Gun control and mental health care; two major issues converging

by Dan Wolf

Sun, 02/03/2013

Here is my pledge:

I will support and work for tougher gun control laws in Massachusetts this coming session.

The time to face the scourge of assault weapons not only has come, it came long ago. And so in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, I'm reminded of a famous John F. Kennedy quote: "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

People should maintain their Second Amendment right to bear arms, but assault weapons have no place in society.

I was pleased to see that our new Senator Elizabeth Warren is supporting California Senator Dianne Feinstein's federal bill to ban assault weapons. While Massachusetts already has an assault weapons ban, there are some loopholes in our current law; assault weapons are only banned in Massachusetts if they were manufactured since 1994, for example. I look forward to working with my colleagues to help close such loopholes.

Part of a comprehensive gun control bill should include a buy-back program. This past December, New Jersey created a program to buy back guns for up to $250. This one event brought in more than 1,100 guns.

Why must we create incentives? Because, as the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found, there's a direct relationship between more guns in society and more murders.

Closely linked to this initiative must be the expansion and availability of mental health programs so that people in danger of hurting themselves and others get the help they need to draw back from violence.
But let's understand that we should expand mental healthcare in the Commonwealth because it will improve lives and public health, not mainly or only as a safety issue. Jim Parsons, director of the Substance Use and Mental Health Program at the well-respected Vera Institute of Justice, offers what I think is a crucial perspective about how we should connect - and disconnect - these two issues:
"Better mental health treatment is not a panacea for gun violence. Not only are the overwhelming majority of people with mental illness no risk to public safety, but overstating that risk will stigmatize millions of Americans."

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, "Massachusetts's public mental health system provides services to only 41 percent of adults who live with serious mental illnesses in the state."
We can and must do better.

So I look forward to working toward a healthier Commonwealth both by expanding services to those who need them most, and by strengthening our existing gun laws to keep the innocent safe.