How the Conversation On Guns Revolves Around Mental Health

A new federal ruling looks to address the apparent connection between gun violence and the mental health of potential gun owners.

By Laura Rice & Rhonda FanningJanuary 7, 2016 1:08 pm, ,

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 Appelbaum, professor 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.