Herald-Leader Editorial

NRA pushes its own lunacy, but mental-health system does need help

September 24, 2013 

Captive to the gun lobby and incapable of enacting even modest gun controls favored by large majorities of Americans, Congress should bite the bullet, so to speak, and put Wayne LaPierre in charge of sorting the populace into "good guys with guns" and "lunatics" who should be "committed."

Those are terms the National Rifle Association's head brandished Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. LaPierre was explaining yet again why making firearms harder to get would be a mistake in a country that each year buries 32,000 gun victims, a death toll that's rising even as crime rates decline.

"We have no national database of these lunatics," said LaPierre, referring to the mentally ill military contractor who was killed after shooting 12 workers at the Navy Yard in Washington.

Without such a database, LaPierre said, would-be mass shooters zip through background checks, even if, as was the case with Aaron Alexis when he bought the shotgun he used at the Navy Yard, they are hearing voices.

(A gun control law probably saved some lives at the Navy Yard. Alexis was turned down when he tried to buy an assault weapon, not because he thought someone was trying to shoot microwaves into his head but because Virginia does not allow the sale of such weapons to residents of other states. )

LaPierre, who said the answer is more "good guys with guns" and tighter security, also said, "We have a mental-health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed."

Although LaPierre seems to think the main function of a mental-health system is "committing" the criminally insane before they strike, he does have a point.

States have reduced mental-health budgets by $4 billion in recent years. The 10 percent across-the-board cuts required by the sequester, the result of another congressional failure, are devastating already struggling mental-health programs, says Mental Health America, the non-profit formerly known as the National Mental Health Association.

Of course, most mentally ill people are a much greater danger to themselves than to anyone else and will never commit any violent crime, much less a mass shooting.

However, undiagnosed and untreated mental illness has been at the root of recent gun massacres, including at Sandy Hook Elementary; the Aurora, Colo., movie theater, and Virginia Tech.

So, let LaPierre isolate the "lunatics" among us — without violating anyone's constitutional right to due process, of course — and perhaps the gun lobby won't be embarrassed as often by these highly publicized mass shootings.

And, hey, no one pays much attention to the routine, everyday gun violence, the kind that takes out one or two or three people at a time. That's just the background noise of American life.

A British journalist recently ran the numbers and reported that more Americans lost their lives to firearms in just the past 45 years than in all the wars the United States has ever fought, dating back to the Revolution of '76.

We're waging war on ourselves.

More guns won't make us safer in this war. More guns just make us more likely to be killed by a gun, as a study published last week in the American Journal of Medicine illustrates.

Researchers found that the United States, with the most guns per capita in the world, has the highest rate of deaths from firearms. Japan, which has the fewest guns per capita, has the lowest death rate.

Lawmakers at federal and state levels could start saving lives by balancing rights with reasonable restrictions on access to guns.

They won't do it, though, until their constituents demand it.

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