Rare bipartisan accord in gun debate: Fix holes in the mental health system

  • Article by: JEREMY W. PETERS
  • New York Times
  • April 12, 2013 - 8:04 PM


– In the days after the Newtown, Conn., massacre, the one thing opponents and advocates of gun control agreed on was the need to address deficiencies in the mental health system so that killers like Adam Lanza would stop slipping through the cracks.

Since then, however, with Congress consumed by issues like background checks and a ban on assault weapons, there has been comparatively little focus on how the U.S. society deals with mentally ill people.

But quietly, lawmakers have been working on several plans that would lead to some of the most significant advancements in treating mental illness in years, proponents said. All stand a good chance of being in the final gun-control bill the Senate is now taking up.

The legislation would, among other things, finance the construction of more community mental health centers, provide grants to train teachers to spot early signs of mental illness and make more Medicaid dollars available for mental health care. There would be suicide prevention initiatives and support for children who have faced trauma. The sponsors of one of the bills estimated that an additional 1.5 million people with mental illness would be treated each year.

The issue is one of the more distinguishing — and unnoticed — aspects of the gun-control debate, which has been stymied by partisan squabbling.

Unlike other initiatives that the Senate is likely to vote on — expanded background checks, a restriction on high-capacity ammunition magazines and a ban on certain semiautomatic weapons — mental health unites lawmakers Republican and Democrat, urban and rural, even those with safe seats vs. those who may face competitive races.

One bill, sponsored by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has been joined by some of the Senate’s most conservative members who are strongly backed by the National Rifle Association, including Marco Rubio of Florida and Roy Blunt of Missouri, both Republicans.

Another bill, which has the support of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., unanimously passed a Senate committee this week, something that could hardly be said about any of the gun legislation.

“This is a place where people can come together,” Stabenow said. “As we’ve listened to people on all sides of the gun debate, they’ve all talked about the fact that we need to address mental health treatment. And that’s what this does.”

Indeed, some Republicans have used mental health care as a political refuge while pressure to act on gun laws built. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, who has not wavered in his opposition to tighter gun laws, met with families of Newtown victims but said he came away believing they wanted to attack mental health problems above all else.

“This is actually something we can and should do something about,” Cornyn said.

A major reason proponents of this legislation see it as so significant is that unlike background checks or weapons bans, properly treating mental illness can prevent problems before a potential killer ever tries to buy a gun. Advocates for better mental health services said that many of them were initially uneasy about seizing on an event as tragic as the school shootings. But they came to believe that it was the best opportunity for real change, and that they might not get another one for a while.

“This is our moment,” said Linda Rosenberg, the president of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. “I hate the connection between gun violence and the need for better mental health care, but sometimes you have to take what you can get.”

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