Mental Health Education, Not Gun Laws, Will Reduce Violence in Our Schools

Forgive me going off-topic, but this isn’t that far off-topic. Before you start screaming about gun control – and I certainly know why you’d want to today – it makes more sense to look at this in the sense of message vs. messenger. Guns are the messenger and the shooters are the message…and the message is that we need just as much energy, attention and resources devoted to mental health as we do gun control.

Years ago, before I went to jail, I was a firm believer is strict gun control laws. The math made sense. Less guns equals less gun violence, right? It’s a knee-jerk reaction when school shootings happen. You want to go after whoever did it. This was the rare case where the murderer didn’t kill himself. No murderer, you go after the murder weapon. It’s human nature. I did this for years.

Then I spent six months in jail. One of the rights I give up as somebody who has committed a felony is the right to bear arms. I’m OK with that as I’ve never owned a gun. I’m too clumsy, have no interest in hunting, and have a home security system my children can’t accidentally kill themselves with.

In jail, I got to meet a lot of criminals. If you’ve read my stuff before, you probably know I’m more of the figure-out-what-makes-you-tick vs. judge-you kind of guy. I found the people I lived with in jail absolutely fascinating because I’d not been around this socioeconomic group with any regularity in life. Talking to them changed my outlook on gun control.

Here’s the thing: Criminals know how to get guns. Many felons who aren’t supposed to have guns own several. By virtue of the fact that they have a proven track record of not following the law, it should come as no surprise to anybody that criminals don’t care about gun laws. If they want a gun, they’ll have a gun. There is no legislation about bump stocks, silencers, ammunition types, etc. that are going to stop them. I met too many inmates who don’t care about gun laws to believe that any legislation is going to keep them out of the hands of criminals.

Here’s the other thing I realized in jail: There is a huge amount of unchecked mental illness in this world. Most people I was locked up with were there for drug violations or domestic abuse. Those who were in for major drug violations were usually dealing to fund their habit, otherwise, they were caught for possession and from what I could tell, their use was medicinal, not recreational. Those who battered their girlfriend or wives did so because they didn’t have the tools to solve conflict in a non-violent manner.

Maybe I’ve been in therapy so long (over 20 years off and on now) that I have picked up a lot by osmosis, but unless they were intellectually deficient, there was almost always a mental health issue at play with the people I met in jail. When the medical cart came around in the evening, two-thirds of us took some kind of med and several of those who didn’t probably would have qualified.

I will never believe that somebody who is capable of killing almost 20 people in cold blood in such a public manner is not mentally ill. He should be locked up forever – mental illness doesn’t excuse crime in my opinion – but to suggest just because school shooters are able to carry out a plan shows that they are sane displays a lack of understanding of mental illness.

This country is still too conservative and puritanical when it comes to accepting mental illness. If you can’t put a Band-Aid on your boo-boo, it’s not a real boo-boo. Stop your crying and go be a man! Maybe that attitude is what got us to a place where you have to kill more than three or four kids in a school shooting for people to even notice anymore.

I’m not going to suggest for a moment I know what was going on in this Florida shooter’s life, but from the little I read today, it does sound like there were certainly warning signs, both in his outward behavior and threats he made. If we knew as much about mental health as we do about physical health, maybe something could have been done.

We’re going to make our greatest strides toward curbing gun violence – and not just in schools, but across the board – when we finally give mental health the attention it deserves. We’ll check sixth grade kids for scoliosis, but we won’t take five minutes to find out if they’re depressed. Something is wrong with this picture.