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Guns and Mental Health: The Debate that Never Ends

The horrific details come first. Then we learn about the victims. Finally, we ask “Why?” That’s they way these mass-shootings come at us.

Mass shootings have become so common that we know what to expect in the aftermath. There will be vigils and the inevitable debate about gun-control and mental health.  Over and over and over the taking heads on television tell us what we need to do. We need gun control, they tell us. We need more education and treatment for mental illness. Yada, yada, yada.

The massacre at Columbine High School was 13 years ago! Thirteen years and what has changed? I could go out this afternoon and buy an assault rifle. On the mental health front, we continue to stigmatize mental illness. We still ignore the profoundly mentally ill roaming our streets. We wash our hands of young adults with personality disorders and severe mental illnesses, telling their weary parents that it’s their problem – not ours.

And then another mass shooting happens and we ask “Why?”

Let me throw a couple of ideas out there. We need programs for parents of troubled children and young adults. They know their children better than anyone. They are stuck with their adult children who cannot live on their own, afford medications or ever support themselves. We need to offer these parents not only respite but safe and secure housing, medical care and treatment for their adult children.

These parents know when their children have crossed the line from being troubled to dangerous. They are the ones whose homes have destroyed by their rage-filled children. Often, they are the ones threatened first. But what can they do? Their adult children are no longer the problem of the public school system. Many are afraid of and for their children. For many their children will kill, be killed or end up in prison.

Maybe we should approach this problem from the perspective of those who can warn us first. I know “entitlement” programs are not popular, but what if we encouraged these parents to come to us when they fear their children could become violent? What if we offered genuine, realistic programs that would provide housing, medical care and treatment for their adult children? What if we kept in touch with these parents on a regular, consistent basis to see how their child is doing?

As for gun control, it will never work. My suggestion? Hold gun owners responsible for how their weapons are used. You own a gun – you are responsible for every bullet that comes out of it, whether you fired it or not.

Every time I have a discussion about gun control with someone who considers himself/herself a “responsible” gun owner, I ask this question? Where is your firearm right now? If you are not using it right now to hunt or protect yourself, is it in a gun safe so that it won’t fall into the hands of a criminal or someone with a mental disorder who should not have access to a firearm?

Most of the time, their faces fall and they shut up. Their guns are hidden somewhere in the house, garage or car. They are not in a gun safe.

As a journalist, I spent 12 years covering criminal courts and wrote countless stories about crimes involving firearms. Most of those firearms were stolen from the homes of people who consider themselves “responsible” gun owners. My suggestion? Hold these “responsible” gun owners responsible for how their stolen firearms are used.

I have no problem with the Second Amendment. If you want to hunt, own a gun for protection or just own a gun for the sake of owning a gun, I’m fine with that. However, a firearm is a unique object created only to kill, injure or destroy clay pigeons and empty beer bottles. Yes, cars will people, too. But their purpose is transportation – not killing, injuring or destroying.

The federal government maintains a database of stolen firearms. Police obtain serial numbers of stolen firearms from “responsible” gun owners when their homes are burglarized and then enter them into this database. If prosecutors and police wanted, they could trace the ownership of guns used in violent crimes.

I think my neighbor who had several guns stolen from his house after he left for his summer home in Vermont without locking his guns in the large gun safe in the garage would feel awful if he learned that one of his guns was used to kill a convenience store owner, carjack an old lady or kill a cop. I am not saying it should be a crime, but maybe these “responsible” gun owners whose stolen firearms are used in other crimes should be fined or limited in the number of weapons they can own.

We don’t know much about the guns the shooter used to kill 20 schoolchildren and six adults in a Connecticut elementary school besides the make and model and that they were registered to his mother, whom he also killed. You have to wonder why a kindergarten teacher in a idyllic small town would own an assault rifle – one of the weapons used in the massacre. But I wonder why she would allow her troubled son access to that kind of fire power?

We have to think way outside of the box when it comes to mental health and gun control because what we have been doing isn’t working. Something needs to change – like our attitude towards treating families, especially the parents of mentally disturbed, violent children.

As for gun control, we may never see any meaningful  regulation in our lifetime. However, as individuals we can encourage police and prosecutors to investigate and divulge the names of “responsible” gun owners whose stolen firearms are used in violent crimes. We can also speak up when a “responsible” gun owner has a firearm stolen from his home or car – just as we speak up about perfectly healthy people who park in handicapped spaces or dog owners who let their pooch poop on my lawn.

We’ve got to start somewhere.

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Guns and Mental Health: The Debate that Never Ends

Christine Stapleton

Christine Stapleton has been a journalist for 35 years. She is now an investigative reporter for The Palm Beach Post. In 2006, began writing a blog for PsychCentral called Depression on My Mind. Her latest blog, Addiction Matters, draws on her 19 years of sobriety and her coverage of the drug treatment industry in South Florida.

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APA Reference
Stapleton, C. (2012). Guns and Mental Health: The Debate that Never Ends. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 15, 2018, from


Last updated: 15 Dec 2012
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 15 Dec 2012
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