The big winners in the effort to reduce gun violence are shaping up to be mental health advocates. Not only is Gov. Scott Walker willing to pump $30 million into boosting mental health services in Wisconsin, in other states Democrats and Republicans alike are calling for similar measures. Mental health funding is also a key component of President Barack Obama’s gun control initiative.

Advocates are positively giddy over the new focus on mental health.

"We're ecstatic," Shel Gross, director of public policy for Mental Health America of Wisconsin and chairman of the Wisconsin Council on Mental Health, was quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal as saying after Walker announced the funding. "One of my colleagues who works in children's services was in tears. These are things we've been working on for years."

But Scott Bryant-Comstock, president of the Children’s Mental Health Network, says wait a minute. There's a downside.

“There’s a new stigma in town: guns + mental illness = violence,” he writes on the group’s website. “And it should break the hearts of advocates nationwide.”

The effort to paint America's gun violence as a mental health issue was on full display when Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association, called for putting mental health records into the national background check database, while rejecting any suggestions of expanded background checks or gun restrictions. 

The focus on mental illness could have a number of unforeseen effects, critics say, from stigmatizing mental illness to the point where those in need will avoid seeking help, to overzealousness in categorizing those with emotional problems as potentially violent. 

Bryant-Comstock says the tendency to boil complex problems down to the sound bite is in full play here.

“The popular press is doing a wonderful job of lumping it all together so that suddenly anyone with a mental health challenge is a suspect for violence,” he writes.

Among Bryant-Comstock’s worries is that the knee-jerk emphasis on mentally ill people will lead to an uptick of admissions of those feared to be violent just by virtue of mental illness to psychiatric hospital beds and residential programs, when community-based programs are more appropriate.

"You know what I fear most?" he writes. "A lot of bluster about improving mental health services which will result in increased psychiatric hospital beds and residential programs — not that those services don't have their place — they do. But we have learned so much over the past 20 years about a community approach to serving youth with mental health challenges and their families. Why are we not hearing more about those approaches in the popular press?"

Jeri Bonavia, director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE), calls the focus on mental health "a mistake."

"We know that there are some problems with getting mental health records into the background check system, and I think that needs to be addressed," she says. "But it can’t be that we turn our attention just to mental health issues related to gun violence because people suffering from mental illness make up a very small percentage of the perpetrators of gun violence."

But in Wisconsin, mental health funding is all that Republicans, who run all levels of government, are talking about when it comes to gun control. In Washington, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed a $1.4 billion plan to require certain mental health facilities to expand services and access.

That despite the fact that few of those who have perpetrated mass shootings have been diagnosed with any mental illness. Adam Lanza, who shot 20 children and six adults in the Dec. 14 Newtown, Conn., shootings, had no known history of mental illness. Nor did Wade Michael Page, who killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., last August. James Holmes, who killed 12 people and wounded 58 at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last July, had been treated for mental illness, but that didn't bar him from purchasing a gun.

Meanwhile, the proposal most Americans see as the most sensible route, universal background checks, faces an uncertain fate as congressional Republicans and Democrats alike fear being painted as anti-gun. 

A poll this week by Quinnipiac University shows that more than 90 percent of American voters support background checks for all gun buyers, which would close the so-called gun show loophole. And that's where Bonavia says Wisconsin should be focusing its effort. Her group is currently in the midst of a petition drive to urge Walker to propose background checks. 

Currently only seven states require a background check for all gun purchases. Four other states require background checks at gun shows for handguns only.

In 33 states there are no requirements for background checks for purchases from private dealers at gun shows, which means that people who can’t pass a background check can still buy guns.

Even former Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan says he wants to close the gun show loophole. But the NRA, which is used to getting its way, calls that the first step to a national firearms registry.

And LaPierre, the NRA’s chief executive officer, called background checks a fraud.

“It’s never going to be universal,” he told Fox News on Feb. 3. The criminals aren’t going to comply with it.”

Let's not forget that LaPierre made a point of marrying gun violence and mental illness in the wake of the Newtown shootings.

"The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them," LaPierre after the shootings. "They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn't planning his attack on a school he's already identified at this very moment?"

Bryant-Comstock isn't alone in his concern about equating mental illness with violence. The American Psychiatric Association blasted LaPierre's characterization of mentally ill violent offenders as "lunatics" and "monsters."

"Only 4 to 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness," Dilip Jeste, the president of the APA, says in a statement. "About one quarter of all Americans have a mental disorder in any given year, and only a very small percentage of them will ever commit violent crimes."

Adds the association's CEO, James Scully:

"This is simply a relic of the past and has no place in our public dialogue. People who are clearly not mentally ill commit violent crimes and perform terrible acts every day. Unfortunately, Mr. LaPierre's statements serve only to increase the stigma around mental illness and further the misconception that those with mental disorders are likely to be dangerous."

Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.

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(16) comments

patricko

"But in Wisconsin, mental health funding is all that Republicans, who run all levels of government, are talking about when it comes to gun control."

And that is the real problem as Mr Elbow sees it. Because the issue for him is not about how to best reduce gun violence, it is about how to turn this conversation back to restricting gun sales and enacting new gun control laws. Just look at the above statement. It should read that "mental health funding is all that Republicans...are talking about when it comes to preventing gun violence."

shelgross

Mr. Bryant-Comstock is correct that there is a danger that proposals to address mental illness in response to Newtown and other tragedies can reinforce an inappropriate correlation between mental illness and violence. But I trust he is not suggesting that mental health advocates should refuse to accept much needed funds for these services. While stigma is a huge concern in the mental health arena the literature is clear that the best way to combat stigma is for people to have personal contact with individuals who have mental illnesses who do not conform to their stereotypes. So, for instance, if they have been working with someone for a while, get to know them, respect them and like them and then learn they have a mental illness they are more likely to change their beliefs and attitudes.

So it is critical thal we expand treatment services so that more individuals with mental illnesses have the opportunity to live and work in the community and by their presence change these attitudes. Mr. Bryant-Comstock is also correct that the best services are community-based services, which is why we in Wisconsin are especially pleased that this is exactly what Governor Walker has proposed. There may be some confusion because some funds are for forensic patients; but these funds are to reduce waiting lists for evaluation of individuals who have entered the criminal justice system so that treatment needs can be identified and addressed more quickly. They are not to create new beds to commit individuals for treatment.

bosco

So because someone who has mental issues should not bear the stigma of such we should not worry about guns + mental illness = violence? What should it equal? The goal should be further keeping guns from people with mental issues. Then we can decide what the next step is.

jackzav
jackzav

Soooo, does this mean Walker should apologize for trying to treat a cause rather than a symptom? If this man said we needed more sunshine, you liberal fools would cheer for clouds. How anyone can cast negativity on this initiative is beyond logic.

human

Loughner, Lanza and Holmes may have been "crazy," but there are lots of "crazy" people in this country who are basically harmless, and there is no reliable way to distinguish the dangerous ones from the harmless ones.

Are we going to lock up everybody who seems a bit weird? Even if this does prevent some mass shootings, it intrudes on a lot of people's freedom -- weird people have rights, too, you know. It doesn't make sense to do this to protect "our" freedom to own assault rifles and extra-large magazines.

happydays

Didn't Bush have a mental health bill after a past shooting that never went anywhere? I think it is basically the same one Obama is putting up now under his name???

Madravenspeak

Australia had the same problem in the 1990's - a plethora of serial killings. It culminated in 1996 with the Port Arthur massacre in which 35 mostly tourists were killed and 22 injured. TWELVE DAYS LATER, Australia banned semi-automatics and the equivalent of the AR-15 and large magazine clips - BUT they also bought back 650,000 guns. They have not had a serial killing since. Similar macho gun oriented wildlife killing country - but they took appropriate action to end gun violence and it worked.

I have heard nothing about doing a buy back. That is key. Get the guns off the streets and out of circulation. Period. The days of NRA power have to finished by an aware and ACTIVE public citizenry. Enough with the intimidation and entitlement of gun nuts. As one of the Newtown citizens who had a child murdered said, "The second amendment does not trump my child's right to life". Nor does it trump the citizen right to peace and get rid of the intimidation factor.

At the hearings on introducing trapping and hunting into the last 1% of publicly purchased land not taken over by the 10% who just cannot be men without serial killing wildlife - our state parks - Representative Mursa who introduced the amendment to corrupt our state parks with hunting and trapping, said to the 68 people who showed up to speak out against trapping and killing in state parks "WE have a constitutional right to kill wildlife...you do not have a constitutional right to peace and quiet." ORGANIZE WITH US to get your fair citizen rights because special interests control the legislatures by threatening them that they will not be re-elected without supporting gun violence and the NRA and killing minority - because they are ORGANIZED. To help wildlife and get just say in your public lands, join us at wwww.wiwildlifeethic.org

JohnWIS

Move to Australia.

Using our tax dollars to buy our guns back. Yeah. That real sane of you.

The 2nd Am. allows all of us to protect ourselves, our families, our neighbors and their children......from criminals, and tyrants...and people like you. If you are that intimidated by a gun...go down to the local gun shop, and buy one. You won't be so intimidated.

Serial killing wildlife? Really? Get a grip on your life, and what is rambling around in your head.

DriveThru
DriveThru

As usual, the incompetent republicans would rather smear people than reduce the profits of their corporate masters and solve gun violence. I definitely do not feel safer knowing that mindless republican ideologues run every branch of state government. Business as usual.

JohnWIS

Go deal with the gangs...and tell them to stop dealin', pimpin', hookin'.

Tell the thieves, rapists, murderers, child molestors to quit doing what they are doing.

LiveForward
LiveForward

Mental health parity was a great step in moving mental health to the place we need it to be. We need to take more steps and keep moving mental health care forward. Let's get going with one voice fellow Wisconsinites...living forward takes all types of care. Mental health care needs to be part of this equation.

LaPierre didn't "marry" gun violence and mental health. It is already married....he just mentioned it. It is definitely one of the key issues in this debate and it is one that we can actually provide some fixes for. We can and should do more to ID people who are having issues and who shouldn't have access to guns. The rest of us should not have more limits. We aren't the problem, so limiting us won't solve or prevent Anything.

bananahammock

"But in Wisconsin, mental health funding is all that Republicans, who run all levels of government,"
Poor journalism. Easy to say 'hold the majority' rather than this remark but your choice of words helps your agenda doesn't it?

We're too soft on crime and until someone shows strong proof of guns being destroyed on buy back programs it's hard not to believe they aren't being filtered back to the streets through bulk sales by the municipalities who collected them to raise funds for the feel good program. Problem is they just ship the weapons out of town and put the problem in someone else's hands.

toobad

When will we hold Big Pharma accountable instead of blaming innocent law abiding gun owners. When will the government controlled media report on what drugs these murderers were on to supposedly "treat" their mental health issues.

Nav

Mental health is but one component of the gun violence problem we have in this country. There are, of course, other components that need equal attention. I, for one, applaud Governor Walker for pumping $30 million into boosting mental health services in Wisconsin. It is a good start but we cannot now be complacent that the problem is "solved". After all, as the article pointed out, very few of gun related deaths were committed by people who had mental illness. But anything that reduces the chances of innocent people getting killed is something I will support.

Tpartywarrior
Tpartywarrior

Jared Laughner, Adam Lanza, the Aurora Movie theater shooter, were all crazy. If these nutjobs didn't do their dastardly deeds, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. Blaming the gun is like blaming the fork for making Michael Moore fat, like blaming the spoon for making Rosie O'Donnell obese.

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