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New Gun Control Law Takes Aim at Addicts

Rather than treat a vulnerable population, legislators gear up to regulate them.


t is far easier for Americans to buy a gun than to get treatment for mental health or addiction, let alone for both. Our nation's lack of these services is getting an unusual amount of attention right now in the fierce debate about gun control following December's mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school. Yet some of the measures being proposed—and passed—are less about treating a vulnerable population and more about a heavy-handed attempt at regulating them. This poses a serious threat for almost half of all people who were or are addicts, as that's the percentage who have depression, anxiety or some other "mental illness."

The debate over how to reduce gun violence is portrayed by the media as polarized, pitting those who support gun rights against those who support gun control. In fact a majority of Americans, and even many gun owners, support a more balanced approach and agree that modest  measures to restrict access, such as universal background checks and bans on high-functioning magazines like 15- or 30-round devices, are in order. And all sides agree that such measures should include better screening of mentally ill people who have a history of violence.

President Obama has proposed stricter regulations on not only the people who buy guns but on the guns themselves, such as a ban on assault weapons. But at his State of the Union speech last week, the high point was his emotional appeal to Congress simply to allow a voteon gun control legislation, period. That voting on, rather than passing, a new gun law appears to be the best that reform advocates can hope to achieve makes plain who is winning this  debate: the hardcore minority of gun rights adherents, led by the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, who argue that the main cause of the rising trend in gun violence and mass murders is untreated mental illness. Their advocacy for stricter regulation of these people is already being written into new legislation in even the most liberal states.

Recovering from mental health and substance abuse disorders is difficult enough as it is, with proper and affordable treatment often stymied by a combination of poor access, diagnoses that address substance abuse while ignoring co-occurring mental illness, and the general stigma associated with both diseases. This is why these reporting provisions of state gun control proposals have mental health and addiction advocates digging in for a fight.

But it’s David versus Goliath. The mentally ill, not being a rich and powerful lobby like the NRA but rather a vulnerable and stigmatized minority, are an easy target. And yet an enormous one: annually about  25% of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, a total of almost 60 million people.

There is little evidence that focusing attention on mental illness as a cause of gun violence will have any but marginal effects, according to both public health and firearms experts. For one thing, a person with a diagnosis of mental illness is five times more likely to be the victim of violence than to be the perpetrator,  experts say. Only 4% of people who commit violence are mentally ill; those who are violent tend to suffer from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or some other serious problem. According to a large  study by the National Institute of Mental Health’s Epidemiological Catchment Area (ECA), 16% of people with a serious diagnosis commit violence, compared to 7% of people with no mental illness.


Addiction and mental health issues tend to go hand in hand—far more often than is generally recognized. According to the just-released 2011  survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 42% of the 19 million American adults with a substance abuse disorder had a co-occurring mental illness in 2011. By contrast, 17% of Americans without a substance abuse disorder had a mental illness. And the stark difference also holds on the other side of the equation: Adults with a mental illness are three times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol than adults without a mental illness.

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