Gun control, mental illness debates are heating up

Scores of Darien residents visited First Congregational Church on Wednesday, Dec. 19, for a community prayer service to support one another and remember the innocent victims of the Newtown tragedy. The church is considered Darien’s oldest place of worship. (Darien Times/Laureen Vellante photo)

The debate over gun rights, social mores and school safety took a sharp turn in light of the recent school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six adults were killed by a young man with a history of mental illness.

Adam Lanza used a legally-obtained semi-automatic assault rifle to commit his mass murder spree in Newtown on Dec. 14, according to state police. Darien Schools were put on heightened awareness after the incident, and Superintendent Dr. Stephen Falcone said the schools are determining if its security practices are adequate.

“We have magnetic key entry, cameras, security personnel, sign-in procedures and other measures in place,” Falcone stated in an email. “We will certainly be talking about increased security supervision in the schools, the need for cameras, updating procedures, and refining drills.”

A proposal to add security cameras at all five elementary schools and the middle school was on the schools’ capital project request last year, but the Board of Finance asked the schools to not add cameras, which saved around $117,000. The high school is the only school that has video surveillance.

Cameras, however, cannot stop bullets, and often only provide insight into an activity after it happens. Falcone said that adding additional security guards or police officers at the schools will be a topic of conversation among his staff and the Board of Education over the coming weeks. The high school is the only school that currently has a full-time police officer on-site.

But more security doesn’t necessarily mean safer schools, according to Ox Ridge parent Jenny Voelker.

“I don’t mind police in schools, but feel that having them there would be overkill,” Voelker told The Times. “Most police in schools will be standing around doing nothing. And unfortunately you can’t guard a school completely against a determined perpetrator, police or no police.”

A Tokeneke parent, who asked her name be withheld due to the “divisiveness of this issue,” said extra security might be a successful deterrent.

“I believe that the additional security may give some peace of mind to school faculty, as well as to concerned parents and students,” she said. “It may also serve as a deterrent to others with dark thoughts who may be contemplating something similar… While a police officer doesn’t get to the root of the problem, it is a double measure and offers children protection that is immediate.”

Royle parent Rob Werner said the complexity of the problem at hand is daunting, and a solution is going to take some great minds and lots of elbow grease.

“No law, no weapons ban, no disclosure is going to make us 100% safe,” Werner said. “And any action — fewer guns or more security — is going to have its price… Arming our schools may be one answer, but I’d opt first for trying the same restrictions we already mandate for automobiles and drivers’ licenses.”

Gun control advocates have been circulating the idea that guns should be regulated like vehicles — mandatory liability insurance for accidents; annual registration requirements; aptitude tests for licenses; and also titles and tags at point of sale, along with inspections at regular intervals. Gun rights advocates claim this would only serve to allow for people with means to own guns, and those with little money would not be able to pay for the additional requirements.

Japan, a country with the most strict gun control laws among developed nations, manages its firearms in such ways. Japan also has the lowest rate of gun-related deaths of all developed countries, according to a study by National Rifle Association member David Kopel, whose findings were published in the “Asia Pacific Law Review” in 1993 and still considered relevant by legal experts.

Gun rights advocates often disagree, and many point to Chicago’s strict gun control laws having little effect on its high rate of gun violence. However, that city’s gun control measures do little to control how people can obtain guns outside of city limits, and gun laws in each state vary widely.

One of the most comprehensive examinations of gun control measures and its effect on violence was undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2003, but because of the wide array of laws among states, grandfather clauses and interpretations, the study failed to conclude whether gun control measures decrease gun violence.

“This is a critical period for focused research on the effectiveness of firearms laws in reducing violence in the United States,” the authors of the study stated. “Although [this study] found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of these laws in preventing violence, research should continue on the effectiveness of firearms laws as one approach to the prevention or reduction of firearms violence and firearms injury.”

Connecticut is commonly cited as having some of the strictest gun control laws in the country. This data comes from various sources including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and a recent study by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence comparing CDC data of firearm-related deaths to each state’s level of gun control.

The study concluded that states with strict gun control laws have fewer gun-related deaths. Connecticut was ranked No. 4 for it’s level of gun control, and scored sixth-lowest in gun deaths, according to the study. Other studies have not been conclusive, and according to a recent report from the Journal of the American Medical Association, this is a symptom of the NRA’s strong lobbying.

“The nation might be in a better position to act if medical and public health researchers had continued to study these issues as diligently as some of us did between 1985 and 1997,” the report stated.

Major efforts to block research were successful starting in 1996, when pro-gun Congress members cut $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget, which was the amount the center spent on gun injury research the year before, the report continued.

On Friday, Dec. 21, the National Rifle Association held a press conference after a week of silence, in response to the previous week’s shooting. Wayne LaPierre, the association’s executive vice president, presented the idea of placing armed guards at schools, and stated that gun-free school zones “tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.”

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said.

Congressman Jim Himes called ideas of arming teachers or civilians to take down shooters “insane.”

“On the surface level, you think, ‘I could take down a shooter’,” Himes said. “That’s just not realistic.” Just having a gun in the household increases the chance of death, according to Himes.

“Gun violence is an enormous cost on our society, financially and emotionally,” Himes said, and for this reason he would consider supporting an array of solutions. The congressman carefully noted that the goal of legislation should be to reduce “horrible gun violence,” not necessarily to get rid of all guns.

For many, gun control versus gun rights is only a portion of the conversation. Many point to a breakdown in the family structure, violence in the media and video games, along with a rise in mental illness as potential factors contributing to the increase in mass shootings.

“While I am not a fan of violent video games, I think blaming them for today’s ills is too simplistic,” said Voelker, the Ox Ridge parent. “The real problem seems to be mental illness, social isolation, brokenness and lack of love. Have you noticed that perpetrators of school shootings are often described as loners?”

In 2011, a study published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that over 45 million Americans, or one in five adults, suffer from a mental illness. Of these, it’s estimated that 62% failed to receive health services for their illness.

“Too many Americans are not getting the help they need and opportunities to prevent and intervene early are being missed,” stated Pamela Hyde, an administrator with the organization.

The study also noted that 42% of these people didn’t seek help because of unemployment or lack of health care.

“It’s disconcerting that one in every five Americans suffers a mental illness and of those many fail to receive adequate treatment,” writes Tyger Latham, a Washington, D.C., psychologist, in Psychology Today. “How is it that one of the most prosperous and economically advanced countries in the world has failed to care for its own? This strikes me as a question we should be asking ourselves and one in need of immediate attention.”

Reports have indicated that Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, sought to commit her son for his mental illness but that she was having trouble navigating through red tape.

Even if guns were completely eliminated, mentally ill individuals who are prone to violence would still be able to commit atrocities. In China, where firearms are illegal, a rash of murders and attacks on elementary school students swept the country two years ago, as mentally ill people used knives, swords and cleavers to kill their victims. Many pointed to rapid social change, a crumbling of traditions, and lack of mental health awareness as contributing factors to these bizarre and brutal crimes.

As the state and nation begin to heal from the Newtown tragedy, people from all walks of life have serious questions to ask of themselves and their elected leaders about what steps to take, if any, to try and fix whatever is broken.

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