We should do more to prevent those with mental health issues from getting guns (letter)
June 5, 2018
After every mass shooting, the debate is reignited over whether gun control or expanded mental health services is the solution. Some propose a change to the Second Amendment. Others talk about expanded background checks.
I am a licensed psychologist. As such, I have a duty to warn when one of my clients is in imminent danger of doing something to harm themselves or someone else. That word, imminent, is key. It means that they are saying, "I'm going to kill myself or someone today (or at a specific time)."
Some recent legislative changes have permitted/required therapists to break confidentiality if a particular target (such as a movie theater) is in imminent danger. There have been rare occasions where I have acted upon this sort of threat by calling police authorities or hospitalizing someone against their will. But this is an extremely rare event.
More importantly to this whole mental health discussion, as it relates to gun violence, is that I have many patients who I believe should not have access to firearms. This includes people who are delusional or paranoid and believe others are out to get them. It includes people who have impulse-control problems and are at greater risk of acting out in a violent way to provocation (real or imagined).
It includes people who have substance abuse problems whose judgment gets blurred. It includes domestic abuse perpetrators who have crossed the line in the past and have dealt with loved ones in a damaging manner.
Under our current laws, there is nowhere that I can turn to share that information. There is no authority or database to which I can attest with my training and 38 years of experience that a particular individual should be carefully screened, based on my intimate understanding of their character structure and thought patterns. This knowledge about them is lost.
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In most instances, all a person has to do in order to pass screenings to purchase a firearm is to deny any prior mental health treatment. I have never had any governmental or law enforcement agency contact me to request records of a current or former patient or to get my opinion as to their suitability to own firearms. So for those who believe that expanding background checks will curtail this terrible societal blight, that belief is just optimistic thinking in the face of a killing problem.
I think that it is worth remembering that when the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was drafted, the state of understanding of mental disorders was extremely primitive. It is no wonder that there were no caveats about which citizens maintained the right to own firearms. Our understanding and treatment of mental illness was as primitive as the single-shot weapons that were being protected by the amendment. Our founding fathers could not have foreseen the possibility of someone with a delusional disorder with an AR-15 assault weapon shooting up our schools.
We know better now. We can do better now. We must have the will to enact gun control legislation, along with common-sense changes to the mental health laws.
Henry J. Goetze, Ph.D.
Licensed psychologist, certified school psychologist