Mental Illness & Gun Control: An Unconfirmed Diagnosis

Today’s editorial on mental illness and gun control comes from ESL teacher and freelance writer Dara K. Fulton. She writes for Examiner.com  and attends University of California’s School of Social Work. Read more of Dara’s work at Dara’s Creative Corner.

The shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT will stay with us for years to come. The events of that day have left a permanent impression on our minds and in our hearts. Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother, as well as 20 children and six adults. He later killed himself. These events have sparked debate on gun control and people with mental illness. Some speculate if Lanza was mentally ill and whether that triggered him to kill. Unfortunately, we will never know.

“We can’t tolerate this anymore,” President Obama said at a press conference following the shooting, and I agree that we, as a society, can’t allow guns to fall into the wrong hands. However, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has defended the Second Amendment right to bear arms despite heated debates from opponents who want stricter gun laws, with discussions of mental healthcare not far from the debate.

Many questions are asked when a tragedy like Sandy Hook Elementary occurs: How could have this been prevented? Should guns be banned? Is mental illness the reason behind such killings, or is it pure evil? There are no simple answers. For starters, no one can fully prevent a tragedy from happening unless there are signs indicating such. Then there’s the how in determining whether or not someone is capable of committing a crime. If it’s our Second Amendment right to bear arms, should we penalize those who own guns? Is it fair to blame the NRA and its supporters for the actions of some? Mental illness is a delicate topic and is something that needs to be fully assessed. Due to privacy laws, a person’s mental health records cannot be disclosed. Just like it’s a right to own a gun, it’s also a right to protect the confidentiality of a person’s medical record.

Following this school shooting, the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) sent letters to President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden urging them to discuss the issues surrounding mental illness. In a letter addressed to President Obama, NAMI Executive Director Michael Fitzpatrick expressed a need for early identification and intervention of mental illness, implementing mental health training for school personnel, law enforcement, communities and families, as well as having more trained mental health professionals.

People living with mental illness are often stigmatized. They are considered “abnormal” and “different” in a negative sense. When tragedies like mass shootings happen, mental illness is usually the first assumption of why it happened. In Adam Lanza’s case, many speculated that he had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. In the news, those who knew Lanza said he was quiet and kept to himself. Does this prove that Lanza had an intention to kill? Is it fair to stigmatize him as being mentally unstable solely based on his actions? Many would agree that he was irrational, even evil, to kill innocent children. No matter what the reason was behind the shootings, it was horrific.

I am not condoning what Adam Lanza did, and my thoughts are with the victims. This is something no one should ever have to experience. However, there needs to be more awareness of how we might know the signs of mental illness. We need more mental health training to avoid stigma and fear.  We can’t shy away from it because people with mental illness are still people too. Having stricter gun laws can help prevent one from having easy access to guns. However, it won’t determine whether someone who owns a gun will actually commit a crime. It’s fair to say that gun control versus mental illness will be a debate for years to come. With awareness, prevention, and assessment on both of these issues, it can help stop these tragedies from happening again.