As much as I am not a gun person, I am on the fence whether most of Obama’s 23 Gun Control Executive Actions will make much difference in homicide and suicide in this country. Don’t get me wrong, I hope they do. When I look at the numbers, however, I’m concerned we’re headlining the issues that will cause the most controversy and make the least difference.
The number of mass murders in the USA in the last year (one of the worst years on record), don’t amass to much in a country of over 300 million people. Mother Jones claims 151 deaths. Let me give you a number to put that in perspective. The latest CDC reports indicate that 36,909 suicides occurred within a year. The most important area where Obama could enact change is a quiet number 23 on the list: launch a national dialogue led by Secretaries Sebelius and Duncan on mental health.
As humans, we long to reduce risk in our lives, often pointing to some outside factor as the key element in the problem. Just once in this dialogue, I wish someone in power would make the statement: we are all susceptible to mental illness. Clearly some people have a genetic predisposition for mental illness that makes them more vulnerable. Just like heart disease, however, if we clog our brains with the emotional equivalent of burgers and fries, anyone is vulnerable to mental illness. Unbridled stress, be it good or bad stress, is our emotional burgers and fries. We need to emphasize the importance of sleep, exercise, nutrition, support groups and stress management. Brain health ignorance is a massive public health problem in our country.
Finding a mass murderer and stopping him prior to the act requires a high level of surveillance and invasion of privacy of innocent individuals. Even with these efforts, a mass murderer can slip through. Adam Lanza stole his mother’s guns. No amount of legislation could have prevented that act. Unless we are willing to forgo the second amendment completely and confiscate all guns in our country, there will always be a risk of gun violence. With close to 300 million guns in circulation in the US, there is always a chance that a gun will end up in the wrong hands.
So although I want legislation on guns to make a difference, I have a feeling that this legislation will make some of us feel better, but won’t have much impact. Obama’s lift on government funded gun research (number 14) recommendations on gun safety (number 15), and the ability for medical professionals to talk to patients about guns (number 16), however, are ideas that hold promise of true change. Knowledge is power.
Medical professionals have long known the risk of having a gun in the home in terms of both suicide and homicide. Although many gun owners hold fervently to the belief that a gun in the home makes them safer, the numbers offer a different story. There are twice as many suicides as homicides in our country, and most of those suicides are completed with guns. Even seasoned military officers understand the volatility of guns and suicide. In the words of retired generals Peter Chiarelli and Dennis Reimer in a recent Washington Post article:
One of the most effective measures of suicide prevention is to ask those perceived to be under duress: ‘Do you have a gun in your home?’ If the answer is yes, we might then suggest that the individual put locks on the weapon or store it in a safe place during periods of high stress — things that any responsible gun owner should do.
Unfortunately, that potentially lifesaving action is no longer available to the military. A little-noticed provision in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has had the unintended consequence of tying the hands of commanders and noncommissioned officers by preventing them from being able to talk to service members about their private weapons, even in cases where a leader believes that a service member may be suicidal.
It is unclear to me whether Obama’s plan will help reverse the 2011 NDAA, but this is yet another example of how a law interferes with the common sense of human interaction and safety. I don’t have confidence that more laws will reduce gun violence. More information, however, may cause people to act differently.
In 1965 the US Congress passed the Cigarette Labeling and Legislation Act warning Americans: “Cigarettes may be hazardous to your health.” My hope is that further actions by the government will not leave us mired in legislation, but allow access to better information for mental health.
Mental illness is common, knows no boundaries and the most frequent intruder in our homes. For every innocent child killed at Newtown, there are thousands of innocent children who have lost parents to suicide. There are thousands of teens who have taken their lives in hopelessness. Let’s honor all those young faces by focusing on mental health.
These are photos of children I took at a recent American Foundation of Suicide Prevention walk in Dallas.
For more information about Julie K Hersh, check out the Struck by Living website.