Gun violence: the relationship between gun regulations and mental health care

Mollie Cramer, Co-A&E Editor

John Houser, the man who shot multiple people in Louisiana, was described by family as having a “volatile mental state” and was committed to a mental health treatment center in 2008, according to the New York Daily News. He had also been in a number of legal altercations. However, Houser was able to legally buy a gun. On July 23, he then used that gun to kill two people and wound nine others.

The New York Times reports that more Americans have died from gun violence in the United States since 1968 than on the battlefields of all the wars in American history. Is the reason for this loose gun regulations, the mental health care system, or a combination of them both?

Mother Jones Magazine found in their 2012 study that 38 of the 61 mass shooters in the past 30 years suffered from mental illnesses. According to Thomas McInerny, M.D., immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the percentage of children with mental illnesses has risen to 20 percent as of 2014.

“In so many of these instances it has been found that the perpetrators did have significant mental health problems, and there’s a hope and a belief that if they were treated appropriately, they would not have performed the [criminal] acts,” McInerny said.

The theory that appropriate treatment could have stopped these mass shootings was shown in the Virginia Tech shooting. Seung-Hui Cho had a history of mental illness but purchased guns through two licensed dealers after going through two background checks. On April 16, 2007 he shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech.

McInerny claims that an insufficient mental health care system is at fault. There are two major sources of mental health support. One is Medicaid, a federally-funded program, and the other is the State General Fund. This money goes towards psychiatric hospitals, pharmaceutical finances, and other programs.

According to Sita Diehl, director of state policy and advocacy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, from 2007-2009 the amount of people served by the state mental health authority in Virginia decreased from 121,696 to 104,074 due to budget cuts. Virginia’s mental health care budget then decreased $37 million between 2009 and 2012. Cho’s attack came at a point of budget cuts in the mental health care system.

Illinois also cut its budget during this time. From 2009-2011 Illinois’ mental health care budget decreased by 15 percent. According to Social Worker David Hartman, the budget causes an impact. However, Hartman feels that GBS has kept mental health support as a priority.

“We have marketed the Titan anonymous concern hotline, we have groups like Erika’s Lighthouse…we have health class presentations,” Hartman said. “So we do have a lot of systems in place to provide support.”

In an Oracle-conducted survey of 148 students, 78 percent said that they felt the United States should have tighter gun regulations. One of those students, freshman Sofia Pedrelli, said that she thinks people would feel safer with tighter gun regulations in place.

“We see here in Chicago that there’s a lot of gun violence,” Pedrelli said. “I feel like people can get their hands on weapons easily right now, and that needs to be stopped.”

Federal law requires licensed gun dealers to request a background check on their buyers. However, the law does not require states to submit mental health records to the FBI department responsible for these background checks, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Wayne LaPierre, National Rifle Association CEO, said in a 2013 USA Today article, “We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed…twenty-threestates are still putting only a small number of records into the system, and a lot of states are putting none.”

According to a gun violence report done by Daniel Webster, Sc.D, and Jon Vernick J.D., Connecticut sent in 3,062 mental health records to the NICS in 2007. In 2013, that number increased to 14,000. reported that Virginia started actively sending in mental health records after the Virginia Tech shooting, and in a three-year period, these records resulted in 438 denials of gun purchases.

If the answer to the problem isn’t through restricting gun access, then it might be diagnosing individuals with mental illness early. According to Diehl, Early Periodic screening diagnostic and treatment (EPSDT) is a program that holds a lot of potential for the mental health care system. It’s a program that aims to determine the mental status of children enrolled in the Medicaid program through a series of questions. Diehl says, that as of today, only Medicaid members receive this program, but the AAP recommends that all children receive this program.

“We have found from research that if we can identify mental illness early and deliver services early, then we can really nip it in the bud,” Diehl said.

According to McInerny, early identification is imperative. However, once a mental illness has been identified, sometimes the child still doesn’t receive the care he or she needs from the mental health system.

McInerny commented that the expense for mental health treatment has risen dramatically over the past 10 years. However, the budget has been steadily decreasing until recently.

“Most people with mental health problems are not a danger to themselves or others…It’s only a very small percentage of people with mental health problems who perform these terrible acts of violence, and for those people there’s one of two things that could have happened,” McInerny said. “One is the seriousness of their mental illness was not recognized at all, or it was recognized, but the treatment was not adequate.”

According to Diehl, the budget cuts that occurred mainly between 2007-2012 were a result of the recession. However, starting from 2012, states have been increasing the budget, though it’s not as much as it was before 2007.

McInerny suggests that in order to decrease gun violence, there needs to be a focus on mental health care alongside gun regulations.

“One would hope that if the system is working and if those individuals who have significant mental health problems got appropriate and effective care then they would be much less inclined to go out and commit those massacres,” McInerny said.