Thursday, January 31, 2013

Guns, violence and persons with psychiatric illnesses


The Second Amendment is under fire, according to some people and they are seeing that their Constitutional rights may be either infringed upon or denied to them. When the Constitution was initially prepared, our country was not only quite small, but required individual firepower to protect its citizens and also to ensure that there would be institutions in place to maintain their freedom. The threat was, of course, coming from across the Atlantic and not from within. It made sense. People needed guns to defend themselves in often lawless areas of the country and there was little in the way of an active police force of any type that could help them if they were in danger. Guns were and are a part of life in many areas that remain quite rural and still unprotected because homes may be miles away from help.

But the Second Amendment and its insured right to maintain personal firearms has resulted in a schism in this country regarding guns and violence. How the impasse is being navigated appears to be rather short-sighted in the simplistic reasons given for the incidences of gun-related violence. We hear that ringing phrase, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." Yes, but if the gun were not there woult the person have been able to fire a shot and kill a person? No don't answer that.  There's too much research evidence that proves the very presence of a gun can mean that the gun will be used in a violent act, usually against a family member because family violence or violence among intimates is the most common type of killing.

So how is the discourse being framed now? Of course, it must be all those psychiatric patients who are using their guns to kill people. The move, therefore, should be to act quickly to contain these people were they somehow recognized quickly so that we can't ensure they don't have a gun or, if they do, that they don't have a chance to use it.

The problem is that according to one statistic I heard, 95% of the violent actions involving gun violence are not by persons who have psychiatric illnesses. People use guns when they get angry, when they are desperate, or when they are immature and engaging in some macho display of virility.  Get a gun, be a man, go out on the street and seek your own type of justice for any infraction of some arbitrary rule you have written for yourself or your group. Simple as that.

Stop turning the conversation toward violence and mental illness. Yes, there are those with severe mental illness  who will commit crimes with guns or whatever else they can find. It's not an easy process predicting or finding these individuals and it will never be. The best we can do is hope that someone sees some behavior that may predict a violent act by someone.

Then, of course, that person has the difficult task of informing the appropriate authorities. How many people failed to do that? How many people failed to respond to the repeated cries of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York on March 13, 1964 as she returned home from work. She was attacked not once, but twice on a quiet residential street in a very nice neighborhood. The attacker went after her once and after she screamed he was momentarily frightened and hid.  When he noticed no one came to her rescue, he proceeded to attack her once more, killing her. Reports after the crime indicated that over 20 people heard her cries and elected not to respond. Now that report is being called into disrepute as the original book on the case has been republished some 40 years after Kitty's death.

But if there is one thing that comes out of this misguided direction of attention to psychiatric illness and gun violence, it is the fact that we are now paying more attention to the crying need of those with psychiatric illness. For too long, probably since the middle to late 60s when the psychiatric hospitals dumped these people onto the streets and left them to the care of less-than-prepared groups to keep them, those with psychiatric illness have been poorly served.

There has been deficient, inadequate training of those charged with their care. They have been abused, imprisoned in boarding homes, sexually assaulted without report, allowed to become homeless when their illness made it too fearful for them to seek residential care. The list goes on and on.

Persons have been found dead in dumpsters where they went to shelter from the cold. Women have been found dead in their apartments and the perpetrator has never been found. Even those in the hospitals have cruelly taken advantage of them for the pitiful amount of money they may have. They have been coerced into sexual activity by prisoners sent to do grounds work at their hospitals. They’ve even been used by movie producers looking for “good” locations to shoot. It is a sad situation that someone can only appreciate fully if you are there seeing and hearing all of it. I have.

Hopefully, the insistence that only those with psychiatric illness engage in gun violence will, in a twisted way, initiate a new day of dignity, respect and adequate care for those with psychiatric illness. We can do more than hope. We can all speak for those who cannot or will not speak for themselves for fear of what may happen to them.