Gun Violence and the Ongoing Debate About Mental Health Reform

Twenty-six people died this weekend when a gunman in Sutherland Springs, Texas, opened fire at a church early Sunday morning.

The number of victims makes the incident one of the most significant mass shootings in recent history, and for many, reopened wounds from the Las Vegas shooting, which happened just one month ago.

Both of these tragedies have resparked a longstanding debate on Capitol Hill regarding gun laws and mental healthcare.

For years, bipartisan lawmakers have struggled to find ways to increase access to long-neglected mental health services for Americans. Though Republicans and Democrats have contrasting views on healthcare reform as a whole, most agree that increasing access to mental health services is important, especially when it comes to preventing mass shootings.

What is unclear, however, is how meaningful change might be enacted.

Years ago, Republicans in Congress maintained that gun-related violence is best addressed through mental health reform rather than enacting sensible gun control legislation.

“We have seen consistently that an underlying cause of these attacks has been mental illness,  House Speaker Paul Ryan said last year. “We should look at ways to address the problem.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum, most Democrats agree that the federal mental health system must be revamped in order to best help citizens deal with mental illness. They also maintain that gun laws ought be addressed simultaneously, especially when it comes to background checks and the restriction of automatic weapons in civilian hands.

Clearly, both parties disagree on how to move any legislation forward.

“If we’re looking at the gap between the parties, Democrats are very fearful that Republicans are going to use the mental health issue to basically say, ‘See, we’ve done something about guns,’” Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein explained to The Fiscal Times. “They’ve got a point, certainly. But if the idea is that you basically kill action on a bill because some people are going to use it as traction on the gun issue, it’s pretty unfortunate.”

Mental health often comes to the forefront of debates when it comes to publicized mass shootings, and while that may be justified, mental health reform must be prioritized in general — not just when headlines sensationalize it.

The federal government spends nearly $130 billion annually on substance abuse and mental health care facilities in the U.S., but a majority of these facilities are inaccessible to people who are seeking mental health treatment. As such, many who are mentally ill are relegated to prisons and jails. This is clearly an imperfect solution as those who are committed have often committed nonviolent acts and would be better suited for rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration, as most leave the criminal justice system no better than when they entered.

“Warehousing these defendants in jail does not solve their issues,” observes attorney Ryan Albaugh, who has defended those struggling with mental illness who have turned to substance abuse to cope. “It only returns them to the street facing the same mental health challenges that led them to use and abuse drugs in the first place.”  

Yet despite the obvious shortcomings of the Federal Government to address mental health services, efforts have been made to rectify the issue.

In previous years, Representatives Tim Murphy and Eddie Bernice Johnson advanced legislation which would “consolidate federal mental-health programs under a single assistant secretary,” as well as expand treatment services. That same year, Senator Chris Murphy sponsored a similar bill.

But many critics are arguing that this is not enough. Recent efforts by Republicans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act indicate that conservative members of Congress aren’t serious about opening up mental healthcare to every American. In addition, most conservative members of congress support efforts to cut medicare and social security, which would affect those suffering from mental conditions.

In addition to this, many critics note that speaking about mental illness may be used as a scapegoat for avoiding talking about meaningful gun control measures.

“It’s important that as we see the dust settle and we see what was behind some of these tragedies, that mental health reform is a critical ingredient to making sure that we can try and prevent some of these things from happening in the [future],” Paul Ryan said after the shooting in Las Vegas. Ryan has also consistently pushed to repeal and replace the ACA — meaning that millions would lose access to mental health treatment.

There are many questions regarding the future of the gun control and mental healthcare in the U.S. What is clear, however, is that meaningful change must happen soon.

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