Gun control and mental health: DU panel takes aim

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More photos below.
What role should mental health play in a discussion of gun-control legislation? Is it possible to limit access to firearms without trampling on the rights of those who battle mental illness? Is a future consensus on gun control within the realm of possibility, or are debates over the Second Amendment forever doomed to inspire little more than growing discord?

All of that, and more, was on the table last night at the University of Denver, where a panel of local lawmakers and other experts tackled these issues and more.

Moderator Fran Coleman made it clear from the beginning of the event that none of these questions would be answered -- but that wasn't the point of the discussion. Instead, it was designed to illuminate multiple perspectives on gun control and mental health.

Hosted by the University of Denver's Enrichment Program, "Gun Control and Mental Health" featured an impressive panel: state senator Lois Tochtrop, state representative Brian DelGrosso; former lawmaker Moe Keller, who currently serves as vice president of Public Policy and Strategic Initiative at Mental Health America of Colorado; MHAC's Michael Lott Manier; Colorado Ceasefire's Tom Mauser; George DelGrosso, CEO of the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council; and Denise Maes of Colorado's American Civil Liberties Union.

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Nick Petrak
Michael Manier and Fran Coleman.
The discussion opened with the panelists offering brief reviews of their experience, in some cases going beyond the standard bullet points to include statements of personal belief and/or political conviction. "I believe a gun is a tool," said Brian DelGrosso, who favors the separation of gun control and mental-health issues. "The threat of losing their firearms prevents many people from seeking out the mental help they need."

Keller told the audience that mental-health issues are more common to American culture than most citizens realize. "One in four Americans are dealing with mental-health issues at any point in time," she said. "And it's easier to get a gun in the U.S. than it is to get mental health treatment."

Tochtrop also called for more attention to mental-health issues. "We need to educate without a stigma," she said before relating how hospitals frequently reject patients who suffer chronic mental illness. "Many hospitals claim to have only 'X' number of beds dedicated to mental-health patients and refuse to admit more once all those beds have been taken."

Manier echoed calls for higher quality mental-health care, but pointed out that only 4 percent of gun-related crimes are committed by people with a diagnosed mental-health issue. He also noted that 76 percent of the people who misuse guns in Colorado employ them for suicide, adding that "because two-thirds of national gun deaths are suicides, the most important aspect of any mental health and firearm legislation is how it relates to suicide."

Brian DelGrosso didn't buy it. "I don't believe that any of the current legislation will actually increase safety," he said. "I live my life in public just like anyone else. I have several kids who all go to public schools, too. If I thought any of the recent state legislation would do more to keep them safe, I would have signed it. But I didn't."

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Tom Mauser and his son Daniel, who was killed at Columbine in 1999.
One of the last questions posed by Coleman dealt with the responsibility of families and the roles they play in seeking help for their own mental-health issues. No one was entirely sure how to answer, but the question inspired some insightful remarks from Mauser, who lost his son Daniel at Columbine in 1999. "We're not a nation known for being good at intervening," he said. "Americans place such a high value on privacy that other important issues are ignored and people suffer because of it."

At the end of the evening, panelists fielded questions from the audience. The first came from an older gentleman who appeared utterly disenchanted. "We hold manufacturers for cars and baby carriers responsible for certain regulations, but the gun lobby is so strong that no one even considers it," he said, thrusting an index finger toward several panel members. "You spent all this time talking and never even got around to the bigger issue."

Granted, gun control is a big issue with which to come to grips -- and the mental-health aspect of last night's event only added to the complexity. Each panelist came off as well-read, intelligent and experienced -- but their divergent perspectives mirrored the disagreement so familiar to any serious conversation about the Second Amendment.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Colorado gun-control laws: Columbine dad criticizes sheriffs' lawsuit."

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17 comments
Matthew Denniston
Matthew Denniston

Laws don't kill people, people kill people. We don't need better laws, we need better people.

Alison Burton
Alison Burton

If more fun = completely psychotic, responding to both auditory and visual hallucinations, and unable to decipher reality from internal stimuli... Also im not arguing that ill prescribed meds are fine. Of course they're not. And malpractice is a whole other issue. But it is a proven fact that accurately prescribed meds can greatly improve the mental health of ill individuals. In combination with therapy and close monitoring by a psychiatrist NOT a GP.

Betel Eli Guese
Betel Eli Guese

i blame the medication. most of the people I know are leggaly psychotic. but they are the smartest, most respectfull, understanding, supportive, honest, and nicest people i know. the second they take some dam pill they turn into a stuck up, non caring, depressed, fuck the world, they are better then every one els, jerk.

Matt Nelson
Matt Nelson

Laws rarely fix the issue they're meant to target. Education is the only thing that will fix this. Education on the over medication of our country. America leads the way in over prescribed meds as well as meds prescribed based on 'the side affect potentially helping'. I have a relative who was prescribed anti depressants for congestion... 'Don't worry about the potential side affects of SUICIDE, but we'll depend on the side affect of clearing your nasal passages to get the job done all while ignoring the intense chemical imbalance this could cause in the communication of the brain hemispheres.' This mentality seems to plague the medical industry and in turn America. It doesn't help that pharmaceutical reps are about as qualified as a monkey at the zoo all while being depended on by doctors to inform them of the potentials of the drugs they push. They are often misleading due to the carefully worded pamphlets and over all poor quality of education from the company that hired these people to push their drugs. Also they're paid on commission, so why would they want to report accurately on what these drugs do, it's money out of their pocket. In my opinion, the pharmaceutical industry is largely to blame. It could be argued that 'well these people happened to all be on anti-depressants to bar this sort of behavior.' But it could also be argued that these meds side affects were the cause of them going over the edge. Also, a risk of suicide, might as well be considered a risk of homicide. If someone is willing to kill themselves and is confused as to why due to a pharmaceutical related chemical imbalance, wouldn't it make sense that they may want to take some other people out before they do? Every mass shooting I've ever looked into in depth has had this common factor. (I didn't even touch on the neglectful prescription of multiple meds that interfere with each other to cause more issues that aren't quite as easy to look into as the side affect of a single drug.) A law would only be circumvented by these large corporate interests and at the most would hold doctors who were ignorantly sold this stuff to be held accountable. It would be like holding the middle man accountable while letting the cartel leader go free.

Alison Burton
Alison Burton

That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Medicating does not make ppl more ill (in most cases). Have you ever seen a schizophrenic or bipolar person UNmedicated? They can become bat shit crazy. Get your facts straight John. Medication in combination with intensive therapy and a stable environment allow the mentally ill to become successful in our society.

John Pinnick
John Pinnick

It's not gun laws and I don't think it's the mental health that is the issue. It's the medication that most of these people have been on that is the issue. Yes, they have some mental issues but the meds are pushing them over the top. Stop with the medication of society. Between them putting everyone on meds and taking control of the guns and re positioning military all over the country, I'm beginning to thing that there's something going on here. HMMMMMMMM...

Russell Lott
Russell Lott

we all know - guns don't kill people ... people kill people with whatever tool they can ... be it a stick, a knife, a car, ... and crazy people are the ones doing the murdering

Noah Nethero
Noah Nethero

I think the media and anti gun people play a bigger role. You people keep on making twisted stars out of shooters which just entices the next crazy. Stop making this front page news and it won't fetishize and inspire the next sick person. None of your do good laws would have done a thing and will never make a difference either.

Jordan Snyder
Jordan Snyder

I don't think laws have much to do with it. I think one problem is identification - ie, teachers and parents, commanding officers, colleagues don't think "man I think that guy's gonna open up and kill a bunch of people." So what law would help with that, on either side? You can't control and often can't predict errant behavior, period, so how could a law change that? Two things bother me about this "let's pass a law" mentality - first of all you're more likely to die from food poisoning than a mass shooter, and the media doesn't seem to report on the times where a licensed and healthy-minded gunman brought down a mass shooter. We hear about the single insane, extreme case, but not about the normal people who actually save lives with a gun. Honestly if you want to pass a law on guns, let's take them out of the hands of authoritarian trigger-happy cops.

ecurmudgeon
ecurmudgeon

Just wait - The reason gun-control advocates are so "gun-ho" on "mental health" issues is that they think they can classify the desire to own a firearm as a "mental illness" (an obvious precursor to violent behavior, perhaps) and subsequently deny ownership.

Cognitive_Dissident
Cognitive_Dissident

"He also noted that 76 percent of the people who misuse guns in Colorado employ them for suicide."

Most of the people I know would argue with the use of the term "misuse." If your life is your property, it's also your right to end it. Whether or not it's a popular decision is a completely different question.

"We hold manufacturers for cars and baby carriers responsible for certain regulations, but the gun lobby is so strong that no one even considers it..."

Of course, someone pointed out that car and baby carrier companies are held liable for their products failing to work as designed or failure to be designed to work as expected by the user. The people who want to go after gun manufacturers go after them precisely because they work as designed and the design is effective. It's the user who who kills, when that occurs.

Cognitive_Dissident
Cognitive_Dissident

"And it's easier to get a gun in the U.S. than it is to get mental health treatment."

I don't believe that's even true. If done both, and I had to jump through a lot of hoops to get some of my guns, including writing a letter to the CBI on one occasion to find out why my right to purchase was denied. It turns out it was a "mistake" they didn't even apologize for making.

When I lost a job, it was amidst several other issues in my life, and I chose to get mental health help. THAT was easy. I scheduled appointments, and I visited the office where I was counseled. I didn't need to ask for permission and I wasn't denied anything. I think the registration form was even shorter.

Cognitive_Dissident
Cognitive_Dissident

My favorite professional activist! He's made it his job to make life difficult on all gun owners since the monsters killed his kid. I felt badly for him before he turned it into a career. 

I don't know how demented you have to be to use the death of your child as an excuse to harass unrelated third parties into perpetuity.

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