In the aftermath of the tragic acts of mass violence in Aurora, Colo. and Newtown, Conn., America went in search for answers. Why did these things happen, and what could be done to prevent them from happening again?
Sadly, anti-gun groups have used these tragedies to advance their political agenda, ignoring the fact that the mental health of the perpetrators of these acts has been the common denominator. NSSF responded to the tragedy by launching a program called FixNICS SM focused on fixing the background check system that is riddled with missing mental health records.
Unfortunately, it took another act of mass violence to turn the nation’s attention to the common thread of mental health that runs through the tragedies that can be identified just by the name of the place where they took place: Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, and the Navy Yard.
There is no question that the mental state of Aaron Alexis was highly unstable before the Navy contract employee killed 12 employees at the Washington, D.C. military facility. A month before the shooting, he had told the Newport, Rhode Island police that he was hearing threatening voices. But as was the case with so many other people, Alexis slipped through the cracks and did not receive the medical attention necessary to treat his mental illness.
Even if Alexis had been involuntarily committed for mental illness in Rhode Island, which would have disqualified him from buying or possession of a firearm, he still would have been able to pass a background check when we went to illegally buy the shotgun in Virginia. This is because Rhode Island is the poster child for why we need FixNICS. That state has submitted exactly zero mental health records to the national background check system. Rhode Island, however, even before this tragic incident, began to proactively address this problem. The state worked with NSSF to move legislation to create a FixNICS task force to look at adding disqualifying mental health records to the federal background check system.
Fortunately, more attention is now finally being paid to our nation’s mental health system. On Sunday, 60 Minutes ran a feature that looked at the state of America’s mental health system and talked to a leading psychiatrist and law enforcement official. The segment touched on the difficulty of treating individuals with mental health problems, including the closing decades ago of dedicated mental hospitals. It is a very interesting segment that provides a good snapshot of where we are today and how we got here. I encourage you to watch the whole segment, but wanted to call out two quotes.
The first is from Cook County (Ill.) Sheriff Tom Dart. He oversees what is, according to 60 Minutes, the largest mental institution in the United States, the Cook County jail in Chicago. 60 Minutes asked Dart whether there was a correlation between changes in the way our nation treats mental health patients and the uptick in mass acts of violence.
“I do think there are connections here, because … people are falling through the cracks all the time,” Dart said. “So to think that won’t then boil up at some point and end up in a tragedy, that’s just naïve.”
Even more telling, E. Fuller Torrey, whom 60 Minutes identified as “one of the most famous psychiatrists in the country” and “an expert on severe mental illness,” had this to say about the nation’s mental health system.
“We have a grand experiment — what happens when you don’t treat people,” Torrey said. “But then you’re going to have to accept 10 percent of homicides being killed (sic) by untreated mentally ill people, you’re going to have to accept Tucson and Aurora. You’re going to have to accept Cho at Virginia Tech. These are the consequences when we allow people who need to be treated to go untreated.”
A haunting example of the decline in mental health treatment stands in Newtown, Conn. just three miles from Sandy Hook Elementary. Fairfield Hills Hospital was a psychiatric facility operated by the State of Connecticut that opened in 1931 and housed as many as 4,000 patients. The facility was shuttered in 1995 as many patients were deinstitutionalized. The continuing trend of shutting down of mental health facilities is troublesome. . Many states are facing severe budget cuts and reducing the number of hospital beds for psychiatric patients. A recent study determined that the current number of hospital beds available to mental health patients has been reduced to “1850s levels.”
There are no easy answers to treating individuals with severe mental illness, but it is at least encouraging to see a long overdue dialog taking shape about how to address the problem. We are doing our part at NSSF by advocating for fixing NICS. And there is certainly more that needs to be done.
We know that only a small fraction of the mentally ill are violent. If policy makers wanted to have an honest discussion about the causes of violent crimes, however, they need to start with the decline in mental health treatment in America and ways of keeping guns out of the hands of those suffering from serious mental illness.