President Obama has taken executive action to prevent gun violence. (Photo: Getty Images)
President Obama announced his administration’s executive actions to battle gun violence today, January 5. While most of the plan is focused on closing loopholes, including requiring background checks at gun shows and online, there’s also a focus on mental health care as a means of preventing gun violence. The actions come on the heels of several high-profile mass shootings, which have left many wondering why gun control isn’t tighter in America — and how much of a role mental illness plays in the shooters’ decisions to act.
First up in the president’s plans: A $500 million investment toward “increasing access to mental health care.” The increased funding, which will need Congressional approval, promises to “help engage individuals with serious mental illness in care, improve access to care by increasing service capacity and the behavioral health workforce, and ensure that behavioral health care systems work for everyone. This effort would increase access to mental health services to protect the health of children and communities, prevent suicide, and promote mental health as a top priority,” the Administration claims.
As great as that sounds, it does legitimize the idea that mental illness is a major cause of gun violence. In fact, little evidence has been found that ties mental illness to gun violence, and experts attribute the sentiment to fear, rather than facts. In reality, the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, and the vast majority of gun violence is committed by people without mental illness.
But while the tie between mental health and mass shootings is blurry, it could help counteract some of the mental health crises that do lead to gun violence, including violence against the mentally ill. Plus, this stipulation has benefits beyond preventing mass shootings — mental health programs are sorely under-funded, and infrastructure in low-income and high-crime areas is often the first to get cut.
Also detailed in the action plan is a push to include information from the Social Security Administration in the background check system, ensuring that those who are legally barred from owning firearms (individuals prohibited from buying guns because, due to a mental health issue, they are a danger to themselves or others or are unable to manage their own affairs) are identified during a background check. In a letter to the U.S. states, Attorney General Loretta Lynch stressed the importance of passing along information on people disqualified from gun ownership for mental health reasons. The goal: closing the gaps that can widen between state and federal government when it comes to allowing firearm purchases.
The administration has also announced that the Department of Health and Human Services is finalizing a rule, first suggested after the Sandy Hook shootings, in 2012, that would “remove unnecessary legal barriers preventing States from reporting relevant information about people prohibited from possessing a gun for specific mental health reasons.” Specifically, it would allow doctors and providers to report patients they deem to be mentally ill to the FBI’s background check system. Reporting mental illness is currently limited under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy Rule.
So what does this mean for mental health? If everything goes according to plan, this could mean better access to mental health programs, as well as a stronger effort to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. At the same time, it could reaffirm the misperception that mental illness drives mass murderers to violence and that most mass criminals are mentally ill.
That said, after years of blaming mental illness for national tragedies, there’s finally a plan in place to address it. If nothing else, John Oliver would be proud.
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