, there was no school targeted. In the first case, a man from Breezewood told a bank teller that he would go on a shooting spree “like at the school the other day ” by killing everyone at the local Weis Market (a grocery store) where he works and would then return to the bank and kill everyone there. The bank teller immediately notified police and he was arrested within hours for making terroristic threats, which is a felony.
In the second case, a woman was shot and killed at a church in Gesseytown—a small rural town 70 miles west of Harrisburg near Altoona, PA. Three others—including the shooter—were also killed in the area after he left the church. Two police officers were wounded by the shooter and a third officer was injured in a head-on collision during the shooting rampage. According to the Blair County District Attorney, these shootings occurred over a large area of the county but were apparently perpetrated by, once again, a lone gunman.
In all of these cases—in Newtown, Breezewood, and Gesseytown—there was a lone shooter or person threatening to go on a rampage. In each case, these men expressed their frustration, anger, and or manifestation of a mental illness by threatening or carrying out a shooting spree.
And what did the NRA have to say? Just two suggestions to further arm the country and stigmatize a vulnerable part of the population – both of which, I believe could make matters even worse.
Put armed security guards in every single school in the country.
Create a mental health registry and mandate that anyone who has ever seen a psychologist or psychiatrist or a social worker be placed into this registry.
Let’s look at both of these suggestions. First, the NRA recommended that armed security guards be placed in every single school in the country. This suggestion turns our schools from a place of learning to a fortification or day-prison for children. As Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) said right after the NRA press conference,
“You don’t want to make this an armed camp for kids. I don’t think that’s a positive example for children. We should be able to figure out other ways to enhance safety.”
This recommendation seems to be based on the idea that if every entry into the school were protected, then a shooter could not get into the school. How many schools only have one entry? Even one-room schools usually have at least two doors. The high school I went to had at least 8 doorways. The high school my son goes to has at least 8 entrances in addition to the doorways to the auditorium and gymnasium. The elementary school he attended has 10 entryways throughout the school.
What I hear the NRA saying is that had there been an armed guard at the door to the Sandy Hook Elementary School, there would not have been a mass shooting. This might only be true if there was a guard at every single entrance into the building since any potential shooter could just go around the building and shoot or enter through an entrance where there is no guard. So is the NRA suggesting that every school district in the country hire as many full-time, armed security guards as there are doors into their school buildings? I doubt it.
Second, the NRA suggested creating a mental health registry so that anyone who has any form of mental health issue would, like convicted sex-offenders, be listed in a registry. This is an overly broad and discriminatory suggestion. According to the National Association of Mental Illness, approximately one in four people in the United States experience a mental health issue in any year. This includes, for example, people experiencing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress (think of soldiers or crime victims or survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault), and people with brain injuries or illnesses that result in some form of mental health issue. Yet only a small minority of people who have ever experienced a mental disorder become violent, according to a study issued by the Surgeon General over a decade ago.
Currently, less than one-third of those needing mental health care receive that care. There are many reasons for this, including, but not limited to:
- The lack of health care coverage for mental health issues. Depending on the regulations implemented under the Affordable Care Act, this will likely improve, but only if the regulations make it clear that this new law clearly mandates mental health parity coverage.
- A lack of screening for mental health issues across the life span. Currently many health insurance policies do not pay for screening for mental health problems and thus screenings are not done. Routine mental health screening should become part of standard practice so mental health conditions are identified early when they can most effectively be treated.
- A lack of training of professionals and the public on how to recognize potential mental health issues. School professionals, law enforcement, community service providers, families and the general public need to be educated and trained on identifying potential problems and sources of help. Public education should also be provided to help reduce the stigmatizing of people needing and seeking out mental health services.
- Under IDEA – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – students with emotional disorders are supposed to receive services in school so that they can remain in school and succeed in life. However due to the high cost of these services, school budgetary cuts, and the lack of knowledge by parents that these programs are mandated, but not fully implemented, many young people drop out or do not receive the services they need.
Stigmatizing mental illness by placing people on a registry if they have ever sought services will result in more people not seeking the services they need or referring their family members for treatment. And doctors and other professionals may not do screenings for mental health issues either because they are afraid their clients’ records will be confiscated without cause (which is a violation of HIPPA – the Health Information Patient Privacy Act) or that their clients will disappear and not receive needed treatment. In addition, once a mental health registry is created, people on that list (and their family members) could and will be discriminated against in work, housing, and other forms of public accommodations whenever their name is found on such a registry.
We live in the most violent country in the world. We also have the greatest access to guns. Some of these guns are rapid fire, semi-automatic guns. According to Tom Diaz, a policy analyst for the Violence Policy Center, these weapons were designed by the military to spray bullets into crowds by soldiers who were not sharpshooters. These guns were never intended for hunting, but for shooting people. According to many sports hunters, shooting game with semi-automatic assault weapons results in little, if any, animal trophies or game food. These are the types of assault weapons that were banned in 1994; the ban lasted for ten years, but failed to be continued in 2004. Since then, these forms of weapons have proliferated.
Let’s work for a safer America. A better America. Let’s not give in to the fear mongers. There is a better route than fortifying all public places (which is where this NRA suggestion leads us) and forcing people with mental health issues underground.
There IS a better route. Ban all assault weapons – any weapon that allows high-capacity magazines (e.g., 20, 40, 60, 100, 110 + rounds of ammunition). Teach tolerance and peace-oriented forms of conflict resolution rather than arming and fortifying our schools. And make sure that mental health services and training for professionals to recognize potential mental health problems are provided through the ACA and professional training programs so that those with mental health problems can both seek out services and be helped.