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December 15, 2012

Guns, the American rage culture, and refusal to take mental health issues seriously

Posted in: Crime

I hope that there is a fruitful discussion about how families and elected officials can focus on identifying and treating mental illness as a priority while we deal with the inevitable calls for more gun regulation on one side and guns in every hand on the other in the wake of yet another tragic violent event.

The killer who snuffed out the lives of 26 human beings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday had these weapons at his disposal that day:

A Glock handgun, a SIG Sauer handgun and a .223 caliber Bushmaster rifle (below).

Why does anyone need a gun like that at home? They were legally purchased by the annihilator’s mother, who was also a victim. CNN:

Police say [20-year-old Adam] Lanza, who grew up in the tight-knit community of 27,000, killed his mother at her Newtown residence before going to the school where he primarily targeted two classrooms. Within minutes, Lanza killed 26 people with chilling efficiency, leaving only one injured survivor, according to Vance. Among the adults killed were Dawn Hochsprung, the school’s beloved principal, and school psychologist Mary Sherlach.

…After killing his mother, investigators believe Lanza took her guns and made his way to the elementary school. There, dressed in black fatigues and a military vest, according to a law enforcement official, Lanza reportedly targeted two classrooms of kindergartners and first-graders.

Social media has been flooded with angry exchanges over the subject of gun control. I find these discussions wearying and caustic because neither side (gun rights, gun control advocates) will bend, too many people engage in the digital version of rage culture — all heat, no reason, and certainly little civility.

Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association is winning the political and cultural gun war without breaking a sweat.

“While the NRA wins court fights, laws allowing more guns in more public places continue to spread, often for reasons that defy logic. For example, take the reasoning offered by Alabama state Sen. Roger Bedford, a Democrat, when explaining to Bloomberg earlier this week why he introduced a bill that would allow people to keep their guns in their cars in the workplace parking lot. “This provides safety and protection for workers who oftentimes travel 20 to 50 miles to their jobs,” Bedford said. What does this mean? If there’s a workplace shooting, people need to be able to have their guns in the parking lot to turn the place into a true shootout? Or does he just mean that maybe people need to be able to shoot to kill while driving down the highway on the way to work? The fear of the NRA is so engrained in American politics that the group doesn’t actually have to be successful in punishing gun control advocates anymore. The Sunlight Foundation reports that the NRA’s political arm earned just a 0.83 percent return on investment in its election spending.”
…And here’s more proof the NRA has won culturally: any time someone writes that maybe we shouldn’t let normal people buy war machines, there is an obligatory disclaimer by the writer either noting a lifelong love of guns or admitting to be a yankee liberal sissy. Mother Jones‘s Adam Weinstein on Friday: “As a 3rd-gen. gun collector, I say you can have ‘em. Now. And go after every tinfoil hat Bircher NRA peckerwood w/a long-gun, too. Now.” Slate’s Bazelon in October: “Call me a wimp who’s afraid of guns…” Here’s mine: The most rabidly pro-gun control people I’ve ever met were infantrymen who served in Iraq.

The President, weeping at the horrific news, slipped in a vague reference during his moving speech about doing something to address events like this.

In the hard days to come, that community needs us to be at our best as Americans.  And I will do everything in my power as President to help.

If there’s anything that the President can do to help (it won’t be on the gun issue, that’s a third rail) it would be to use the bully pulpit to tell Americans and their elected officials to take mental health matters seriously. As a nation bathed in violence and short fuses, it’s clear resources are needed out there to help address at the first signs of trouble. The horrific orgy of violence in Newtown didn’t generate itself overnight.

There was a vigil at the White House on Friday, in hopes that the President and Congress will act on gun violence. I’m just not convinced that calls, protests, or petitions for gun control will do much in a land that worships its right to bear arms.

There just isn’t the political will in Congress to work on gun control issues if former colleague Gabby Giffords nearly having her brains blown out didn’t move them.

And people are going to the ballot box and electing officials — the people charged to enact practical gun legislation — and look at the result. Nothing — actually more expansion of where guns can be carried and used has occurred (see Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law).

Since gun control legislation is a non-starter, why not focus on an area — mental illness — that is under-discussed because of stigma and help unearth the origins of our anti-social behavior and inability to serve those in emotional and psychological distress before they act out violently? It’s at least a more realistic starting point than hitting heads against the wall while these shootings keep mounting.

My hope is that in this politically polarized nation that we can find some common ground on mental health policy and perception of treatment of it as no less important than addressing any physical chronic disease. And it has to go hand in hand with a serious look at our culture’s “me first”, hair-trigger-temper mentality. Look at the atrocious, almost expected violent mob and aggressive behavior of some shoppers on Black Friday over big screen TVs or the latest toy. Or road rage where guns are pulled out in lieu of shouting or even fisticuffs. We are a society that always seems to be on the edge of blowing a gasket over minor crap.

It is no surprise that serious emotional and psychological problems and warning signs in families are minimized or overlooked.

At Think Progress, we learn just how hard it is.

By comparison, access to mental health services remains spotty, its funding and beneficiary requirements subject to the whims of governments attempting to balance their bloated budgets. People often do not know when they are entitled to preventative care services for mental health, and the people who do often forgo care due to the stigma associated with receiving such care.

And then there’s the cost of more extensive care. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), a mere 7.1 percent of all American adults receive mental health services. Most of these Americans’ care is covered by private insurance, with children, poorer, and more elderly Americans being covered through public insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. An additional ten percent are uninsured. But out-of-pocket costs for both inpatient and outpatient mental health services remain staggeringly high:

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