KeepHealthCare.ORG – ‘See something-say something’ helps police, mental health officials prevent gun violence
By Lacey Rzeszowki and Joseph d’Oronzio
With each mass shooting, we are only a few degrees removed from the breathless child crouched in a silenced classroom or the frantic screams at an open-air concert. Our hearts pound when his social media threats are revealed; we stand dumbstruck when we learn that others “saw this coming” or when his cache of firearms is discovered.
But while the firearm homicide rate in the United States is in fact declining, the firearm suicide rate is increasing.
And due to gun violence, the United States is the most dangerous place for a woman in the developed world. Statistics like these remind us that the epidemic of gun violence must be challenged on multiple fronts. We must support legislative solutions that include effective mental health intervention and raising the age for gun purchase alongside other regulatory initiatives.
New Jersey has been at the forefront of enacting laws to prevent gun violence. Gov. Phil Murphy, who placed gun violence prevention squarely as a cornerstone of his platform, is now poised to make good on campaign promises as seven bills make it to his desk later this month. These bills address issues ranging from closing the background checks loophole in private sales to limiting the capacity of long guns.
We urge Murphy to support each of these bills.
Two of these bills passed in the Assembly, A-1181/S-160 and A-1217/S-2259, are worthy of special attention both because they begin to address mental health issues and because they have been widely misunderstood.
The purpose of both of these bills is to provide law enforcement with the means to take away firearms from persons who have been reported as being dangerously mentally unstable. This warning may come from either a health care professional or from family members, household members, friends and other individuals in regular contact who notice behavioral warning signs.
The first of these bills, A-1181/S-160, “requires firearms seizure when [a] mental health professional determines [a] patient poses threat of harm to self or others.” At a recent Assembly Judiciary Committee meeting, we were surprised to see gun violence prevention advocates join with gun enthusiasts in testifying against this bill. Gun enthusiasts claimed the bill violates Second Amendment rights, while gun violence prevention advocates contended that it stretched the limits of professional responsibility too far.
This concern is misplaced.
The mental health professional’s “Duty to Warn” already exists in most states, including New Jersey. These laws, in general, either permit or even require mental health professionals to breach patient confidentiality in order to warn potential victims or law enforcement agencies of a possible crime or harmful act by a patient or client.
This legislation seeks to amend New Jersey’s “Duty to Warn” law by permitting law enforcement to obtain a court warrant to investigate and seize a suspect’s firearms. The health professional’s responsibility remains unchanged while the law enforcement power is enhanced with due process protections for the citizens.
It is also false to claim, as some opponents have, that the bill expands the definition of mental health professionals. This mental health grouping is already well defined in state law as those “medical or counseling practitioners” who are protected from civil liability in the lawful conduct of their professional work.
The second bill, A-1217/ S-2259, establishes what’s known as a “Gun Violence Restraining Order” law. These laws rely on family and household members, friends and other individuals in regular contact who may notice warning signs. This sort of legislation has precedent, such as in Connecticut, Indiana, California, Oregon, Washington, Rhode Island, Vermont and Florida (after Parkland). These states based the legislation on existing domestic violence restraining orders procedures, assuring constitutionality and due process.
As much as mass shootings are highly publicized, they actually account for a small fraction of the total gun deaths per year. The lifesaving impact of these laws will be measured in cases of suicide and domestic violence prevention. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and guns are the primary means by which people commit suicide. When people unsuccessfully attempt suicide, 70 percent of them never attempt it again. But since 85 percent of suicide attempts with a gun are fatal, very few of these individuals ever get a second chance.
In cases of domestic violence in America, more intimate partners have been killed with a gun than with all other weapons combined, and domestic violence offenders are five times more likely to murder an intimate partner when a firearm is in the house.
Taking guns away from dangerous people and people in crisis is critical. Both of these bills use “see something – say something” tactics to identify people likely to turn towards violence. Additionally, by empowering a diverse community of citizens, professionals and the judicial system in a positive and cooperative method, we break the chain of helplessness that marks the tragic repetitions of our evening news.
In addition to supporting the five other gun safety laws working their way through the legislative process in New Jersey, we see great potential for addressing the more ambiguous element of mental health.
The legislative proposals for the expansion of health professional “Duty to Warn” and for community-based “Extreme Risk” empowerment are smart, practical legislative solutions that will save lives.
Lacey Rzeszowski is a gun-violence prevention advocate who ran for New Jersey Assembly in 2017.
Joseph d’Oronzio recently retired from the faculty of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia, where he taught ethics and public policy. He was the 2003-04 Raoul Wallenberg Visiting Professor in Human Rights at Rutgers University.
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