In the wake of tragedy: Mental illness debated after Sandy Hook school shooting

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Stuffed animals and a sign calling for prayer rest at the base of a tree near the Newtown VIllage Cemetery in Newtown, Conn., Monday, Dec. 17, 2012.

Associated Press

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Gun control and mental illness have been at the center of the debate following the Connecticut school shooting. Read more about the ongoing discussions regarding gun control.

Following the Connecticut school shooting that left 20 elementary school students, six adults and the shooter dead, the national conversation has centered on gun control and mental illness in trying to find answers for and solutions to mass shootings, with some arguing that it's time to put gun control aside and bring mental illness to the forefront of the debate.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have indicated willingness to have conversations about gun control, but lawmakers like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Utah's Rep. Jason Chaffetz, have also listed mental illness as an area that should be looked at.

"We have to deal with the mental health aspect," Chaffetz said on This Week. "I think we absolutely should talk about the intersection of a lethal weapon and (how) it relates to mental health. Absolutely we've got to have that discussion in this country."

Chaffetz also cited the realism of violence in movies and games, and suggested society should look for solutions with families, communities and churches rather than government alone.

Likewise, Rubio "remains a strong supporter of the Second Amendment right to safely and responsibly bear arms," but he is also open to measures that keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told the Tampa Bay Times.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., an avid hunter and member of the National Rifle Association, said it's time to move past political rhetoric in order to have an honest discussion about guns, but that the focus also needs to be wider.

"This is bigger than just about guns," Manchin said. "It's about how we treat people with mental illness, how we intervene, how we get them the care they need, how we protect our schools. It's just so sad."

A 2000 study by The New York Times examined profiles of 102 killers in 100 rampage attacks, looking back more than 50 years. The database showed that more than half of the shooters had histories of "serious mental problems," like a hospitalization, a prescription for psychiatric drugs, a suicide attempt or evidence of psychosis. Of the 24 who had been prescribed psychiatric drugs, 14 had stopped taking them prior to committing their crimes.

A 2011 report from the Mayors Against Illegal Guns organization reported that, since 1999, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System had blocked more than 1.6 million permit applications and gun sales to felons, the seriously mentally ill, drug abusers and other dangerous people.

However, the group said, the NICS has gaps that are endangering lives and that millions of records identifying seriously mentally ill people and drug abusers are missing due to lax reporting by state agencies and federal agencies failing to report records to the NICS.

The report was cited by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in a August 2012 blog post, where the organization said the report was correct in identifying holes, but also that federal law has failed to "thoughtfully and carefully" change vague definitions in the law "in a way that is not only overly broad, but also avoids unfair, damaging discrimination."

Paul Appelbaum, the director of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at Columbia University told The Huffington Post that broadening the mental health criteria for exclusion from gun ownership wouldn't address massacres or gun violence in the U.S., but better screening and reporting of people with mental illnesses already restricted from owning guns could help.

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