There is much debate in this nation about whether or not to restrict access to guns. As a scientist, I tend to look at data and then draw conclusions. Thus, I looked at the statistics from Chicago, which has some of the strongest gun laws in the United States, and which at first glance appears to be outstanding proof that restriction of guns does not work; a closer look, however, reveals neighboring areas have weak gun laws and a fair portion of guns confiscated in Chicago have been traced to those areas. So, we need to dig deeper and look broader. What’s happening in the rest of the world?
It is true that the United States rate for violent crime is four times that of the United Kingdom (where guns are restricted) per 1 million people. But it is also true that the violent crime rate in the United Kingdom has been escalating since they banded guns. Moreover, the United Kingdom had 58% more opiate use than the United States. So, we might hypothesize that individuals commit less violent crimes in the United Kingdom because they are subdued by opioids.
Looking at the issue of guns, we need to acknowledge that guns do not kill people, and people who wish to kill can use any range of tools to commit murder. The issue is why people act out violently. One major factor is untreated mental illness. Another is a failure in our culture to cultivate self-discipline and a sense of responsibility for others in our community. From homes to schools to business to international relations, all prosper when those involved work as a team towards a common goal.
When we consider ourselves all part of one team, there is a synergy where the sum is greater than the whole. Individual members feel more empowered to achieve their best because they feel supported by others. There is less need for rules, structure, or law enforcement because people are choosing to do what is best for the whole. Teams cut across artificial boundaries such as race, religion, and borders and work together fostering flexibility and responsiveness which permit the whole to change adaptively when confronted with new problems. As a result, all members end up feeling a sense of camaraderie and achievement. Just imagine if China, Russia and the USA worked as a team to combat poverty or mental illness. The results would be unparalleled.
In the microcosm of local communities, if we worked as teams, we would see who the weaker members in the community are and provide them needed supports to avoid their developing a lifetime of resentment towards others, which may erupt in mass violence. We have laws in place such as IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) to provide these supports, but often those in power do not wish to be inconvenienced or to spend the money so they chose not to implement these laws. This has been clear when we examine many of the mass shooters – they often have a history of mental illness that was apparent since kindergarten and never properly addressed even though schools are tasked under IDEA with the responsibility to identify those with mental handicaps and to provide both counseling for the child and parent training, as well as specialized instruction and accommodations.
The United States’ prisoner rate per 100,000 people is the highest in the world at 737. Compare that to Norway at 66 individuals per 100,000. Clearly, we are doing something wrong. I suggest that a major factor is the fact that we do not identify those in need of mental health services soon enough. Equally important, when identified, many cannot obtain mental health services in our country due to lack of insurance, huge deductible (I have seen deductibles as high as $10,000) and prohibitive copayments (I have seen copayments as high as $60 per session), which make it untenable for individuals to obtain the help they need. Thus, they make poor judgments, lose jobs, exhaust unemployment and often end up surviving through criminal activity; and then, end up in our legal system. We need to find a more compassionate means to deal with the mentally ill and this must begin by replacing the concept of law enforcement with the concept of peacekeepers and peacemakers.
There was a time in the United States where we had the “beat cop” who walked our neighborhood, knew the people in the community and was considered a peace maker. Now, in many places, including Highlands County, our police are dressed for war and are intimidating law enforcers. Instead of de-escalation, conflict resolution and empathy, we see more force-oriented practices, entrapment and a tactical approach.
If police encounter a mentally ill individual with a knife and pull out their gun and yell at them to drop the knife, the mentally ill patient because more anxious and more likely to strike out; which means the officer is more likely to shoot. In fact, we know from a 2015 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement.
SWAT teams have become paramilitary units that are generally not fighting terrorism in a small place like Highlands; instead they are serving low-level drug warrants in poor communities. The mindset is often “us versus them” or “cowboys and Indians,” rather than, this is a member of my community who needs help finding a better way to cope than drugs. Personally, I’d like a lot more Andy’s of Mayberry and a lot fewer SWAT and tac teams. I’d like to see guns, tasers and handcuffs employed only as a last resort. I would also like the community to recognize that it is not the legal citizen with a gun permit who is committing mass shootings; it is the criminals and the mentally ill who work around any legal gun restrictions.
The issue of crime and mental health is not a simple one. Simply restricting access of law-biding citizens to guns will not resolve the problems of mass shootings. It will take much harder work. It will require that agencies, such as school boards, be compelled to follow the existing ADA and IDEA laws and regulations. It will require that we raise our children and grandchildren to recognize their responsibility to others in the community. It will require that we are all willing to serve and help others as a member of our community. It will require a paradigm shift where law enforcers become peace makers. It will require that we learn to love and respect ourselves and then to love and respect others as well as we love and respect ourselves. In our society we tend to look for quick fixes. This problem is not a quick fix. It requires that all of us change our hearts and our behaviors and look at each other with compassion.
Susan L. Crum, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and clinical director at Central Florida Neuropsychology, LLC in Sebring.