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Revisiting U.S. Policy on Mental Health, Gun Control After Sandy Hook Tragedy

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, Americans are discussing national policy on guns and mental health. Judy Woodruff gets four perspectives from gun control advocate Dan Gross, gun rights supporter David Kopel, psychologist and mental health expert Dr. Katherine Nordal and Columbia University’s Dr. Irwin Redlener.

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    And we pick up now on some of the major questions being asked about guns, about mental health and other issues in the aftermath of the shootings.

    We get four perspectives.

    Dan Gross is the president of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence.

    David Kopel is an adjunct professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver and the research director for the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute.

    Katherine Nordal is with the American psychological association.

    And Dr. Irwin Redlener is a pediatrician at Columbia University who works on public and family health issues. He's the president of the Children's Health Fund.

    And we thank you all for being with us.

    I want to begin with you, David Kopel.

    We just heard Sen. Dianne Feinstein say this — what happened in Newtown, Conn., was the straw that broke the camel's back, that it is now time to reinstate the ban on assault weapons at the very least. Do you agree with her?

    DAVID KOPEL,University of Denver: Well, I think we can look at what happened when she had her 10-year in the past. The Congress, when it enacted that ban, also ordered that a formal study be done of the results of it.

    The study was performed by the Urban Institute, a very well-respected, somewhat left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., and the Urban Institute reported that it had no effect on homicide rates. There was no statistically significant benefit in terms of saving lives.


    Dan Gross with the Brady Campaign, if that's the case, what's the argument for a ban on assault weapons or on any other guns?

    DAN GROSS, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: Yes.

    I mean, I think we need to look at this in terms of — I agree with the last statement to some extent — in terms of the greatest opportunity to save lives and to look for those places where the American public, gun owners, non-gun owners, NRA members, agree on solutions.

    So, you know, there's certainly a major conversation that's happening in the wake of this terrible tragedy around an assault weapon ban. Another conversation that's happening is around background checks.

    You know, 40 percent of all gun sales in our nation aren't subject to background checks, which means that convicted felons, domestic abusers, the dangerously mentally ill can buy guns without any questions asked. A Frank Luntz poll showed that 74 percent of NRA members support a solution like that.

    So, I do think that we should be looking for the common ground, the fertile ground, because that's the conversation that the American public wants to have. President Obama put it very poignantly last night when he said, we need to ask ourselves, are we doing enough to protect our children? And if we're going to be honest, we have to say we can do better than this.

    And the American public certainly backs that sentiment.


    So, Dan Gross, do I hear you saying that it's more productive not to focus on the assault weapons ban, but instead to look at background checks and other ways of trying to prevent people from getting these guns in their hands?


    No, I think the background check can help.

    I mean, you just look at the impact — I mean, I'm sorry — the assault weapons ban. I mean, just look at the impact on our national psyche of events like this, the national psyche of having these military-grade weapons available.

    But I do think we need to take a step back and look at this whole thing in the context of how many lives — you know, aside from these horrific mass tragedies, there are 32 murders that happen every day in our country.

    How can we prevent most of them? I do happen to think that doing something about assault weapons is an important step in that direction.

    I know the American public want to have that conversation, but I don't think it should be the only part of the conversation. I think we very importantly need to talk about criminal backgrounds check.


    Dr. Irwin Redlener, you're someone who has looked at this issue over a long period of time. How do you see it? Do you think this is the moment when, as Sen. Feinstein said, something has got to change?

  • DR. IRWIN REDLENER, Columbia University:

    Well, I do think it's a moment when something has got to change.

    And there are a lot of elements in this. And if we just take the example of this horrendous tragedy that took place on Friday, there are so many issues to be discussed here, one of which is the fact that we are now a country absolutely overloaded with guns.

    And many of them are guns that really only belong on battlefields in combat situations, where we're talking about something on the order of 275 million guns in the United States.

    It's really too late to put that genie back in the bottle. But I think the least that we can do is to begin really cutting back on the new influx of these kinds of weapons that do not belong in the hands of citizens. I don't think there's any question about that. That won't be the answer, however, to what we saw on Friday.

    And we will have to look at some of the other concerns having to do with access to mental health service for people, how do people recognize when they do problems that need serious professional help.

    We have to deal with the stigma of identifying people with those kinds of problems. And we have to deal with making sure we understand that our schools are safe and protected as much as they can, a very complex issue that's not going to get cured by any one of these particular actions, but all of them together have to demonstrate that we care about the safety and security at the end of the day, especially of our innocent children.


    And, in fact, those were the words used by the president. He said it's a complex set of issues that's going to require a complex solution.

    Before we get into the mental health question, and I do want to do that, let me come back to you, David Kopel, I mean, because what we're hearing is that banning assault weapons may be a solution.

    Another one may very well be tightening up those background checks, not making it so easy to get these lethal weapons that, as many folks are saying, only belong on the battlefield.


    Well, none of these guns that Sen. Feinstein is talking about is used by any military anywhere in the world.

    And what's omitted here is that Connecticut is one of those half-dozen states that has a ban on so-called assault weapons, and that the firearm that the murderer stole from his mother after murdering her is not an assault weapon under Connecticut law.

    So this just illustrates that the — this category of assault weapons is really a sham. It's based on the cosmetics of the gun, how they look and not how they function.

    These aren't military guns. They don't fire like machine guns. They fire just one bullet at a time, like every other firearm. And we should certainly…


    I think the question was about background checks.


    We should be concentrating on mental health and constructive reforms like that, rather than things that are really entirely cosmetic.

    Back in 1991, a guy named George Hennard, who was also mentally ill, used a pair of ordinary handguns to murder about two dozen people in a Luby's cafeteria in Texas.

    The question isn't what gun the psychopath has. The question is, why is that psychopath walking around loose, where he can — when he can harm people?


    So, how do we feel about background checks to prevent that?


    And let me now give Dan Gross the chance to respond.

    Go ahead, Dan.


    Yes, it was interesting, because the question was about background checks. And what can we do precisely to — and we all agree. I mean, like I said, 74 percent of NRA members agree with this.

    You know, what can we do to keep guns out of the hands of those mentally ill people who are dangerous, the adjudicated dangerously mentally ill? People talk about strengthening the NICS system, which is very important in terms of making the background checks that we do better.

    But we just have to clarify here.

    Forty percent of all gun sales in our country require no background check whatsoever, which means a convicted felon, a domestic abuser, dangerously mentally ill, God forbid a terrorist can buy guns without any background check.

    And I just don't understand going — as this national conversation is so passionately dead indicated to preventing tragedies and grieving like this, you know, the only place where this seems to be a divisive debate and you don't get answers to the question that you just asked is in the context of forums like this, because, out in the forum of the American public, we're talking to victims every day. We're talking to the American public.

    We want solutions to this. And, you know, just once, I would like a straight answer to that.


    I'm going to bring Dr. Nordal into the conversation with the American Psychological Association. We heard Dr. Redlener. We have heard our other guests speak about there needs to be — it needs — it's a complex problem.

    It's going to have to be a complex solution. How difficult is it to create a better screen for individuals who have access to these guns?

  • DR. KATHERINE NORDAL, American Psychological Association:

    Well, I think the problem certainly, Judy, now is that we don't have a really good way of predicting the people that are going to commit these kinds of heinous crimes.

    And I hope that in all of this discussion that, as a country, we do not lose sight of the fact that at the root of a lot of the problems with violence in this country and the victims of violence are unmet mental health needs.

    We need to start — we certainly need to be able to better identify people who are going on commit these kinds of heinous crimes, but we also need to be able to better identify youth who are at risk to later develop mental health problems.

    We need better prevention programs in schools, like the anti-bullying campaigns. We need well-trained school counselors. We need school psychologists that are doing something other than testing children for special education classes that can work with teachers and administrators and families to identify young people that are developing problems, that are sending up red flags to get them to the kind of help that they need.

    We need better-funded university counseling centers. And we need just better access to mental health treatment. There is still a stigma associated with mental health treatment.

    Thank goodness the Affordable Care Act includes mental health benefits as part of the essential health benefits in the new insurance plans.

    These benefits will be available through the Medicaid expansion and the programs offered through the exchange. But mental health services are often very difficult to access. They're expensive. There are lots of hurdles to getting the services.

    And from my perspective as a psychologist, very unfortunately, over the last couple of decades, we have seen a decrease in the use of psychotherapies and evidence-based psychological interventions for mental health problems and much, much more of an emphasis on prescribing medication.

    It's horrendous to think that, for example, in 2008, that some 58 percent of children that presented with mental health problems were prescribed medication and had no other form of mental health intervention. So we have a system that needs some fixing.


    Dr. Redlener, given all the prescriptions that we just heard from Dr. Nordal, where does this country begin?


    Well, first of all, Dr. Nordal is completely correct in what she said. And I think we took a giant step really with Obama's Affordable Care Act. And that's going to really help us get into the notion that we need to de-stigmatize mental health and allow people access to the care that they need.

    But I do want to point out about the background checks related to this and remind people that the acquisition of those firearms that were used on Friday was by somebody who was apparently not having mental or psychological problems, who followed the letter of the law in getting those guns legally.

    And the guns were acquired by her son, who obviously had extraordinary problems.

    So, simply the background checks alone — which, by the way, I totally agree with that we need to tighten — but they're not going to do the trick in terms of entirely eliminating this problem. It's like we were saying before, Judy. It's a complex problem with complex answers.

    And the final point is, this notion that those were normal, typical guns is baloney.

    Having — having high-capacity magazines that hold dozens of bullets in them is not something for hunters or for house protection. This is something that is not used in normal circumstances.

    And to belittle the fact that these are — that these were in fact military-type weapons that were used is — doesn't make any sense at all.


    Dan Gross, if you were in a position where you could make something happen, what would be — and I want to ask all of you this question — what are the first things that need to happen at this point, when the country is focused on what happened last week in Connecticut?


    Yes, I think there are two very important areas of change.

    One is policy — and I think we need to have the conversation about these military-style weapons — and, very importantly, about background checks.

    But I also think the other — the other part ties with your other guests' comments about the mental health system and actually awareness and education.

    Yes, you know, President Obama very compellingly said last night, we're never going to prevent every one of these tragedies from happening, but that's not an excuse for inaction.

    Background checks wouldn't have prevented last night. But you know what might have? Education about the danger of bringing guns into the home, where you have a child that is a danger to either themselves or others.

    And I would love to see the clinical community get involved…


    And I'm going to interrupt you…


    … in that kind of campaign.


    … because I need to give everybody a chance to say something here at the end.

    David Kopel, the next thing that needs to happen is what?


    Stronger state-level laws for civil commitment of the dangerously violently mentally ill.

    About one-third of the difference from state to state in homicide rates is due to the strength of those civil commitment laws in some states vs. weakness in other states.

    So, if all states moved up to the strong standard and then, even better, provided the funding that is necessary for the treatment of those people, that would have a significant effect, not just on these horrific, sensational crimes that get on TV, but on a lot of homicides and other violent crimes that are committed and never make the news.


    And, finally, Dr. Nordal, Katherine Nordal?


    I think we certainly need to have all of the policy folks get together from the health care community, as well as the law enforcement and education community.

    But we really need to work very hard to make people comfortable in seeking help for mental health problems. And we need to do a lot more to reduce the stigma associated with seeking that kind of care.

    And I think we need to put money in prevention. We have done a very poor job in this country of putting money in prevention, particularly around mental health issues.

    And we can solve problems much more rapidly when we can intervene at an earlier stage and not have to wait until something horrendous like this has happened.


    Dr. Nordal, Dr. Redlener, Dan Gross, David Kopel, we thank you, all four.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.


    Online, we have a short history of the assault weapons ban. You can find that on our Politics page.

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