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Reforming gun laws and why we all have a stake in mental health

BY GUEST OPINION | JANUARY 23, 2012 7:20 AM

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On Jan. 7 and 8, we observed the anniversary of a tragic event: the killing of Christina Green (a child who loved Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords), Giffords' bodyguard, and innocent bystanders. Giffords was grievously wounded, and she has become a heroine and fighter extraordinaire.

Those people killed or wounded were innocents, slaughtered by a man with a long, troubling history of mental illness and violence. When these horrible events occur, we cry, "Why did this happen?" It seems incomprehensible that Virginia Tech had a tragic episode occur a few years ago, and recently, the school had to go into lock-down because of another potential killer stalking. How awful is that?

It happens because of societal ills. One societal ill, fostered by the NRA with its unlimited power, is that anyone who wants a gun has the "right to bear arms" — whether the person is in full use of her or his faculties or not. So far, we haven't come up with a solution to ensure that mentally ill and delusional people can't go into any Walmart or sporting-goods stores, use the web, or go to a gun show and be able to buy whatever weapon he or she may choose to kill people. Poor background checks are a major cause.

This makes our nation an open arsenal for anyone. Compounding this is that laws are weak and marginally enforced. Now, every state rushes to be "open carry." (Maybe we will at least be able to determine who is armed, with a gun in plain view.) The cause for this is likely undiagnosed mental illness, a gamut of schizophrenic disorders, bipolar, substance abuse, increasing diagnoses of post-traumatic stress syndrome with returning veterans, etc. Factor these in with knowing that treatment is not readily available, rotten drug side-effects, and little social support, and these people become quickly noncompliant.

The sick need the support of family, friends, and the community. Our state is nearly dead last for having practicing psychiatrists, and mental-health facilities for diagnosis, and treatments are rare. This means that those who killed are sentenced to life in prison — at far greater expense than if they'd had good, supervised psychiatric care to begin with.

It seems reasonable to think that when President Reagan and his assistant, Jim Brady, were badly wounded, Americans did not demanded better. A couple of laws were passed, but the result is that the Brady Bill has been gutted because of how the Second Amendment has been interpreted. Nobody I know thinks that hunters shouldn't hunt whatever is in season, except maybe turtle doves.

Does that mean that humans, though, are fair game? I pray not. Yet, the human toll grows.

Solutions? Whatever I say has been pretty much shot down. Whether it's our citizenry or the powerful gun-lobby, there has been no push to pass good laws. So I guess it's up to us to tell our elected officials that we, in the words of Charlton Heston, are "sick and tired, and we are not going to take it anymore." (Which he said on TV ads with a rifle raised over his head. What kind of message is that?)

There is certainly no sense of urgency to get psychiatric facilities built and adequately staffed— such a shame. In this day and time, with so many reasons for people to be depressed, suicidal, and homicidal, there is no collective will to improve this. I think we all have a dog in this hunt. Physical, emotional, and mental abuse of anyone will not be tolerated. Neither will the abuse of animals. If a child harms an animal, he will be watched for other signs of abuse and will be evaluated and treated quickly to insure a decent quality of life for child and animal. Anyone who shoots someone's pet needs quick diagnosis and treatment, before he kills a human.

What about subsidizing education of students to practice in this field and building facilities with adequate staffing? Yes, it would be expensive, but less than warehousing sick people in prison.

With a new legislative session beginning, every reader needs to contact her or his elected official to address the issue of access to quality psychiatric care.

Bobbie Paxton is a retired nurse who lives in Iowa City.


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