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Posted: May 29, 2014

Is mental health care reform the answer to mass shootings?

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By Steven Sparkman

ISLA VISTA, Calif. —

In the wake of mass shootings like 2011’s Tucson shooting; 2012’s Aurora, Colorado, shootings; the 2013 mass slayings at Sandy Hook Elementary School; and this month's mass murder near U.C. Santa Barbara, there are two issues you can count on to come up. (Via Wikimedia Commons / Steve KarpAlgrVoice of America)

“Saturday’s attack and Jared Loughner’s apparent mental health problems have shown a spotlight on issues surrounding mental health treatment in Arizona.” (Via Democracy Now!)

“If Adam Lanza had a gun safe in his room and all of these guns and ammunition … why was he allowed to possess such things?” (Via CNN)

Mental illness and gun control have become the two dominant parts of the national discussion around mass shootings.

The reaction to Friday’s shooting in California is no different. But while efforts to tighten restrictions on guns have failed, lawmakers are responding to the recent tragedy by focusing on mental health. (Via KSBYYouTube / Elliot Rodger)

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Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, a clinical psychologist, is pushing a new bill that would give families greater rights to intervene if they believe their loved one was becoming a threat. (Via C-SPAN)

“These parents knew. The parents of Adam Lanza knew, the parents of Jared Loughner knew something terrible was going wrong, but so often doctors and police would say, ‘Look, we can’t do anything about it until they practically have a knife to their throat or someone else’s.’” (Via CNN)

A competing bill sponsored by Rep. Ron Barber of Arizona seeks to expand federal mental health programs. (Via Office of Rep. Ron Barber)

And California's legislature is working on its own bills linking gun control to mental health. (Via Office of Assemblymember Nancy Skinner)

“Two California lawmakers are working on a law that would create a gun violence restraining order that could be requested by law enforcement, family members and friends.” (Via KABC)

But are these measures really part of the solution? Some psychiatrists say there are inherent problems with making it easier to lock up people with mental health issues.

An op-ed in The New York Times makes the point that, even for trained mental health professionals, it’s not easy to predict who will become violent. “If we can’t reliably identify people who are at risk of committing violent acts, then how can we possibly prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who are likely to kill? … A normal-appearing killer who is quietly planning a massacre can easily evade detection.”

The killer in Friday's rampage, Elliot Rodger, was interviewed by law enforcement last month at the request of his parents. Police determined he was not a threat, something the sheriff said he regrets.

“We certainly wish that we could turn the clock back and maybe change some things, but at the time that the deputies interacted with him, he was able to convince them that he was OK.” (Via CBS)

Typically, authorities can detain someone for mental health reasons only if they present an imminent threat to themselves or others. In light of suggestions to make the rule less strict, mental health advocates remind us there are civil rights issues at play here as well.

A social worker writing for The Atlantic says: “The civil mental health system is set up the way it is now … to protect citizens. … Our history of abuse-ridden mental hospitals where people were indefinitely detained demonstrates how such institutions can operate without strict oversight.”

So while mental health reforms have some bipartisan support, split opinion on their effectiveness and their potential for abuse could make those reforms divisive, as well.

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