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."