The Four Uncomfortable Questions At The Intersection of Guns & Mental Health


By Jay Kirell

Once again, a mass shooting in America has left most of us helplessly questioning how this could happen over and over.  Some people will pound the gun-control gavel and others the mental health side of the issue and both will willfully whistle past each other as they try to convince the great mass of Americans – who’ve mostly thrown up their hands at the idea of anything getting done in Washington on the issue – that they have the answers.

The only problem is nobody is discussing the right questions.

Take out the NRA, take out the gun-grabbing left.  Imagine we lived in an alternate universe where Democrats and Republicans sat down and seriously tried to tackle this issue.

Keep imagining, because at some point in history this will actually happen.  And when we reach that point – whether it’s at the end of Obama’s term or the president after him (or the one after that) – there will be the specific time during the debate over mass shootings when the heart of the problem has to be addressed.

At the heart of the problem of mass shooting is the intersection of guns and mental health.  Until the public has a full debate on the problems that arise out of any “solutions” offered – either by the gun control or gun-advocacy side – there will not be any effective action taken to stop mass shootings from occurring with semi-regularity.

In my view, any effort to halt these shootings has to address four uncomfortable questions at the intersection of guns and mental health.  Questions that have to be addressed in any legislation are:

1.  What can we agree marks a mental health disqualifier when purchasing/owning firearms?

  • Should any history of depression, anxiety, anger management, violence disqualify someone?
  • Should only a diagnosed disorder disqualify someone from owning a firearm?
  • Should the types of medication one is currently prescribed factor into the equation?
  • Should someone currently under therapy require a therapist’s recommendation to purchase a firearm?
  • Should therapists be required to report patients who have admitting having firearms if they feel potential for concern?

2.  How much of our mental health records are we willing to allow private entities access to for full background checks when purchasing firearms?

  • Are we as a nation entirely comfortable with notion of a private entity – like a gun retailer – having access to private health information?
  • How many levels of safeguards are necessary to keep mental health records from being abused by private entities?
  • If someone applies for a firearm and is denied because of what was in their background check – should a private entity be required to report the individual to authorities?

3.  How much access are we willing to grant people with a history of reported mental health issues in purchasing and/owning firearms?

  • If someone has a reported history of mental illness, what type of firearms, if any, should they be allowed to buy/own?
  • What if they were a long-time hunter living in a rural area – would they be granted an exemption for a hunting rifle? A shotgun?
  • Would someone living in an urban area not be granted the same exemption?  Would that be constitutional?

4.  Finally, and most controversial, are we willing to deny access to firearms to certain normally-supported groups of individuals who suffer through mental health issues? 

  • Our nation’s veterans and its female victims or rape and assault are two groups that have individuals within them who suffer from post-traumatic stress and might be more prone to wanting a firearm for their piece of mind.
  • Is this nation ready to say these psychological and physical victims of violence are more dangerous to society than they are in danger from other individuals within society?
  • Are we willing to say that they – and anyone else from any other walk of life who might have at one time been treated for mental help – are potential risks worthy of having a constitutionally-protected right taken away?

If we’re ready to sit down and really answer these difficult questions, maybe we can take steps to address mass shootings like what happened yesterday.  If we’re not, well, then we’re really not ready to have that conversation we keep hearing we’re close to having after every mass shooting happens.

Maybe I should re-print this column again in a month.  Unfortunately I feel it’ll be just as relevant as today.

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    […] the same time, Kirell wrote another thoughtful essay addressing the “intersection of guns and mental […]


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