Guns vs. Mental Health Supports: In Highland Park, ‘Why Can’t It Be Both?’

The man in the fluorescent green baseball cap looks nervously at the video camera, then politely declines to be interviewed.

Instead, he listens intently, edging closer as his friend Irwin Silbernik, 70, talks about guns, politics and the deadly mass shooting that ripped through the heart of this idyllic bedroom community on Monday.

Finally, the man, who identifies himself only as Jerry, works up the courage to step in front of the lens.

“I want to say something to the camera: I think the gun problem here in America is a serious mental health problem,” says Jerry.

“I actually have some sort of mental condition myself, and I know people right now who are dealing with conditions. There’s nowhere to go, no one to talk to, no one to contact, it seems.”

In the United States these days, the intersection of deadly weapons and mental health is difficult to navigate.

While Democrats, both progressive and moderate, take direct aim at gun rights after every mass shooting, Republicans of all stripes often use the frame of mind of the perpetrator as a weapon of their own.

That’s what Donald Trump did at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention just days after 19 children and two teachers were shot in an elementary school classroom in Uvalde, Texas.

“We need to make it much easier to confine the violent and mentally disturbed to psychiatric institutions,” Trump said.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz described the Uvalde gunman as one of many “lunatics and freaks” behind America’s mass shooting epidemic, insisting that gun control would have made no difference.

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“That son of a bitch passed a background check,” Cruz said, as does the man police say was behind the Fourth of July massacre in Highland Park.

But the partisan side of the mental health discussion is a “red herring,” said Alexandra Filindra, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Chicago who specializes in gun control issues.

For one thing, while there are a wide variety of conditions that meet the definition of mental illness, it’s less clear which ones, or what kind of combination of them, might be grounds for denying gun ownership.

“What exactly is a mental health condition and under what circumstances does that make one so dangerous?” Philindra said. “Just like with criminality, we define these things after the fact.”

Then there is the issue of age.

In Uvalde and Buffalo, New York, where 10 people were shot in a supermarket, both suspects were only 18 years old. The man behind the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre was 20 years old. The suspected shooter in Highland Park is 21 years old.

“Adolescence is a time of extreme emotions, and children can misbehave,” Filindra said.

“Depending on what kind of tools they have at their disposal, they can break things or shoot. And adolescence is not a medical condition.”

Silbernik and Jerry break it down this way: “Why is it a mental health issue or a gun issue? Why can’t it be both?” Silbernik says.

“It’s both,” Jerry replies. “But getting AR-15s away from people would help the situation a little bit.”

The gun safety bill signed last month by President Joe Biden, the rare bipartisan product of a core group of Uvalde-driven Democrats and Republicans, stopped short of raising the age limit for buying an assault weapon. from 18 to 21 years old.

But it provides $250 million for states to expand access to mental health care for school-age children, to better train the adults who work with them, and to ensure struggling students have access to care.

The bipartisan Safer Communities Act also includes funding to expand mental health services in schools, improve training for pediatric and primary care providers, and strengthen treatment options for trauma victims.

“The bipartisan bill is something that will make a difference, (but) won’t make a difference in mass shootings,” said EJ Fagan, a professor of political science at UIC.

“It really focuses on where the biggest and least conspicuous part of the gun violence problem is in America, which is domestic violence and the kind of everyday violence that we see in guns.”

At the same time, however, the final product proved to be more expansive than most experts expected, Fagan said.

The fact that Sen. John Cornyn, a veteran gun rights advocate on Capitol Hill, helped spearhead the bill’s passage is another sign that rampant violence is reaching even some Republicans. .

“It’s not a coincidence that John Cornyn, who is a senator from Texas, was the leader of the Republican side of that bill,” Fagan said.

“I think it affected him as much as the people on the street.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 8, 2022.

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