In the days following the horrible shooting which killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, many people expressed ideas about how to prevent tragedies like this from reoccurring. What caused the shooter, a 20-year-old male, to act in such a violent manner? How could we have prevented this incident, and how can we protect the public in the future? These were questions that the public immediately wanted answered.
Media reports have offered a wide range of assertions in the aftermath of the shooting. Some reports quote a family friend who claims the shooter had Asperger’s Syndrome; however, autism and healthcare professionals were quick to point out that people with Asperger’s Syndrome do not typically display violent, homicidal behavior. Other reports expressed a need for increased gun control laws. President Obama and a number of lawmakers support reinstatement of an assault weapons ban or other gun control legislation. Recent nationwide polls show the tragedy led some members of the public to shift their opinion toward support for stricter gun control policies. One writer suggested that mental health screenings should be conducted before an individual can purchase a gun, similar to an eye exam before receiving a driver’s license. Another suggested solution included permitting or requiring school employees to carry weapons for the protection of the faculty and students.
Recent media attention also highlighted the gaps in health care for mental health patients. In a memorial service address two days after the attack, President Obama stated, “I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.” The President launched a gun-violence task force five days after the shooting that will examine an array of solutions to prevent mass shootings, including legislative measures and mental health resources. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act seeks to fill the void of inadequate mental health services by designating those services as one of the ten essential health benefit categories to be covered by certain health care plans sold to individuals and small businesses beginning 2014. Additionally, the Affordable Care Act requires depression screenings and alcohol misuse screenings and counseling to be provided without co-payments, co-insurance, or having to meet deductibles. The Prevention and Public Health Fund, created by the Act, also includes funding for the training of mental health professionals, suicide prevention programs, and the coordination and integration of primary and specialty care services in community-based mental health settings.
A physician commentator authored an article stating that another proposed suggestion, keeping guns out of the hands of mental health patients, may be an inappropriate focus. According to the article, only about four percent of the violent crimes committed in the United States are committed by the severely mentally ill. Alcohol and drug use are more likely to lead to violent behavior than mental illness alone. Statistics show an individual who abuses alcohol or drugs, but doesn’t have a mental illness, is nearly seven times as likely to commit a violent act as an individual without substance abuse. Additionally, federal law and the laws of many states already restrict gun possession by the mentally ill.
Are increased mental health coverage and screenings, or gun controls alone, solutions to the prevention of mass shootings? Probably not. What is clear is that the public health law community will have a vital role to play as policies are created and evaluated. We must work together to prevent such tragedies in the future in order to protect the public’s health and safety.
This information was developed by Leila Barraza, J.D., M.P.H., Deputy Director, Network for Public Health Law – Western Region at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. The views expressed in this blog do not represent those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.