A lot of discussion has taken place in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy. Many talk about gun control while others discuss mental illness. But let me just say for the record, everybody’s solution sucks: yours, mine and those pundits on TV.
Part of the problem in some of our discussions are people who focus on their position and belief more than on solutions. What I mean is people focus on the right to bear arms versus the safety of the public at large, where one side states there should be more guns to protect against the bad guys and the other side takes the stance that fewer guns would mean less chance of gun violence. While there are plenty of holes in both sides’ debate, what these arguers forget is they’re on the same side.
Both points of view are wanting to reduce the chances of a repeat tragedy, but are so certain they have the answer, they only want to convince others rather than find true solutions (if they exist). Please keep this common ground in mind as we discuss and debate this topic. Hopefully attempts to build a bridge rather than to build one’s case will help to avoid pointlessly heated arguments.
Then there are those wanting to focus on mental illness. The argument is existing gun laws should be enhanced to prevent guns from getting into the hands of the mentally ill. This is well-meaning, but also doesn’t give credit for the enormous complexities such a simple idea entails. It is like saying, “let’s solve world hunger by just feeding everyone.” Who wouldn’t want that? And by over-simplifying solutions and the vilifying those how challenge them is how politicians get elected and then do nothing. (But that’s not my point today).
As for mental illness and keeping weapons out of the hands of “all bad guys,” the struggle is applying the logic. Let me explain. The Gun Control Act of 1968 (yes, I said 1968) forbids the sale of firearms to convicted criminals and the mentally ill. The mentally-ill-prevention practice has been part of gun law for over 40 years. Further, the Brady Law, introduced in response of the mentally deranged John Hinckley’s assassination attempt on President Reagan, requires mental-health background summary be part of the screening for a handgun purchase. That law has been in effect for nearly 20 years.
And these laws are not just passed and sit still. Efforts to improve the efficiency continue all the time. In 2008, the NCIS Improvement Amendments Act was signed into law, which allowed even more sharing of vital information to the background check. However, millions of mentally ill are still not in the system, and there are holes in the system everywhere. And we close them with more bureaucracy and more legislation, which in turn slows things down and costs more money – which in turn has a negative impact on the economy, -- which in turn means people will be upset about the answer for reasons not related to what they are upset today. Eventually, society has to choose which set of problems they want to solve and which to keep…and that often shifts around preventing much progress.
Even if this were to be improved, it still comes down to where to draw the line and our inability to predict the future behavior of any person. In 2002, there was a push to use the “mental illness” angle to take Charlton Heston’s gun collection from him because of his diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease. This was clearly a political attack and had little to do with any real threat. And that’s the oppressive side of improving efficiency of the existing system. After all, hasn’t everyone been diagnosed with something these days? If not, shouldn’t they be? The DSM-V now has a mental disorder code for throwing a temper tantrum: Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder. If you threw a fit when you were a kid, you might not qualify for your Second Amendment right. I say that sarcastically…but not really.
But even then, no single mental health professional is going to get the diagnosis correct every time – let alone all of them in their profession. Then there are those who have stayed below the radar or don’t seek help. Even trained gun-wielders, like soldiers and police, can snap and no one will see it coming. Yes, we should discuss these ideas and work to improve things to reduce the odds of another tragedy, but there will never be a perfect solution and we shouldn’t expect one. When tragedy happens, part of the answers we seek is to realize that we live in an imperfect world and bad things will happen.
However, let me also play devil’s advocate against myself. To say the problem is too complex to solve is not a valid reason not to try. To do nothing – to continue to allow those who will perpetrate these acts, whether evil, mentally ill or whatever reason, is irresponsible as well. It is important to examine what is happening and why, then make the best effort to ward it off in the future.
My point of all of this is not to push any agenda, but rather to bring awareness of the problem and all the complexities involved. I have my own opinions on how to improve things, but I recognize with my ideas come new problems, new loopholes and a new shifting of power. There are unintended effects from any answer put in play. We must guard against our tendency to oversimplify how to fix very complex problems. I believe the true answer will be a combination of legislation, education and cultural change – and I don’t think anyone knows how to make that happen nor could anyone make it happen overnight. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was its gun-safety.