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How the Conversation On Guns Revolves Around Mental Health

Image via Flickr/Paul Weaver (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

From Texas Standard:

Tonight, President Barack Obama will speak and take questions at a televised town hall hosted by CNN.

The topic? Guns – specifically, the administration's new executive orders on gun control.


The order has not officially been signed into law, but the White House is pushing ahead despite legal threats from Republicans. Today, we thought we'd focus on one of those proposals – one Democrats and Republicans have said should be addressed in decreasing gun violence in America: mental health.

Paul Appelbaumprofessor and director of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry at Columbia University, says current federal rules require individuals who have been "involuntarily committed" for mental health treatment, or found unable to manage personal affairs because of mental health issues, to be reported to a national database called National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Federally licensed firearm dealers are required to consult NCIS before selling a firearm to a customer.

"This whole system is premised on what may be a flawed notion," he says. "Namely, the notion that there's a clear relationship between mental health considerations and whether someone ought be allowed to purchase or to possess a weapon."

In fact, only a "tiny percentage" of violence, often cited at four percent, in the country is attributable to mental illness, Appelbaum says.

"Even if somehow you were able to eliminate the effect of mental illness entirely on violence, we'd still be left with about 96 percent of the violence we have today," he says.

Moreover, Appelbaum says, it's not clear that people with mental disorders are any more "predictable" in their behavior than people without mental illness. By law the database can only be accessed for background check purposes, but the information in the NICS database could raise privacy concerns, given the data it accumulates.

"The federal government now has a list of everyone who has been involuntarily committed for mental health reasons," he says. "Considering the federal government doesn't have a list of everyone who has a gun in this country, there's an odd disjunction between those two facts when it comes to reducing gun violence."

The new rule issued by the Obama administration this week informs states that disclosing the mental health status of individuals doesn't violate HIPAA, another federal law protecting medical privacy.

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
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