On Tuesday, January 15, society was met with news that may bring hope to some. But others may encounter problems rather than hope as a result. New York legislators passed a gun control bill requiring mental health therapists who believe their client has the potential to become violent to report to law enforcement that the individual has weapons that need to be confiscated.
As a firm believer in gun control laws and restrictions on violent video games, I am in favor of an in-depth conversation on legislative reform. However, as I read multiple reports on the passing of this new law, I began to question whether this legislative act will actually remedy gun violence. I pondered whether the confiscation of weapons from an individual deemed mentally impaired could lead to more problems than expected.
Severe, untreated mental illness is a complex phenomenon, and dealing with it can be quite a challenge. I have identified three issues that should prompt further consideration before such gun laws are implemented in other states.
1. Negative response by individuals unaware of the extent of their illness. Most people are unfamiliar with the behavioral characteristics, including rule resistance, that individuals with severe, untreated mental illness exhibit. Their behavior can present as extremely rigid and being asked to follow the simplest rule can provoke outbursts.
Many individuals with untreated mental illness do not see the necessity of seeking treatment, and many will not think they are ill enough to have their weapons taken away. Confiscating the weapons of people unaware of their own mental impairment could lead to a tug-of-war between the individual and law enforcement, resulting in bloodshed.
2. Negative response due to reduced autonomy. Confiscating weapons feels to many individuals like an attack on their autonomy. When a person feels as if their freedom is being curtailed, the resulting behavior is often negative. Some people will verbally or physically challenge authority; some may be willing to die for their “freedom.” Confiscating weapons from an individual who feels this way will not be a positive experience.
3. Lack of mental health education for law enforcement personnel. The work of men and women in law enforcement requires great courage and stamina. They live dangerous lives. Many, however, are unaware of mental health issues and how they may affect the compliance of individuals they encounter. If law enforcement personnel are to become more involved in the mental health field by having to confiscate weapons from severely impaired individuals, they should be required to engage in continuing education about mental health.
When therapists are trained to work with the severely mentally ill, they are taught to identify patterns of behavior that might signal agitation or violent outbursts from clients. For the most part, experience, education, and intuition come together in such cases. Mental health professionals are also trained to calm emotionally intense situations. Unfortunately this is not the type of training law enforcement personnel receive.
Neglecting the True Problem
Citizens are understandably horrified by the recent cascade of violence in our communities and society appears desperate to find a remedy. The problem with some of the proposed laws is that rather than address mental health issues, they neglect them. It is important to learn better ways to approach people with severe mental illness when weapons must be retrieved.
Because reporting the potential for violence among clients is more art than science and requires personal judgment, it is very risky for a therapist to step out on a limb and report a client. It not only reduces trust in the therapist-client relationship, but labels the client as well. Innocent clients who might never engage in violence may be labeled “potentially violent.”
We need a frank discussion that focuses on how to safely confiscate weapons from an individual with a severe, untreated mental illness. Society will not be made safer by simply sending in law enforcement professionals to retrieve guns. What is required is knowledge about how to calmly and wisely approach those who have the potential to kill.
Gun photo available from Shutterstock