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Robert David Jaffee

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Guns and Mental Illness: A Toxic Combination

Posted: 07/07/11 04:53 PM ET

Continuing its new and improved coverage of mental health, the New York Times ran yet another front-page article on the subject, the third in the past few weeks, headlined, "Mixing Guns and Mental Illness." This follows the recent profile of Dr. Marsha Linehan, a practicing psychologist who has overcome a onetime diagnosis of schizophrenia. While I have been critical of the Times in the past, the paper of record seems to be revamping its approach to writing about those with severe mental illness.

The latest piece, a well-researched opus by Michael Luo, documents the frightening ease with which people who have been involuntarily hospitalized in psychiatric wards can obtain weapons. In some cases, the individual in question had been released from a hospital only a few months before a judge allowed him access to guns.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, in which Seung-hui Cho murdered 32 people on campus, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy sponsored a bill, whose intent was to tighten restrictions on gun ownership by the severely mentally ill. The bill called for states to report mental-health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, administered by the FBI.

Yet the sad truth, as Luo demonstrates in his article, is that the federal law and the subsequent gun restoration laws, passed or updated by 23 states, are "toothless." The federal law fell prey to the influence of the NRA, which insisted on "a broad provision" allowing the severely mentally ill to petition for restoration of their gun rights. Likewise, due to the lobbying power of the NRA, many of the state laws have ambiguous or weak standards of enforcement.

That may explain how Jared Loughner, who allegedly killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson this January, was able to purchase his weapons despite a criminal history and a forced withdrawal from a community college, which demanded that he receive a mental-health clearance if he wished to return.

Luo points out in the piece that "privacy laws, technological challenges and inattention from state officials" have hampered the effectiveness of the state and federal legislation. But legislation has also been hampered by poor judgment from jurists, who have sometimes required only a supportive letter from a general practitioner, not even a psychiatrist, before reinstating a petitioner's rights to gun ownership. Some of the doctors appear to have had a vested interest in doing what their patients asked of them.

Tragedies have often ensued, including the suicide of Ryan Anthony, a former animator at Disney, and a violent assault by Afshin Poordavoud, two of the people Luo discusses in the article.

I appreciated the balanced tone in the piece, which indicated that "Most people with mental health issues, of course, will never be violent." At the same time, I also agree with the findings of the scientific community that those with severe mental illness may present an increased risk for violence, even one that is "statistically significant," as Luo notes.

As I have written many times before, I have never been a threat to anyone but myself. At my most psychotic moment in January of 1999, I thought that I would be framed for a series of murders like those committed by Andrew Cunanan, who killed designer Gianni Versace, among other victims, in 1997. My then-girlfriend, Barbara, who is now my wife, tried to prevent me from fleeing her apartment. She held on to me so tightly that I feared she had been trained by the CIA.

Never did I strike or shove her. I simply pulled away from her and went off on a harrowing trek across L.A. County.

When I got to the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, I was hospitalized involuntarily and deemed to be a threat to myself and others, because I felt I might have to defend myself from would-be assassins. As I have noted previously, I stabilized after getting back on my meds and roughly 72 hours later was discharged from the hospital.

Ten years after that episode, in 2009, I volunteered in an Israeli Army boot camp. In preparation for it, I did go to a shooting range two times. I rented a gun on one occasion, and I used my friend's gun on another.

I do not own a firearm, and I do not intend to buy one. Though I have never been violent, I should be barred from owning a gun. It defies logic to permit someone with severe mental illness, especially one who has a history of violence or was recently discharged from the hospital, to possess a firearm.

That is because if that person becomes deeply psychotic, he may feel erroneously, as I did years ago, that he needs to defend himself. In such a case, mayhem may result.

While I understand the frustration, even humiliation, that comes from losing one's rights (I was denied the right to call an attorney on my first day in the psych ward in 1999) I believe that legislators at the state and federal level need to show political courage by writing stronger laws that will prevent those with severe mental illness from owning weapons. That is the only policy that preserves our safety and makes sense.