, Salem, MA


January 22, 2013

Watson: Focus on mental health needed

There are many factors involved behind a shooting like the one in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.

There are gun and ammunition availability issues, social and cultural norms and pressures, family histories, Internet and media dynamics, and the mental condition of the shooter.

Since the Newtown massacre, I have written twice about some of the factors that relate to firearms. As some state governors are proposing, I have recommended that we impose stricter limitations on sales of all semi-automatic pistols and rifles, and that we ban outright the private ownership of gun magazines larger than 10 rounds.

But the most important step we can take relating to gun ownership is to require that every gun buyer undergo a background check. Currently, because purchases made at gun shows and between two private individuals do not require a background check, roughly 40 percent of firearms are procured without any review of the purchaser’s personal record or general fitness to own a weapon.

Although no set of gun regulations, however carefully crafted, will prevent all future murders, we can endeavor to reduce their frequency.

This column will focus on some of the mental health aspects of the gun violence problem.

It has become clear that many — but not all — of the perpetrators of the worst mass shootings in recent decades have had some degree of long-standing, diagnosable mental illness. While it is important to note that the mentally ill population may not commit violence at a rate higher than the general population, it is certainly true that the shooters in Aurora, Colo. (the movie theater); Tucson, Ariz. (Congresswoman Giffords); Virginia Tech (campus shootings); and Newtown, Conn., struggled mightily either to cope with their minds or conventional norms.

After these shootings, advocates for the mentally ill have called our attention to the dismal state of health care for people with mental problems.

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