Move to bolster gun background checks misses the point, say mental health advocates

    The U.S. House just added $20 million to an instant background check system that monitors the sale of every gun in the country. Part of the fnding in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System will be devoted to expanding information on gun buyers’ mental health.

    The background check system is supposed to keep guns out of the hands of people with criminal records and those with a history of mental illness. The latter has proved difficult to accomplish.

    States have different requirements for reporting mental health issues. They have been sluggish to submit info for the data base, and much of the information has not been accessible across state lines. But — effective or not — the database misses the point, say many mental health advocates.

    “In the aftermath of tragedies, there’s a push to broaden gun control requirements,” said Ron Honberg, director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But he said this approach ignores scientific research on violence prediction. “There is no evidence that it deters these kinds of senseless mass tragedies.”

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    Instead, he said, research backs prevention and community-based therapy for people who are at risk.

    “The fact is the mental health treatment in this country is broken. Many people don’t seek services until their situations become emergencies,” he said.

    Ideally, mental health would be treated as proactively as a physical illness. “In all of the other areas of medicine, the focus is on prevention,” said Honberg. “There’s been a lot of research on early intervention, not just treatment but also psychosocial reports and family involvement … that they reduce homelessness and the need for medication.”

    Jeff Deeney, a social worker in Philadelphia, agrees. In addition, the database, while useful, increases stigma, he said.

     “We’re talking about a very, very small number of people with a very severe mental illness,” Denney said.

    Some lawmakers are also beating the drum for sweeping change in mental health care. Congressmen Timothy Murphy of Pennsylvania and Ron Barber of Arizona have introduced their own bills to bring more resources and attention to mental health treatment and institutions in light of recent shootings.

    Still, the database exists as a stopgap, and states make their own rules on what bears reporting. Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware each have slightly different requirements for what types or severity of mental illness warrants inclusion in the database.

    For example, New Jersey’s code includes language that bans “any person who is presently a habitual drunkard.” In Delaware, someone who has previously been committed may still purchase a firearm with “a certificate from a medical doctor or psychiatrist licensed in Delaware stating that the person is no longer suffering from a mental disorder which interferes or handicaps the person from handling deadly weapons.”

    Efforts to beef up the national gun database with information on mental illness began in 2008 after the mass shootings at Virginia Tech.

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