February 2012 home page

Who’s Holding the Gun?
Nancy Fisher | 24th Street


The big questions are finally being asked on a national level. Are guns the cause of tragedies such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Is it our failure to identify and adequately treat the mentally ill? Or is it some combination of the two? And unfortunately, through credentials I wouldn’t wish on anyone, I feel qualified to comment.

At the age of eighteen, during his first year of college, my half-brother was diagnosed with severe Bipolar Disorder, which at the time was still more commonly known as Manic Depression. It seemed to appear out of nowhere until we learned that it ran in his biological father’s family, leaving him genetically predisposed. It’s important to note that most people who suffer from this disorder, with treatment, lead normal and often exemplary lives. The staggering number of those affected suggests that many of you have loved, attended classes with, or worked with someone who was Bipolar without even knowing it. But my brother’s case was so extreme that he sometimes exhibited the delusions that are more commonly associated with Schizophrenia, a related disorder generally considered even more difficult to treat -- and, on more than one occasion, he believed he was Jesus Christ. Even with the finest care (including that of the late, great, Dr. John Feighner) and state-of-the-art medications, he never stabilized for long periods of time. Today, old enough for his AARP card, he lives in a North County Board and Care and is still intermittently hospitalized.

So could my brother ever have picked up an assault rifle and killed innocent children? Not the brother who was a good high school student with a wall full of medals for swimming and a devoted circle of childhood friends. Not the brother who was known, and is still remembered, for choosing the most thoughtful birthday gifts his friends and family ever received. But what about the brother, guided by delusions, who felt omnipotent? And what if he’d had easy access to a weapon? Maybe.

No one can really know. Those who believe that people, not guns, are the problem are correct – until that gun falls into the hands of someone who is experiencing hallucinations and hearing voices. Far from being the “genuine monsters” described by Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, the troubled individuals responsible for most inexplicable mass killings are often quickly identified as having a history of mental illness.

Banning assault weapons and limiting ammunition sales may or may not help to prevent another tragedy, but it certainly can’t hurt. And even more promising are new laws, such as New York’s Kendra’s Law, that empower judges to order outpatient treatment for individuals who are believed, through stringent criteria, to pose a threat to themselves or others. Laura’s Law, based on Kendra’s Law and signed into California law in 2002, has yet to be implemented in San Diego County, and many are pushing for its passage.

For now the county has chosen to enter into a three-year pilot program known as IHOT (In-Home Outreach Team), operated by Telecare, Inc., which, according to County Supervisor Dave Roberts, supports many of the goals of Laura’s Law. “We all know that guns and behavioral health illnesses do not mix,” says Roberts. “We all understand the implications of Sandy Hook and we are struggling to ensure that it never happens here in San Diego County. I believe that our best bet to keep guns out of the hands of those with behavioral health illnesses is to identify those who need treatment, and provide that treatment.”



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