NRA push on mental health: Solution or diversion?

Georgia among 36 states embracing call to restore gun rights for mentally ill

One week after a horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the country’s top gun lobbyist called for an aggressive reaction – against people with mental illness.

“The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters,” Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president and chief executive of the National Rifle Association, said in a Dec. 21, 2012, speech. The threat, LaPierre said, comes from “people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.”

In the weeks afterward, LaPierre repeatedly cited a looming menace from people he called “lunatics” and “maniacs.” A nationwide database of mentally ill people, he said, would keep guns out of dangerous hands. He also suggested indicting the mentally ill, if necessary, to force them into psychiatric treatment.

At the same time, the NRA was waging a very different battle. It was pushing state legislatures, including Georgia’s, to ensure the right of gun ownership for a group normally excluded from firearms possession: the mentally ill.

The seemingly contradictory stances illustrates the fine line that faces the NRA and other gun-rights advocates: They feel compelled to offer solutions following mass shootings, while their reason for being is to promote and expand gun rights and gun ownership.

That has prompted critics to say that blaming people with mental illness is a diversionary tactic.

“They don’t want it to look like it’s the firearms,” said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, based in Washington. “They want to try to put the blame somewhere else.”

Spokesmen for the NRA did not respond to requests for interviews. But the organization has said that revocation of gun rights should rarely, if ever, be permanent.

The organization’s dual strategy apparently has been effective. After 20 children and six adults died at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, gun-control advocates and some public officials, including President Barack Obama, pushed for restrictions on so-called assault rifles and for background checks of all gun buyers.

But the NRA, which says it has 5 million individual members and receives major funding from the firearms industry, persuaded Congress to take up no gun-control measures. The national conversation on mass shootings quickly shifted to better mental health treatment, even though most mentally ill people never commit a violent act.

The NRA’s call for a nationwide registry of the mentally ill intensified after several particularly notorious episodes of mass violence: the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords; the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater assault in 2012; and the Newtown shooting.

Gun-control advocates, the NRA’s LaPierre contended, were missing the point.

“They’re not serious about fixing the mental health system,” he said in February 2013. “They’ve emptied the institutions, and every police officer knows dangerous people out there on the streets right now.”

“We have no national database of these lunatics,” LaPierre said a month later. “We have a completely cracked mentally ill system that’s got these monsters walking the streets.”

The NRA has never explained in detail how such a database might work — who would be listed and why, how their names might be added or deleted — or what its ramifications might be.

Meanwhile, the organization has fought state and federal efforts to clarify laws dealing with firearms and mental illness. In Colorado, the NRA helped defeat a proposal to study the link between psychiatric disorders and gun violence. The group also rallied its members against proposed federal regulations that would expand the existing ban on firearms for certain people with mental illness.

Federal law already prohibits a dozen classes of people from possessing a firearm. Along with undocumented immigrants and convicted felons, the list includes people judged to be mentally “defective,” as the law indelicately puts it. States are supposed to add names of people in each category to a database maintained by the FBI, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Licensed gun dealers are required to check that database before selling anyone a gun.

The FBI database contained about 12.6 million names at the end of October, federal reports show. About 3.7 million people, or 29 percent of the total, are listed because of mental health issues – a number that, because of improved state reporting, has tripled since 2012.

Despite the increases, LaPierre has argued that the FBI system is inadequate.

“Criminals won’t participate, and the records of the mentally ill will never be part of the check,” he said in 2013. “With all the … patient privacy issues, the monsters of Tucson, Aurora, Newtown – those names will never be in the system. And those killers really are crazy!”

Georgia’s secret process

In 2008, Congress gave states the authority to restore firearms rights. Since then, 36 states, including Georgia, have enacted NRA-backed measures to cover mentally ill people who lost those rights after being involuntarily committed for treatment.

Allowing people to regain firearms rights is “equally as important” as barring others from gun ownership, the NRA’s lobbying arm wrote last spring to state legislatures weighing the issue.

“States must understand that revocation of firearms privileges is not an action that should be taken lightly,” one letter, posted online, said. “For that reason, our proposed draft legislation includes a strong ‘restoration of rights’ provision. This provision will provide individuals who are state- and federally prohibited from possessing a firearm, due to a mental health issue, with a fair and expedient judicial process to seek restoration of their firearms rights.”

Georgia already allowed gun-rights restorations for people who had been involuntarily committed. But at the NRA’s urging, state lawmakers expanded that provision this year, as part of a larger gun-rights bill (known to supporters as the Georgia Safe Carry Protection Act and to detractors as the Guns Everywhere law).

Georgia assigns gun-rights cases involving mentally ill people to county probate judges, whose other duties include overseeing wills and issuing marriage licenses. Judges must evaluate medical records from psychiatric facilities and “the person’s reputation” before deciding whether public safety would be threatened if a former psychiatric patient carried a gun.

Under the law, the public has no way of knowing how many requests the judges receive, how many they approve, and who gets them.

The entire process is conducted in secret.

“Mental health does play a big role in some of these tragedies,” said Cook County Probate Judge L. Chase Daughtrey, president of the Georgia Council of Probate Judges. “Due diligence on the court’s part definitely is warranted.”

“We have to make sure we serve the public we’re elected to serve and protect that public at the same time.”

Weak link to violence

Gun-politics rhetoric aside, the link between mental illness and violent crime often is overstated.

In the medical journal Annals of Epidemiology, researchers reported this year on “a statistically significant but fairly modest positive association.” Citing a large nationwide survey, the article said almost 4 percent of people with serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, commit a violent act each year. Among people with no diagnosed psychiatric disorder, slightly less than 1 percent engages in violence.

Substance abuse is a greater predictor of violent behavior, especially when combined with mental illness, the researchers wrote. Even so, only about 10 percent of people with both psychiatric and alcohol or drug problems can be expected to commit a violent act against another person in a year’s time. They are far more likely to harm themselves.

The vast majority of mentally ill people pose no threat, the article’s lead author, Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University’s School of Medicine, said in an interview.

“Are they time bombs?” Swanson said. “They are not.”

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