Gun Law Reform and Mental Health in Wake of Newtown—A CUSSW Panel

gun control and mental health panel

In response to the White House report proposing to tighten gun control and further mental health reform to curb gun violence, the Columbia University School of Social Work (CUSSW) hosted a panel discussion on these topics on Wednesday, January 30, 2013.

The atmosphere of the event was emotionally charged, as both speakers and audience members were still shaken by the events of Newtown. And just as the panel was starting, news was breaking that 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton had been shot dead in Chicago for no apparent reason—she had participated in President Obama’s second inauguration as a majorette, only a few days before.

“I think we are all too familiar with these horrible tragedies,” said Jeanette C. Takamura, Dean of CUSSW and panel moderator, as she introduced the experts. “They have occurred in communities that never dreamt that their children, their family members, their friends, and even their congresswoman would be the victims of violence committed by individuals who had ready access to firearms.”

The two speakers were Vicki Lens, an associate professor at the School of Social Work, who previously worked as an Assistant Attorney General for New York State, and Michael Stone, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, who hosted the Discovery Channel series Most Evil from 2006 to 2008, which was based on a scale he created and then expanded in his 2009 book, The Anatomy of Evil.

Vicki Lens: What are the legal precedents for taking legislative action on gun control?

Professor Lens began her discussion with a literal close reading of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, citing the vague language of the law and the historical context of its creation. She suggested that the Second Amendment may not be as essential as it was during America’s initial formation, even though an adjustment to the constitution would be highly unlikely.

“If it applies only to militias, then the Second Amendment has no purpose,” said Lens. “It’s out of date. We don’t have militias; we have armies.”

Lens introduced possibilities for legislative reform of firearms, citing the tough regulations New York State has recently placed on gun ownership. She brought up the strict ban on assault weapons and the required universal background checks as pragmatic steps toward reducing violence both in schools and in inner cities.

Finally, Lens addressed how gun control legislation can affect social workers, especially in cases of orders of protection: “Of interest to social workers in particular is that in orders of protection—if there’s a substantial risk that the person whom the order of protection is against will use a gun against the person protected by the order—the weapon must be surrendered.”

Michael Stone: Is there really a link between reforming mental health and reducing mass murders?

Stone said that his comprehensive study of mass murder cases in the United States revealed that only one fifth of mass murderers are mentally ill. The rest are paranoid, jealous and/or enraged young men, with no previous history of mental health issues. They would not be picked up by any mental health watchdog system we devise.

“Paranoid people,” he went on, “are notoriously difficult to treat.”

Thus, by targeting the mental health issue, we will not see a lowering of gun violence, he said. “Ultimately it comes down to fewer guns. But because there’s such emotion about the lowering of the amount of guns in our country, people go after these other avenues such as focusing on the mentally ill.”

But it simply is “not practical” to do all these mental health evaluations. People will soon discover that the costs outweigh the benefits, he predicted.

Stone was further disparaging of those who have argued that more people should carry guns for self-protection against criminals. “The number of people in this country who’ve managed to shoot an intruder in a year in this country, you can count on one hand,” he said. “It’s an illusion.”

Stone brought up the particular difficulty in separating young males from their guns, who Stone holds would often choose castration over severance with their fire arms. “Adolescent men are particularly unwilling to give up their guns, which they see as an extension of the phallus,” he said.

He went on to compare the gun control environment in this country with those that exist in Europe and Japan. “In Japan, it’s a privilege, not a right, to bear arms,” he noted, while also acknowledging that getting Americans to adopt European or Japanese attitudes would be “a very difficult thing.”

Audience Q&A

Some audience members seemed concerned that discussions of gun control only emerge after nationally publicized killings and not in response to everyday inner city violence. Professor Lens agreed. When we think about solutions to problems, she said, we “often think about the last horrible thing that happened. We don’t see the problem in its entirety.”

One questioner suggested that a redefinition of mental health could help attract attention to areas like gang violence; but Dean Jeanette Takamura said to be careful about framing what are really problems of poverty around mental health.

When asked to comment on whether the debate had really shifted as a result of Newtown, Lens said that the conversation was indeed changing. We are in a “period of public comment,” she said, urging other social work and mental health professionals to join the debate by feeding in their experiences.

Professor Stone, for his part, reiterated the findings of his studies, concluding that the only policy that might be of some help in reducing the mass murder rate would be in restricting adolescents, particularly males, from having access to guns. “Adolescents in general have a much poorer breaking system in their frontal lobe until about the age of 22,” he explained.

He added that drugs are another “elephant in the room” as taking drugs can lead to paranoia and violence. “Two thirds of my patients use drugs heavily,” he said. “The other third are the real schizophrenics.”

This event was co-sponsored by the CUSSW Alumni Association Program Planning Committee and its Office of Development and Alumi Relations.

—Contributed by Julien Hawthorne & ML Awanohara

Related links: