2013: A year to pass some mental health, prison & gun reforms


Since the awful events that occurred in Newtown, Conn., the issue of gun control has taken center stage. It seems as though just about everyone has an interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, along with an opinion about arming teachers, additional police officers in schools and bans on assault weapons. There are those who assert that “guns don’t kill people – people do [kill people].” It all makes for interesting debate.

I have heard that between 9,000 and 10,000 people die due to firearms per year. (Woops, I’m sorry – due to people misusing firearms). The United States leads the civilized world (by a wide margin) regarding such deaths. Recently, the president of the NRA blamed video games for much of the problem. I guess now guns don’t kill people – video games do. This is getting confusing.

The world those who made up our constitution lived in was a much different place than the one we inhabit today. Americans of that time were battling Redcoats, hunting for lunch and, in some areas, fighting the indigenous peoples. There were no police departments or Stop & Shop stores. As for the indigenous peoples, well, look around – they don’t exactly run the place anymore. I can understand that some people enjoy hunting. I can also understand someone going to a firing range. You don’t need assault weapons to engage in these activities.

While mental health is being tied into the recent gun debate, it is important that we recognize that a bunch of “normal” folk are involved with shootings as well. It should be noted that the vast majority of those with mental health issues do not resort to violence of the Sandy Hook sort. Of course, we have to address how we can support those who struggle with mental health issues. Of course, nobody wants a desperate and angry individual who is struggling with a severe mental health condition using weapons to lash out. We need to consider both gun control and mental health. Wasting time protecting antiquated stances only pushes some significant concerns further away from the solution.

Recently, Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the National Rifle Association (NRA) stated, “Look, a gun is a tool. The problem is the criminal.” He also asserted that Congress should set aside money to put a police officer (with a gun) in every school. LaPierre went on to say, “If it’s crazy to call for putting police in our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy.” Using the word crazy in conjunction with guns makes me a bit nervous. Maybe he should have used words like “zealous,” “intransient,” “out of touch” or “insensitive.”

If giving more people guns will solve the problem, why not provide more nations the opportunity to develop nuclear bombs? After all, aren’t bombs merely a tool? They can only be used when someone pushes a button. Imagine the slogan, “Bombs don’t kill people – people do.” Why not let every nation have nuclear weapons? How do you think those who are “without” feel about those “with?” Heck, I can remember the arms race between the U.S. and Russia. The logic of the time claimed that a balance of power was struck by each super power having a nuclear arsenal. In many ways the logic worked, so why not carry it on today?

Some might argue that a crazy leader might use the bomb. Well, there has only been one nation which has used a nuclear weapon against another nation and that’s the United States. Hey, before going further – of course I don’t want everyone to have nuclear weapons. I do, however, believe that eliminating cars would stop alcohol-related traffic fatalities. You’re foolin’ aren’t ya?

An argument often made by those protective of their right(s) to a gun is that they need them (weapons) to ensure that the government does not encroach upon one’s way of life. In fact, some train so that they will be prepared to overthrow the government if necessary.

Unfortunately for those who think this way, the government overtook us more than 200 years ago. A bunch of guys with some assault weapons are not going to take down the government. Groups with guns and takeover ideas don’t really fare well. Remember the Branch Davidians? In addition, check out Dorr’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion and that little thing known as the Civil War. If Robert E. Lee couldn’t get it done, I doubt a few guys with some assault weapons would either. Somehow, the government was able to withstand all of these threats. A bunch of shooters hiding in the woods might scare some of the locals – but the government would handle the situation quite easily. We shouldn’t fool ourselves.

So what the heck do we do about stopping tragedies like the one that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Obviously there are a lot of things to look at. A comprehensive approach that looks at gun control, mental health advocacy and our cultural norms is a beginning.

I would hope that the NRA would be able to see the difference between upholding 2nd Amendment rights and the need for assault weapons. While I might have some trepidation about having guns in a home (especially about where they are kept), an argument could be made for them serving as protection. I also understand the hunting and rifle range dynamics. Things go wrong when guns are hard to trace. Things go wrong when people gain access to assault weapons. Things go wrong when we don’t take measures to train, educate and monitor those who have guns. A uniformed system for tracking guns should be considered “at least” the equal of placing people in uniform in each school. As for arming teachers – WOW. Imagine the certification process. “Hello, my name is Mrs. Jones. I’m certified in math, science and shooting people.” Police officers go through years of training in order to carry a weapon. Being armed should mean so much more than hitting a bullseye from time to time. Perhaps we should look at this one a bit more closely.

The entire Newtown tragedy cannot be blamed on gun owners and the NRA. For certain, we must also look at mental health concerns along with our nation’s cultural dynamics, which promote violent images (like video games). However, let’s begin with reducing the amount of assault weapons we have in play. After that, it is imperative that a thorough examination is given to how we treat mental illness. This has been long overdue. For a myriad of reasons, far too many people are struggling to cope with today’s world. We need to find more supports. If not, things will probably get worse.

We are living at a time when folks can carry all kinds of weapons but are jailed for pot possession. In addition, former vice presidents can shoot their friends in the face (by mistake of course) and incur no penalty, while those combating substance abuse and mental health concerns are often imprisoned. I think we have some work to do. Happy New Year! This year, let’s pass some mental health, prison and gun reforms.

Bob Houghtaling heads the East Greenwich substance abuse programs.


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Bob, take a chill pill, you're starting to sound like Charlie Lawrence.

Thursday, January 24, 2013