Jayne: On guns, mental illness and the intersection of the two

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 
photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

We need to talk. About violence. About guns. About mental illness. We need to talk about the things that seem so maddeningly difficult to talk about in this country. We need to talk about the same things we needed to talk about after the last mass shooting, and the one before that, and the one before that.

Take gun control. Look, I'm not in favor of banning guns. I recognize the impossibility of that, and I understand the Second Amendment. I realize that guns are a part of our culture and our heritage and our security as a people. But what about more stringent background checks? Can we start with that? Can we at least discuss the impact and the efficacy of stronger background checks before allowing a citizen to purchase an instrument of death?

The last time we tried to talk about it, Congress cowered and evaded the discussion. That was inexplicable.

If we had bridges collapsing and killing 32 people in Virginia, then 12 people in Colorado, then 27 people in Connecticut, then 12 people in Washington, D.C., we would expect Congress to do something about bridges, wouldn't we? If we had airplanes falling out of the sky, we would expect some investigation and some regulation of airplanes, wouldn't we? We would expect our leaders to limit the possibility of it happening again, right? For some reason, no discussion of gun control can even get on the docket.

Background checks and security checks didn't prevent Aaron Alexis from gaining the guns or the access he needed to murder 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. And they didn't prevent a mass shooting Friday in a Chicago park. But with increased diligence, we might prevent the next one or the one after that, and I don't see what is so wrong about trying.

Yet, I didn't come here to talk about gun control. I came to talk about mental illness.

Empathy for mental illness

See, I have witnessed mental illness up close, through a family member. It's difficult. It's painful. It's impossible to deal with. When the person I know is off their medication, there is no reasoning with them. They are paranoid and delusional, and I can't count the number of times I have given thanks that they didn't have access to a gun. When they are taking care of themselves, they are funny and bright and extremely intelligent. Annoyingly intelligent if you ever try to argue with them. They can deal with the world and even thrive in it; they just need a little help.

There is a stigma about mental illness in this country, and it's time we got past that. We don't shun somebody who has a heart attack and requires heart medication. We offer empathy and wish them well in dealing with their illness. Mental illness is no different. It's usually a chemical imbalance that is treatable.

Aaron Alexis sought treatment because he was hearing voices in his head, yet that wasn't enough to get him help. Our nation's current method for dealing with mental illness is to limit access to care until the person finds themselves in a desperate downward cycle. That's shameful.

And it is something that must, absolutely must, be addressed before any discussion about gun control. We could go to the extreme and ban all guns (I'm not advocating that; I'm mocking it). Think that will help? Think that will eliminate guns in this country? Think Alexis or Adam Lanza in Connecticut or James Holmes in Colorado could have been stopped by a law banning guns? They didn't seem deterred by laws against murder; I don't think they would have worried about breaking a law regarding gun possession.

The point is that you can't reason with somebody who is deranged. Millions upon millions of people suffer from mental disorders; most of them, fortunately, don't view a shooting rampage as a viable outlet.

But the number who do find some sort of comfort in mass murder has grown all too large. We'll never identify an adequate explanation for what unleashes the evil. We can't rationalize the irrational; we can't reason with crazy. Yet we can examine the underlying causes and do everything in our power to mitigate them. But first we need to be willing to talk.