Politics over guns and mental health have hurt our communities and citizens

Politics over guns and mental health have hurt our communities and citizens

Tragically, too many lives have been lost over the past years to too many shootings and acts of domestic violence. The disclosures of the Florida shooter Nikolas Cruz have uncovered undeniable shortfalls across the health and social agencies in contact with him.

The string of deaths from Virginia Tech to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High repeatedly spotlight glaring deficiencies in community mental health and prevention. No doubt, less is known about the Texas bomber Mark Conditt, but authorities labeled him as “a challenged young man,” and he called himself a “remorseless psychopath.”

The public outrage is louder, and a dedicated group of voices are opposing assault weapons and demanding gun control. The words all sound good, but the record has been that a toxic mix of lobbyists and opposing interest groups have blocked effective initiatives. The nexus of the gun lobby, second amendment rights activists, and a crippled mental health system has effectively blocked action to stop the killing.

I was engaged in 2012 to advise on legislation in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The law prohibited military commanders and healthcare providers from asking service members that lived off post if they had guns in the home. I was appalled and adamantly opposed it. Asking potentially suicidal soldiers about weapons in the home is basic to protecting them, and failing to ask is malpractice.

As I became more engaged on the problems of gun violence, I learned that the lobbyists deflected attention from automatic weapons to fixing their sites on mental illness. That tactic fired up the patient rights activists. They retorted that focusing on mental illness stigmatizes patients and imposes greater burdens and complicates their lives.

The debates got muddier as supporters of the 2nd amendment stiff armed any legislation possibly infringing on individual rights. A team of retired generals and admirals were able to influence reversing the legislation in the NDAA, but I am pessimistic of finding any political solution today and fear that we will be exposed to more violence.

Any solution in this political environment has to start at the local level, and be reinforced by Executive Action. Effective programs for identifying and monitoring potentially violent young offenders are grounded in community mental health systems and involve community social agencies, the police, and the FBI.

As a career military psychiatrist and former Army general, I have learned that a complex system needs a senior commander in charge to build a…

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