Bill dealing with guns, mental health should be brought back

September 24, 2013

As a boy, I watched old B movies about Hercules, the great mythological hero. Even as a 7-year-old I realized they were pretty cheesy, but I enjoyed the stories, especially Hercules’s battle with Antaeus.

Antaeus, the son of Gaia, the goddess of the Earth, appeared invincible. As long as he was touching his Mother Earth, throwing him down only made him stronger.

How to defeat such a foe? Hercules solved the problem by picking him up off the ground and crushing him.

The NRA is a little like Antaeus. After the massacre of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., it briefly appeared vulnerable. The wave of revulsion following the mass murder appeared strong enough to sweep aside objections to gun safety legislation.

But the NRA only came back stronger. For gun lobbyists, a mass shooting is good for business. It helps them raise money. National gun legislation was defeated; in Colorado, two state senators who backed universal background checks were recalled.

Last Monday we had another mass shooting; 12 people were murdered at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. Unlike past tragedies, the reaction was muted. On Capitol Hill, legislators who earlier this year pushed various gun bills bluntly said they had no intention of bringing them back. At a memorial service, President Obama said change wasn’t going to come from Washington, but from Americans themselves.

This may be for the better. Emotional appeals haven’t worked. It’s time to focus on what can be accomplished.

In the case of the Navy Yard shooter, for example, it’s largely a mental health issue. Despite Aaron Alexis’s erratic and violent behavior, he wasn’t treated. (Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, formerly a practicing psychiatrist, said that 35 years ago he would have treated a man with the shooter’s symptoms, committing him involuntarily, if necessary.)

The mental health issue was behind one of the gun safety bills that failed earlier this year in Delaware, H.B. 88. The bill was designed to keep guns out of the hands of “dangerous people,” according to the synopsis. It passed the House 40-1, only to lose in the Senate 13-6.

Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton, said, “The one bill that would have helped with school safety was H.B. 88.” But concern for school safety wasn’t enough to get the bill passed by the Senate.

“When we passed that in the House, it triggered some opposition,” Smyk said. “They came out in a very loud voice, and they were heard.”

Smyk considers the defeat as a result of a misunderstanding. The bill, he said, was not as intrusive as the opposition thought. He said some people confused the confidentiality of an attorney-client relationship with that of a doctor and patient.

But the doctor has to consider not only the patient’s safety, but the safety of others.

People, Smyk said, “are not always in control of their mental health. There are times in your life that you could use some help. Those are the times when a doctor should say … Things aren’t going real well for you. Why don’t you let someone hold your guns?”

One provision of the bill would have required mental health professionals to report dangerous people to law enforcement. Another provision would have prohibited people subject to a Protection From Abuse order from having guns.

The bill, Smyk said, would have allowed the state to “flag an individual during a difficult time in their life.” And to take that flag away when that difficult time has passed.

Despite the fairly lopsided vote in the Senate, Smyk thinks the bill may still be brought back.

The other problem, though, is identifying people who need to be flagged in the first place. That was certainly the case with the Navy Yard shooter.

The recurring phrase about Alexis is that he “fell through the cracks.” Considering his mental health issues, his attempts to get help, and his repeated acts of violence, it might be more accurate to say he fell through the gaping sinkholes.

(Maybe Americans shouldn’t be too worried about the NSA listening in on their private conversations. Alexis had several incidents that should have served as red flags and still passed a security background check.)

We face the same problem identifying people in Delaware. According to Smyk, the mental health industry lacks sufficient resources to fill the need. Smyk had much else to say about his first session. Next week’s column will deal with other issues.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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