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Leighton Woodhouse Headshot

Gun Control and Mental Illness

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Following last week's horrific massacre in Newtown, two enormous social problems have moved to the center of the public debate: lack of access to adequate mental health treatment, and the prevalence of guns in this country.

The focus on each is appropriate, given the toxic combination of the two that may have given rise to the atrocity, the same deadly mixture that was at work in Aurora, at Virginia Tech, in Oak Creek, Tucson, Columbine and far too many other places in recent years.

Both are not equal, however, when it comes to the causes of gun violence in America. The lack of treatment for mental illness in this country is a serious problem and it belongs at the center of the discussion around this plague of mass shootings that seems nowhere near its end. But to the extent that some are presenting it as a more fundamental issue than the prevalence of firearms in the larger context of American gun violence, they're losing sight of the forest for the trees. To be sure, serial mass shootings by severely deranged individuals are almost certainly a symptom of untreated mental illness in America. But the much vaster epidemic of day-to-day gun-related homicides is not. Most people who deliberately kill other people with guns are not mentally disturbed; they're driven by murderous but nevertheless rational or at least sane motivations. There's more than guns at play in these crimes, of course: there's poverty, lack of opportunity, a culture of violence, our perverted sense of masculinity. But easy access to guns ranks far higher on the list of factors in most gun murders than the dearth of mental health treatment.

That's not to say that mental health isn't a fundamentally important problem, and addressing it may in fact do more to prevent these horrific mass shootings than gun control. But it is to say that gun control would have a far greater impact on stemming the everyday epidemic of gun violence that occurs in cities all over America, which, after all, accounts for the overwhelming majority of gun-related murders. The focus on mental health is critical, but we should not let it crowd out the imperative of more restrictive regulations on guns.

As things currently stand, our legislative record is pathetic on both counts. At the root of the failure in both cases is the ascendancy of libertarianism in our political culture: the obsession with a narrowly conceived notion of "individual freedom" that has engendered the widespread fetishization of the Second Amendment, and the recklessly tenacious conservative commitment to de-funding the social safety net even for those who are psychologically and emotionally incapable of functioning in society without it.

It's encouraging to see the tide finally turning on gun regulation, with pro-gun rights lawmakers beginning to change their tune and pro-gun control legislators finding the courage to introduce new legislation. It was only a month ago that Republicans tried to attach an amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill that would have prevented the Department of Veterans Affairs from sharing names of veterans who have been deemed mentally incompetent with the FBI for the purpose of factoring them into background checks on firearms acquisitions. In other words, the Republicans wanted to make it easier for mentally unstable people to purchase guns -- at least when those people are military veterans. The bill that the amendment was based on, it's worth noting, is also co-sponsored by two Democrats: the swaggering Senators Jim Webb of Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana.

Hopefully, in the wake of Sandy Hook, such regressive measures are dead forever, or at least for the foreseeable future. On Sunday, 31 pro-gun Senators turned down invitations to appear on Meet The Press to recite their talking points on the Second Amendment. If now is not the time to pass legislation tightening regulations on guns, there will likely be no such time.

As our bloody recent history has shown, though, America has a short attention span. Before the new Congress takes its seats, the NRA could have its Facebook page back up again, and we could be back to arguing over protecting the freedom of Americans to own guns instead of the freedom to drop our kids off at school without fearing they'll find themselves in the middle of a shooting rampage or in the crossfire of a gun fight. If that happens, we will have to put another intractable social problem at the very top of the list of causes of epidemic gun violence in America: the total, utter failure of our political leadership to look beyond ideology and special interest lobbying even for a purpose as basic as protecting the lives of children.

Let's hope that day does not arrive.

Leighton blogs at Dog Park Media.