Lawmakers are wrestling with keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but in doing so they walk a fine line between public safety and gun control.
Measures have been taken by members of Congress to prevent mass gun violence by preventing the mentally ill from purchasing guns and increasing police training on how to handle mental health crises.
Recently, new bills have come forth to reexamine current gun laws and the mental health aspect of current background checks used for prospective gun owners – but don’t call these bills gun control restrictions.
Although these efforts deal with guns and who gets to use them, Congress has had little success moving forward with gun control reform, so representatives are focusing instead on mental health reform and improving background checks.
“It’s not about what’s in their hand; it’s about what’s in their mind,” Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), a practicing psychologist and chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations said during a recent interview in the Washington Post.
“If guns caused mental illness, then we would treat that; mental illness needs to be treated, and it is not,” Murphy said.
Recent tragedies involving mentally ill offenders, like the Isla Vista shooting in California and previous mass shooting incidents in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut have signaled red flags to lawmakers that mental and behavioral issues of the people behind these tragedies desperately need to be addressed.
Under current federal statute, people with mental illnesses are only prevented from buying guns if they have been involuntarily institutionalized or if they have been deemed as mentally ill by a judge, The Hill reports.
This statute is too vague to keep many mentally ill people from buying guns, including the Isla Vista gunman Elliot Rodger, 22, who had a history of mental illness, but didn’t meet the criteria to warrant an involuntary hold (which would have deemed him unfit to buy a gun) by authorities despite alerts to police made by Rodger’s parents, the Hill reports.
Representative David Cicilline (D-R.I.) has proposed a bill that will add another preventative step to the gun purchasing process to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill. Cicilline’s legislation would prevent those who have been determined by a mental health professional to cause harm to themselves or others from purchasing guns.
Representatives Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) have also proposed a bill to expand the list of people prohibited from buying guns to include more mental health patients and convicted criminals, like spousal abusers and stalkers, according to The Hill.
In June, the House increased funding for the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, (NICS) by $19.5 million to help states enforce current laws used to determine which records should be entered into the background check system.
In Arizona, and other states including Ohio and Missouri, training of police officers on how to manage crisis situations involving the mentally ill has increased so that law enforcement and behavioral health professionals can work together in an emergency.
The 40-hour Phoenix Police Department training program will discuss how to defuse crisis situations and how to get the mentally ill the proper treatment from the behavioral health system rather than the criminal justice system when needed, Crisis Intervention Training Coordinator for the Phoenix Police Department Nick Margiotta said in an interview with KJZZ.
Rather than focusing on the firearms themselves, the mental health of the people buying and operating them are gaining attention in hopes of preventing gun violence and mass shootings.