How are Mental Health and Gun Control Related?

In recent years, the fabric of America’s safety and security has steadily unraveled within its own borders from the onslaught of repeated occurrences of mass shootings. Although discussion over gun control has been happening for decades, the conversation was reignited by the massacre in Aurora, Colo., which occurred at the hands of James Holmes on July 20, 2012.

Shortly after this tragedy, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., and the rest of the country were shaken by the death of 26 students and faculty who died at the hands—or rather, the ammunition—of 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza on Dec. 14, 2012. Despite the push for more regulatory legislation concerning gun control, which stemmed from these events, subsequent shootings in malls, naval yards, schools and even homes throughout the country have shifted the debate over gun control to the field of mental health.


The majority of these events, such as that at Sandy Hook, the shooting of 17-year-old Claire Davis in Littleton, Colo., and the assault of Va., state senator Creigh Deeds by his 20-year-old son Gus, all have one commonality. They all ended in the death of the assailants through suicide. Suicide, itself, falls under an entirely different umbrella of debate; however, what this trend suggests is that it is quite possible that the perpetrators of these heinous acts were dealing with serious mental health issues.

For instance, further investigation into Adam Lanza’s past and interviews with his father assert that Lanza “was in so much psychic pain that the only way he could dissipate it was to cause the maximum amount of pain to others,” according to reports by the Baltimore Sun. “The murders of the children made him as hurtful to himself as he was to others.”

Moreover, Gus Deeds had a history of mental health issues, which his family acknowledged, and he was even evaluated under an emergency custody order for those issues just a day before he attacked his father and killed himself. If there had been enough psychiatric beds at the hospital that day, his life and his father’s wellbeing may have been spared.

While mental health issues should not and does not excuse these people’s actions, better screening of mental health conditions earlier on may be a step toward preventing the perpetuation of these sorts of events.

While partisan politicians have yet to find a middle ground on the issue of gun control, most across both major party lines can agree that more measures concerning mental health should be enacted to help curb this crisis. Prior to Sept. 16, 2013, when Aaron Alexis shot and killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard in the District of Columbia, Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Senator Mark Begich (D-Ala.) co-authored a piece of legislation calling for further training and familiarity with mental health services in schools and communities, which received overwhelming support across party lines. Despite being added as an amendment to a larger gun control legislation package and gaining a 95-2 approval by the Senate, the overall package failed.

Now, Ayotte is trying to reintroduce the bill without attaching any gun control measures. Senator Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) agrees that the bill is strong enough to stand alone, saying that while he still favors legislation for more comprehensive background checks for firearm purchases, he believes an emphasis on mental health initiatives is critical to stopping gun violence.

Even while gun control advocates continue to pressure lawmakers into expanding background checks, the focus has, again, changed to how to avoid missing red flags and warning signs, as was the case with Alexis, whose father admitted was dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after working in 9/11 rescue efforts.

According to FBI records released in 2012, over 5,000 gun purchase attempts between 1998 and 2012 stemmed from mental health issues. The amount of attempts that were not denied yet still arose from mental health conditions is unknown. Privacy, logistical, and technological efforts continue to add difficulty to the ability of states to accurately report important and informative records such as these.

However, four of President Obama’s 23 executive actions in his push for gun control last year focused on mental health. Moreover, CNN polls report that almost half of Americans agree that better mental health services would prevent further gun violence “a lot.”

Although our government has made steps towards enforcing effective legislation for mental health initiatives, we have a ways to go before Americans will see any progress in gun control and access to mental health care..




Ade Ilesanmi

Ade IlesanmiContributing Author

Ade Ilesanmi was born in Dallas, TX to two Nigerian-born parents. She was raised for most of her life in NC but also spent a few years in Nigeria with extended family as a young child. She is currently a junior at Wake Forest University and is a pre-med biology major with a strong interest in mental health, health communication, and mass communication. She enjoys writing and blogging and eating snacks off of her chest while she watches her favorite shows on her laptop. She looks forward to finding a lot of excuses to travel during her adult years.

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