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God, Guns and Mental Illness: In Retrospect of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting

By J. Skyler
December 18, 2012 - 11:11

It's been a tough few days for the nation in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Everyone has tried to articulate the overwhelming sense of grief and loss, from the President of the United States to newscasters to the men and women of Newtown, Connecticut, who have lost their children or know someone who has. The reality is, words fail. There are no words that can describe such pain, and while none of us can answer “why?”, we can at least discuss “where do we go from here?”

To begin, the American Family Association's Brian Fischer and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said some truly ugly words in relation to God's role in tragedies such as mass shootings (as if to imply He has a role to begin with). As a theist, I believe the supernatural—whether you interpret Divinity as an abstract force such as in Taoism, a personal deity such as in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), or a combination of the two, as in Hinduism—is as matter-of-fact as any and all scientific evidence humanity has accumulated over the course of our existence. That being said, a general rule of thumb I've always held is to leave God's name out of the conversation when discussing the evils that men do of their own free will. To place blame, or a cold detachment squarely on God's shoulders smacks of ignorance and bigotry, not virtuous proclamation.

Mass shootings inevitably lead to the discussion of gun control. These discussions are unfortunately hijacked by the loudest, unyielding voices that fervently cling to extremist viewpoints; either all civilians have the right to be armed to the teeth with any assault weapon they can afford or all weaponry should be banned out right (To be clear, I'm no gun enthusiast. I've never held, fired or lived with a gun and I never intend to. However, in the remote possibility I would find a use for such a thing, it is something I would treat with hyper-sensitivity, never to place on par with freedom of speech or freedom of religion). Like partisan politics, these discussions lock us in circular arguments with no resolution. It's about time we release ourselves from our emotional entanglements in order to have a rational debate (and long over-due resolution) on gun control. The most profound and reasonable statement I've seen thus far in the wake of the shooting came from Twitter user @iHartWrestling who said “something yall need to understand about #guncontrol... its not about taking guns away its about making it harder for people to acquire them.”

Look at it this way: I have a class C driver's license with no restrictions. I don't have any impairments (physical or mental) that would diminish my capability to operate a motor vehicle. However, if I wanted to drive a motorcycle, I would still have to apply for a class M1 or class M2 license to operate a motorized bike. If I wanted to be able to drive a commercial vehicle, I would have to apply yet again for a commercial drivers license (CDL). These regulations are not meant to impede or impair my right to drive, but to ensure my safety and the safety of others by making sure I have the mental and physical capacity to operate these varying types of vehicles for their intended use. Likewise, proposing stricter gun control laws are not intended to nullify the second amendment, but to make sure lethal weapons are placed in responsible hands, whether that means longer waiting periods, more in-depth criminal background checks, mandatory routine psychological evaluations or all of the above.

One fact is clear about the Sandy Hook shooting, the gunman stole his mother's legally obtained guns, which means, in this specific instance, the context isn't so much about gun control as it is about gun theft. While anti-gun advocates may argue disarming all civilians would have averted this tragedy, criminals will always find ways to illegally obtain assault weapons. In “How Criminals Get Guns” by Dan Noyes, it is reported that while gun theft makes but roughly 15-20% of illegally obtained guns, it is more common for people to actually purchase them legally and then give the gun(s) to someone who would not be able to purchase them for themselves, in addition to unlicensed sales by manufacturers or unauthorized dealers. What that tells me is that unless all gun manufacturing in the United States stops, including for military and law enforcement, people will always be able to obtain illegal weaponry. One suggestion out of the report is “better monitoring of the activities of legally licensed gun dealers” but one idea I've never heard in any talks of gun control is tracking the guns themselves. We have Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for our cars, our cellular phones, even my iPod has a tracking application in case of loss or theft, so why not make it a standard instead of an option for guns? As an example, the William Frick & Company which “supplies small footprint metal mount RFID tags that are ideal for gun tracking systems” states “Any organization that uses firearms in its operations can benefit from modern gun tracking systems using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. Government agencies at the federal, state and local levels, private security companies, corrective institutions and the military all need to have strict accountability for weapons in their armories and firearms issued to individual personnel.” Why not have the same standard for civilians by requiring gun manufacturers to install RFIDs, or by requiring civilians to have them installed within a strict time-frame, either directly after purchase or during the application process? How easy would it be to notify police your gun has been stolen with the click of a button? How convenient would it be to be notified by police, manufacturers or other service providers that “your licensed gun is outside the radius of your primary location, can you verify its whereabouts?” in the same way credit card providers automatically suspend accounts and offer notification for abnormal purchase amounts?

Though nothing substantial regarding motive has been offered by police concerning the shooting, there is wide speculation that the shooter was mentally ill. If that is true, and he was indeed suffering from some type of severe delusion or psychotic break, then ending the conversation with gun control is grossly inadequate, because gun control alone will do little to prevent future mass homicides. The resolution must involve health care reform as well, which unfortunately is also a highly politicized and dichotomous debate. As associate professor of psychology and criminal justice Christopher J. Ferguson reported in TIME magazine, “neither gun control nor a well-funded mental-health system will prevent every mass homicide. But we leave ourselves—and more innocent children—vulnerable until we address both of those issues.”

Ferguson also asserts, “the vast majority of the chronically mentally ill won’t commit crimes, certainly not of the severity of the Sandy Hook shooting. But by leaving the mentally ill adrift to fend for themselves, we miss the opportunity to identify and treat some of these at-risk individuals before they escalate.” Obviously, there is wide variety of mental illness and each individual may react differently to their disorder, but such a wide spectrum is precisely the reason discussing mental health in America should have a higher priority than it currently holds. My mother suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. You'd never know it unless she told you, and while it's not exactly a conversation piece, it's not something she feels is a necessity to hide or lie about either. She takes her medication as prescribed, and like any other person, goes through her normal daily routines. She is married with three children and has more or less led a fulfilling life. Although she has suffered stress-induced psychotic breaks following each of her pregnancies, they have resulted in (thankfully unsuccessful) suicidal tendencies rather than homicidal. In spite of these rare episodes, she is without a doubt one of the most pleasant, genteel individuals I've ever known, which is why it was particularly upsetting to witness her fall into a state of paranoid delusion following the birth of my brother, and again with my sister. Regardless, knowing exactly what her condition was and why the break occurred not only helped me get through it, but allowed me to help her get through it as well.

To reiterate, the vast majority of people suffering from mental illness are far more likely to hurt themselves than others, but there is a possibility they may turn violent if they have forgone treatment for an extensive period of time, abuse drugs or alcohol, or are already prone to violent behavior. I can say from experience that during a psychotic episode, people genuinely believe that their delusions are real. So while it may seem inconceivable that anyone could perceive someone so innocent a child as a threat, for a person suffering from a psychotic break or paranoid delusion, anyone—including a child—could be seen a very literal threat, either to themselves, to the community, to national security or any other scenario a person in their right mind would consider ludicrous. This is why its vitally important that we disassociate shame with mental illness. It's our responsibility to reiterate, frequently and passionately, that people living with mental disabilities can lead productive lives if they get the treatment they need.

I've always found the idea of associating shame with mental illness and other mental health problems absurd. Unfortunately, that's not how most Americans view the subject. As a child and as a young adult, I've always taken the opportunity to talk with psychologists for problems I've faced in life and it's always been a rewarding experience, which is why I find it baffling that so many people adamantly reject counseling because “that's not for me. I don't need help. Only crazy people need help.” If seeking therapy for varying types of struggles that a vast majority of people in the world face is that difficult, I can only imagine how dehumanizing it must seem for a person to have to admit to themselves that they do in fact have a mental illness. There is an overwhelming instinct to associate the mentally ill with evil, particularly in fiction. Some of the most prominent examples are the inmates of Gotham City's Arkham Asylum: The Scarecrow, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, and of course the Joker, all deemed “criminally insane.” Additionally, history is riddled with the abuse and ostracization of the mentally ill, so it comes as little surprise that there are a number of people in America and around the world that refuse to acknowledge their condition (and proper medication) because they live their lives in perpetual fear of its stigma. It's also common for some to stop taking their medication because they reach a state of normalcy while medicated and believe they've been cured, even though in many cases their condition is permanent and thus requires medication for the duration of their lifetime.

My brother, sister and I have a predisposition to schizophrenia since our mother already has it. While that is not by any means a guarantee any of us will inherent it (according to statistics there is a 10% chance), our mother has taught us our entire lives to be mindful of our thoughts and to always seek help if we ever feel we are not in the right frame of mind. Leading by example, she does not lapse in taking her medication, and if she feels she she is under a great deal of stress, she will ask me or other family members if we believe that she appears to have control of herself or not. As such, the possibility of acquiring schizophrenia has never seemed frightening to me. Having seen my mother lead a perfectly normal life in spite of her illness, I have no doubt I would be able to as well under the same circumstances. There are a lot of people out there who don't have the same confidence, who may not even be aware they have a predisposition to mental illness if members of their family conceal that information or have been ostracized because of it. There are those who are angry at themselves and the rest of the world that may abuse drugs or alcohol in a attempt to cope. We cannot allow these at-risk individuals to fall though the cracks. While there is no guarantee that tighter gun control or greater access to health care services would have prevented the Sandy Hook shooting, any dialog that has the possibility of preventing future tragedies, as well as helping to improve the general mental health and safety of all Americans is always a conversation worth having.

Last Updated: September 6, 2021 - 08:15

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