Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013 | 2:02 a.m.
President Barack Obama’s initiative to curb violence in America continues to be at the center of a fractious debate in Congress, one punctuated by the daily toll taken by guns in America.
At this writing, a massive manhunt is under way for a shooter in California. And that news comes on the heels of the Newtown tragedy, in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School, opened fire and killed six women and 20 first-graders.
Those cases fall into a long string of high-profile gun violence cases that have rocked communities in Colorado, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Washington, Georgia, Illinois and Texas. A just-released survey provides the details about 43 mass shootings in 25 states — saying the shootings have occurred at an average of one per month. And past studies tell us that many mass shooters suffer from severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, psychosis and other problems.
Obama’s plan, which includes a ban on assault weapons and addresses a number of mental health items, deserves our strong support. Here’s why: As the president’s plan correctly notes, we must not only tackle gun control but also fix deficiencies in the U.S. mental health system. Those gaps can leave many people with serious mental illness and family members without an easy way to get the treatment and support to help avert catastrophes.
An estimated 7 million people in the United States suffer from severe mental illness, and only half get the treatment they need to remain stable. The remainder regularly experience disruptive symptoms that can, if left untreated, lead to a string of failures, and in some cases, violence. What’s a miracle is that most of these individuals continue to cope with these symptoms and never commit a violent act.
Yet, there’s no question that we must find better ways of zeroing in on people who are prone to violence — before they reach a crisis. Obama’s plan calls on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to start researching gun violence, and such efforts must include more detailed profiles of people likely to commit violent acts.
Once they are identified, the United States needs to remove a host of legal, financial and social barriers and develop more effective ways of treating these individuals.
In the 1950s, the United States started to close down many state psychiatric hospitals, and from a high of more than 500,000 such beds, we are now down to just 43,000. That shortage of inpatient psychiatric care means that even if Lanza’s mother had tried to get him committed, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find a bed in a psychiatric treatment center.
The president also called on the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to initiate a national dialogue on mental health. That’s a series of talks that the nation urgently needs to undertake to remove the shroud of silence that blankets mental illness, which affects an estimated 57.7 million people in the United States today.
Obama announced his plan last month as children and family members from Newtown looked on, and he noted in that press conference that an estimated 900 Americans were gunned down in the month since the Sandy Hook shooting. They joined a list of more than 300,000 people who have lost their lives as a result of gun violence in the past decade. At the same time, we know that Americans own about 310 million guns — everything from handguns to the Bushmaster rifle that Lanza used in the deadly attack at Sandy Hook.
Lawmakers in Washington now have the tough job of considering not only the president’s plan but all of the complex factors that go into the epidemic of gun violence in this country. The nation cannot fix every aspect of this public health issue overnight, but we can and must continue step by step until we have put in place solutions that will safeguard all of us — from the 6-year-old in Anchorage, Alaska, to the 85-year-old in Miami and people living in every neighborhood in between.
Lynn Goldman is dean of the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, and Jeffrey Akman is dean of the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences.