BY DIANE DIMOND
In a study just presented to Congress, the Congressional Research Service concludes, “The estimated total number of firearms available to civilians in the United States (is) approximately 310 million: 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns.” Think about that. That translates to about one firearm for every man, woman and child in America. Mindboggling.
To my mind, however, it is not about the numbers so much as it is about the mental health of the person using the gun. Now, hold that thought a moment.
Millions of words have been written about the horrific tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Many of the stories contain a call for more gun laws. Keep in mind the guns that the 20-year-old killer used were legally purchased by his mother in a state that has some of the toughest gun control-laws in the country.
To be certain, America should explore more restrictive laws on where guns are sold and what type of guns are available, more uniform background checks and how bulk ammunition is purchased. But to limit the national discussion to passing more laws is a foolish mistake.
We must have a serious dialogue about mental health services and what has been afforded — or not afforded — to those who have caused such unspeakable carnage. Experts may argue, but I believe anyone who takes guns into a school, a mall, a movie theater or any other public place and opens fire must be, by that very act, mentally sick.
Mother Jones Magazine reports these killing sprees are on the rise. Over the last 30 years, America suffered through some 62 incidents of mass murder by firearms. There were three last year resulting in a total of 40 people injured or killed. This year, there have been seven mass shootings with a shocking 138 victims. Something is radically wrong.
However, let’s be honest. The vast majority of gun owners in America act very responsibly. They keep their firearms safe and use them only for sport, hunting or their constitutionally protected right to defend themselves and their families. Since the right to bear arms is included in the very fabric of our country, there is no way some 300 million guns are simply going to disappear.
So, what do we do to try to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill? Well, first, when a person is declared mentally ill, the court must immediately place the name on a mandatory do-not-sell gun registry.
Families burdened by an unstable family member must not keep guns in the house — period. And by no means should a family follow the lead of the late killer’s mother and take the mentally disturbed relative (in her case, her son) to the shooting range as a way of spending family time together.
Next, we have to realize that what was trendy in the ’60s and ’70s doesn’t work now. We shut down psychiatric hospitals and deinstitutionalized patients by sending them out into the world with a prescription and a prayer. It didn’t take long to see that community-based treatment wasn’t feasible. Today, there are simply not enough psychiatric beds in hospitals or specialized clinics to keep up with the demand.
The result of our past action can be seen sleeping in tattered clothing on street corners and aimlessly pushing shopping carts along alleyways. Worse yet, we systematically toss the mentally deranged into prisons, where treatment options are nil.
Perhaps most important, we have to set up a new system to help the ever-growing number of desperate families looking for treatment for their troubled children. Ever since the elementary school shooting there have been a number of heart-wrenching personal essays published from parents of disturbed children with absolutely nowhere to go.
Make no mistake, today’s troubled kid could be tomorrow’s next mass murderer. No sane person does what the Sandy Hook killer did. If helping the mentally ill isn’t a priority now, then when?
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net.