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Experts: Mental Health Gun Laws Likely Ineffective

Experts: Mental Health Gun Laws Likely Ineffective

In the aftermath of a particularly awful year of gun violence, capped by the horrific Sandy Hook shooting, the federal government, as well as individual states, is acting quickly to tighten up gun control in the United States. Many advocates are hailing this as a long-needed measure, arguing that with decreased access to weapons, rampage violence will be reduced. Some, however, are concerned about whether the gun control policies being hastily passed by legislatures are actually going to be effective.

One such example has come up in New York, which just mandated that mental health professionals report anyone they suspect as likely to do violence (though Dr. Art Caplan noted in a radio interview that mental health professionals have been reporting safety concerns regarding patients for decades). Such reports can trigger a law enforcement investigation and seizure of any firearms. On the surface, some might think this policy is a good idea, despite the fact that statistics on mental illness and violence really don’t support the thesis that mental illness is the problem when it comes to rampage violence.

However, this legislation could actually be really bad news. Mental health professionals point out that it’s actually quite difficult to predict a risk of violence, and in studies, even those with special training aren’t necessarily very good at determining which patients are likely to harm themselves or others. And that phrase, “special training,” is also important: the law applies to all mental health professionals, but learning to assess patients for violent tendencies actually takes years of training and practical experience. Even then, there are no “precise signs” indicative of a risk of violence, says Kaplan. Psychiatric professionals need access to patient records, lots of time to review the available information, and interaction with other professionals who’ve treated the patient to adequately predict risks.

Under legal pressure, there’s a risk that mental health professionals could over report to reduce the risk of lawsuits and legal penalties.

Demanding that inexperienced and untrained mental health professionals report patients they think are dangerous is not a good idea. And not just because it could potentially abridge some rights and freedoms for mentally ill people. It could also make people reluctant to seek medical assistance for mental health conditions, and it could increase the risk of false positives resulting in costly investigations and the potential for forced institutionalisation, medication and other interventions. These can be traumatic for patients and aren’t necessarily productive.

Worst of all, “maybe we’ll prevent an incident or two,” said Barry Rosenfeld, an expert on the subject, highlighting the overall effectiveness of the law in an NPR interview. For all the costs associated with implementation and enforcement, it’s not likely to save many lives. While the temptation to blame mentally ill people for gun violence is easy to give in to for many people, it shouldn’t become a policy priority, because it distracts from the real, larger issues. Critically, it also positions mental health as a public safety issue rather than a public health one, and it increases the stigma associated with mental health conditions. This doesn’t lead to a safer society for mentally ill people or their loved ones.

Better treatment for mentally ill people is a critical need, and such laws don’t meet shortfalls in funding, training and options for mental health treatment. Mental health gun laws also don’t address the larger issue: there are a lot of guns in a lot of hands in the United States, and not all of those hands are responsible.

Another expert, Steven Hoge, also interviewed by NPR, boils it down to the bottom line:

“The biggest risk for gun violence is possession of a gun. And there’s no evidence that the mentally ill possess guns or commit gun violence at any greater rate than the normal population.”

Related articles:

Actually, Mentally Ill People Are More Likely to be Victims of Violence

Why Gun Control Legislation Will Likely Pass Supreme Court Review

5 Things You Need to Know About Biden’s Gun Control Plan

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Photo credit: StooMathiesen

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143 comments

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9:35AM PDT on May 3, 2014

Gun Laws? You've got to be kidding. You can't even get treatment for the mentally ill until they hurt someone. I've frequently wondered what the deceased mother of the mentally ill individual tried to do to get help for that young man before he went fire happy. Mutliple innocent lives were lost. Not due to lack of gun laws, but due to lack of mental health services and laws that allow people to go untreated by choice until they actually kill someone. I bet most of these incidents have had plenty of warning that they were coming. But, the law won't do anything, and services aren't provided until someone is hurt. Gun laws won't fix this. Such individuals will just find another resource or weapon.

8:24PM PST on Feb 15, 2013

An eye for an eye will make the world blind.
Violence can never bring a change in society.

7:36PM PST on Feb 5, 2013

THE MAJORITY OF ALL PEOPLE REGARDLESS OF PARTY OR COUNTRY, 80%, ARE TIRED OF CONSTANT CAMPAIGNING AND NO OBJECTIVE CHANGE FOR THE COMMON GOOD AND EVEN A GREATER DETERIORATION IN OUR FREEDOM, SECURITY AND STANDARD OF LIVING.

PRODUCTION IS IN THE SYSTEM. WE HAVE A MANAGEMENT PROBLEM AT THE TOP. NO REAL CHOICE IS PRESENTED UNDER THE CURRENT 2 PARTY SYSTEM BOTH OF WHICH ARE CONTROLLED BY THE POWERS THAT BE. ADDING A 3 RD PARTY WILL ONLY MAKE THE SITUATION WORSE.

THE MOST EFFICIENT AND EFFECTIVE WAY WE CAN EVOLVE OUR SOCIETAL INSTITUTIONS TO GOVERNMENT OF, BY AND FOR THE PEOPLE IS BY ONE 6 YEAR TERM LIMITS FOR ALL OUR ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES/MANAGERS. EVEN THE POWERS THAT BE WILL BE BETTER OFF BECAUSE FREE PEOPLE PRODUCE MORE, KEEP MORE AND SHARE MORE. WWW.ONE6YEARTERMLIMITS.ORG

WHEN WE HAVE ONE 6 YEAR TERM LIMITED ELECTED REPRESENTATIVES / MANAGERS WE WILL GET SENSIBLE LAWS THAT THE LEGISLATOR HAVE TO LIVE UNDER EQUALLY WITH THE OTHER CITIZENS WITH FUNDING THAT STARTS WITH THE EDUCATION AND LIFE EXPERIENCE OF OUR CHILDREN AND CONTINUES WITH ENFORCEMENT. THE MAJORITY OF THE CITIZENS WANT CHANGE OF THE UNBALANCED GRIDLOCKED LEGISLATIVE SYSTEM WITHOUT SUSPENDING THE BILL OF RIGHTS. THE MAJORITY OF US ARE RESPONSIBLE AND WILL CHANGE THE SYSTEM FOR THE COMMON GOOD IN THIS INFORMATION AGE.

4:24AM PST on Feb 1, 2013

David K, interesting comment. Could you please expand on that idea about the the theft of native american lands? Thanks.

12:18AM PST on Feb 1, 2013

NRA will object to any form of gun control even while Americans are killing each other continuously. Gun makers' profits are more important than mere deaths of compatriots. Unfortunately the proposed control may be inadequate, but it is a start. The only successful gun control is to limit ownership in similar ways to the limitations common in virtually all civilised countries. America's problem is that they still want to live the English colonial complaint. Americans are probably unaware that the real cause of the revolution was because of the limitation on theft of native American lands.

8:45PM PST on Jan 28, 2013

I think that gun violence is a microcosm of the US at present. They are using weapons and killing people.

11:16PM PST on Jan 24, 2013

Agree, totally ineffective approach.

3:16PM PST on Jan 24, 2013

For those worried abour the fearful mentally ill : they are usually the victims of violence. http://www.cmha.ca/mental_health/violence-and-mental-illness/#.UQHAHH0zDLI

10:03PM PST on Jan 23, 2013

A step in the right direction.

2:42PM PST on Jan 23, 2013

John, I agree. A lot of people seem to believe that defenders of the first amendment are a bunch of crazy low-life nuts. Even those who don't have guns and don't want them should be able to see the fallacy of these proposals for gun control.

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