The federal government believed Colby Sue Weathers was a paranoid schizophrenic. It had information that she was delusional and suicidal, unable to work and therefore eligible for Medicaid and disability benefits.
One summer day in 2012, Weathers cashed her government check, bought a .45 caliber pistol from Missouri gun shop, returned home and shot her father dead.
So here’s the question: If the federal government considers a person is mentally ill enough to receive financial benefits, why can’t it also decide that person is dangerous enough to be banned from buying a gun?
Members of Congress leap to protect the Second Amendment, especially on behalf of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who might receive disability benefits. Medical professionals fear they’ll bear culpability for pronouncing a person dangerous or for not finding one so, if the patient then goes on to commit a violent act. Mental health advocates warn against stereotyping people suffering from depression as dangerous. Privacy experts fear medical records will be compromised and say the government shouldn’t be cross-pollinating its records systems. The Social Security Administration would have to share data with the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which federally licensed gun dealers use.
And the National Rifle Association just as soon would keep talking about the lack of mental health treatment options, and keep firearms out of the conversation altogether.
And yet the intersection between guns and mental illness is the one point that has gained traction with the public as incident after incident happens in which a mentally unstable person takes a gun and commits mass murder.
The federal government must be careful not to overreach in its efforts to bar people from gun ownership because of severe mental illness. Most people with mental illness are not violent. But reluctance to assign further stigma to the mentally ill cannot stand in the way of better processes.
The Obama administration moved slightly in the right direction earlier this year by expanding designations that can prohibit gun ownership by the mentally ill to include some people who have been treated in outpatient, not just inpatient care. It also made it easier for physicians to report to NICS and remain within federal privacy standards.
We need to remain focused on the crux of the problem. It isn’t that America has higher rates of mental illness than other countries. Nor is it that our problems with gun violence are merely a question of insufficient mental health care.Our problem is the easy access to guns by the dangerously mentally ill. And we’ve got a long way to go to correct that.