December 16, 2012

My thoughts on gun control and mental illness.

Gun Control

The recent events in Newtown, CT, where 20 innocent elementary school children and six of their teachers were gunned down in cold blood by an obviously mentally ill assailant has once again sparked an understandable outrage over guns by the general populace. Many have had enough of this kind of thing and feel we need to introduce legislation to prevent it from happening again.

The issue of gun control is one that I have always had an internal struggle with. Even now, at age 27, I don't really have a good grasp on what I truly believe about the issue.

There are two schools of thought. Those who believe it should be illegal (or extremely difficult) to own a firearm and those who stand by the second amendment and believe it is our constitutional right to bear arms.

Many who know me know I tend to lean left on most social and political issues, but gun control is one that, if anything, I actually sit closer to the right on. One thing I do know for sure is that an outright ban on weapons is, for lack of better word, ridiculous. I don't know how anyone could seriously expect that this is within the realm of possibility in this country. I also don't know how anyone could possibly think it would be effective.

But there's one thing far right gun owners don't seem to understand either, and it's that gun control does not necessarily mean anyone wants to take your guns away. There's a difference between banning firearms and regulating firearms. We already have "gun control" in this country, it's why you can't go down to Walgreens and pick up an assault rifle. I think any reasonable gun enthusiast would agree there's probably room for additional measures.

So where does that leave us? As with most things: somewhere in the middle. And that's where I sit on the issue. As I said, I don't think a ban on weapons should even be considered. It's foolish. However, I do believe we could benefit from stricter regulations and background checks when purchasing a gun. There's no reason it needs to be "easy" or "convenient" to obtain a weapon. Certainly not if you or someone who may have access to the gun (like your adult son, for example) suffers from a known and identifiable mental illness.

On the flip side, one thing I whole wholeheartedly agree with is that if you make it too difficult (or impossible) for a law abiding citizen to obtain a firearm, you end up with a dangerous balance of criminals with illegal guns that they'll get one way or another and innocent, law abiding citizens who can't defend themselves if they need to. It's illegal to possess heroine and other controlled substances in this country, but we all know it's abundantly available. Criminals are called criminals for a reason, it's because they don't follow laws.

I don't really know what specific reforms to suggest. To be perfectly honest, I don't know the exact gun laws that exist in this country today. I think the firearm enthusiasts of this country should spend less time whining about Obama wanting to "take deyr gunz!" (Which is about as far from the truth as you can get) and more time offering potential solutions or explaining why the existing regulations we have today are sufficient.

Mental illness

Following a tragedy such as the one at Sandy Hook elementary school this past Friday, many gun advocates claim that mental illness has more to do with the problem than the availability of guns and suggest an overhaul to the way we identify and treat the mentally ill in this country. While I've yet to hear any specific suggestions on what we can do differently from these people, I think this idea has some merit. However, I also think we're a long way from being able to implement such policies effectively. Our scientific understanding of mental illness is still shaky at best and our ability to treat mental illness is notoriously ineffective.

What we could benefit from are more resources to close the gaps in our scientific understanding of psychosis and provide more funding to research in brain science. Simply throwing the mentally ill in institutions or loading them up with prescription drugs and sending them home is not the answer. We need to better understand the underlying reasons why people like Adam Lanza end up doing the things they do. As with any science, this is going to be a slow and steady work. No amount of policy change is going to help us solve the problem over night, but we could potentially help it progress faster.

How do we prevent mass shootings?

I don't know. You don't know. No one knows. Perhaps it's a bit pessimistic, but I don't hear many people consider the possibility that there simply isn't a solution to this problem. We all, understandably, want an easy answer (or any answer at all). We're all frustrated and tired of hearing and reading about crazed gunman taking innocent lives. But this is human nature. This is who we are. You can take away all the guns, you can treat all the mentally ill people in the world, and you're still going to read about massacres.

Humans are resourceful, we will always find a reason and a means to carry out such unthinkable acts. It's been this way since the dawn of human civilization, and it will be that way for the foreseeable future. The best we can hope to do is try to prevent this from happening where we can. But let's not take drastic measures like banning firearms just so we can say we've done something. Let's understand that this is a complicated, potentially unsolvable problem and make smart, calculated decisions.