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“The Drugs Made Me Do It?”

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Two years ago, I was creeping through a mall parking lot when a young guy stepped in front of my car without warning.  Although I could not at first see him in the glare of sunlight, I stopped in time—then he threw a full cup of coffee at my windshield.

Fortunately I was in Massachusetts, and not in a state that allows almost anyone to carry a gun—even those with anger management issues.

The Blame Game

In the wake of the massacre of 20 innocent first graders in Newtown Connecticut, the gun lobby has blamed just about everything on the planet except weak gun control laws.

Violence on TV and in the movies? Japan is far worse, yet logs a microscopic dozen gun homicides a year. We have 1,000 times that.

Moral turpitude? In Europe hardly anyone attends church and even heads of state often openly consort with mistresses without public condemnation, but the gun murder rate per 100,000 is about a fifth the USA carnage rate.

Perhaps the most intriguing alleged connection is the one between gun crimes and drugs used to treat mental illness—intriguing because there actually is a link—and because the link could be addressed with proper legislation. But that link may not be the one you’re expecting.

The “link” is one of association more than causality. That is, the perpetrator is mentally ill, and is given drugs to blunt the illness. The causality, on the other hand, is the one between the mental illness and the shooting rampages. Here’s the “takeaway”: It is the illness that is at fault, not the treatment.

To be sure, patients on drugs who withdraw suddenly may be at slightly greater risk of causing harm than they were before they began treatment. But is that the drug’s fault? Or the patient’s?

It is also true that doctors can misdiagnose the underlying problem. An excess of anger-promoting vasopressin, for instance, can be treated with a drug like Prozac, which promotes soothing serotonin, but if the aggression is rooted in other brain chemicals and vasopressin levels are actually normal, drugs like  Prozac might make the problem worse. That’s why doctors are told to monitor patients closely after prescribing any depression-related drug.

“The drugs made me do it” is a common and often desperate defense in assault trials. But the National Rifle Association and its congressional mouthpieces are wrong in blaming the drugs for the crimes. As noted by the National Institute of Mental Health, drug issues are rare and almost always easy to detect before harm occurs. That’s why President Obama has called for more access to good mental health care as part of his gun-control initiative.

Connecting the right to have a gun with a person’s mental health is unavoidable. That’s why, under federal law (18 U.S.C. § 922(d), it is unlawful for any person to sell or otherwise dispose of any firearm or ammunition to any person while knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that such person “has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution.”

But there are many loopholes—private gun sellers are regulated in only 10 states and the District of Columbia. In other states, with some local exceptions, sellers needn’t bother to check. And only a dozen states keep a “mental illness treatment” database.

Even worse, databases (where they exist) include cases involving only the most draconian of treatments – institutionalization or a court history. In part because of this, it is possible for most people with a history of mental illness to carry a gun.

The federal government is barred by law from keeping a true national registry of people who have committed crimes or have been institutionalized. When a dealer contacts the registry, Justice Department staffers must hand-search multiple state databases, some on paper. This lack of a national computerized registry makes experience-based predictions about prospective gun owners almost impossible.

Improving Our Odds

Why not be able to make a reasonable calculation, as we do in so many aspects of life, about whether someone with a history of mental illness—who, for instance, used antidepressants at a certain dose and for a certain length of time—could carry a weapon as safely as someone in the general population?  A registry might make that possible. We routinely review people thoroughly for all manner of risk—from corporate employees to nannies.

Not so with guns. In the absence of comprehensive regulation, some states have had to create de facto solutions. This can effectively bar people with a history of treatment for mental illness of even the mildest, least violence-inclined kind, from ever being licensed to carry a gun, whether or not they constitute a reasonable risk or not. This “rough justice” may not be the letter of the law, and it may not even be fair, but I can’t imagine a local police chief in Massachusetts or New Jersey—the two states in which I have lived longest—ever knowingly signing off on anyone with even a whiff of potential risk. So, we end up regulating guns nonetheless, just being highly ineffective about it.

It is unlikely that the United States will ever experience the sort of meaningful gun control found in  Japan, India, or Australia. But there is a clear consensus in this country that the dangerously mentally ill should not have guns. We need to expand upon that consensus and also be more fair to Americans with an inconsequential mental health history: But in the absence of a national registry that could help us make the decision, better to inconvenience 100,000 prospective gun owners with a history of  mental illness, than to allow even one more first grader to be killed.

The National Rifle Association and some civil libertarians disagree. They say that checks on mental history or anything else, especially by an individual gun seller, violate privacy and that the databases have lots of errors. All true—but look at the alternative. The reality is, we’re always weighing opposing interests.

As for the current gun-advocate bogeyman, prescription drugs, why not stop blaming the treatment, as too many already do, and spend some federal money to make the mental health checks mandatory and more accurate and complete? The cost would be a fraction of the annual $8 billion price tag to put an armed guard in every schoolhouse. And the results are likely to be far more effective in protecting the innocent.

 

 

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GRAPHIC:

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Darren.Hussey Darren Hussey

    Think they want to commit suicide but go out in a blaze of glory. The press obliges them and makes them anti-heroes. They know the worse the crime the more fame they will have. Think Sandy Hook was encouraged by the Oregon indecent a week before. STOP MENTIONING THE PERPETRATORS NAME AND SHOWING THEIR PICTURE.

  • chris

    Disagree. ssri’s and similar psychtropic drugs alter people in many different ways and is the common denominator. But if its the illness that is cause lets talk about GMO, bpa, fluoride,aspartame and the countless other chemicals and rediculous substances the american people consume daily. Why isnt washington worried about the health of its people? Oh thats right money is more important than human life. Educate the people and then allow them to make free decisions.

    • holmes3804

      Thank you for this intelligent response! It’s such a rarity.

  • KGB

    Here’s the “takeaway”: It is the illness that is at fault, not the treatment.” Whilst there are genuine concerns with this blanket statement, SSRI’s are of equal if not more concern because it’s an ‘induced’ condition, they are used specifically because the do alter the chemical makeup of the brain.That’s their intended purpose in order to control ‘mood’ and ‘temperament’.

    In addition no-one is “blaming” SSRI’s and other mental health treatments (largely because they’re not stupid enough to think one ‘thing’ is the root of this ‘evil’). They are merely raising legitimate questions as to why this particular class of medication/drug, and mental health in general, is rarely considered as being a contributing factor in these horrific incidents, even when it is, it’s not done so with the same veracity.

    • Aurora

      I agree with KGB and am shocked that whowhatwhy would allow such a poorly written and obviously right wing article to be published. The link used by the author to confirm his belief that the mentally ill are more violent lists only psych drug related violent acts. That’s proof!? It’s blown my confidence in the quality of “reporting” here. How childish!

  • Mr. M

    The “framing” at the beginning of the article is a poor choice. I feel like I’m reading the ‘paper of record’, the NY Times.

    • J7.

      I agree with Mr. M. Nowhere in this piece of mental health industry propaganda does it allow for the simple fact that each adult in society is responsible for his/her actions. Crimes are behavior. They are choices people make, not diseases. The fictitious DSM “diseases” for which people are being coercively drugged enable authorities and society in general to claim that a subset of the population is not responsible for their actions. And that the toxic, health-altering drugs euphemized as “meds” separate the individual even farther from his or her sense of self-control, agency, and volition. The late Dr. Szasz was accurate in noting that in the United States church and state have always been separate; whereas medicine, including biopsychiatry, and state force are legislatively enmeshed. The DoJ and the NIH/NIMH attach huge grant monies to state and local implementers of policies as a system of social control that has set the stage for the now open totalitarian mess we’re all in. It’s a slippery slope when a minority of the population has no responsibility and no rights (except the mindf-ing “right” to “treatment”); when the guilt or innocence of such persons for specific crimes no longer matter; when literally anybody may be “diagnosed” as suffering (or embodying) a mental illness because the diagnosing of mental illness is arbitrary. And what gets lost, or never even considered, are the social effects of the humiliating and isolating social effects imposed on anyone defined and identified as “severely mentally ill.”

      • http://twitter.com/MonkeeRench Lou Puls

        As usual, even fools have a gem of truth (e.g. you say “toxic, health-altering drugs…separate the
        individual even farther from his or her sense of self-control, agency, and volition”). However, you are totally deluded by some wild-eyed brand of absolutism when you say “each adult in society is responsible for his/her actions.” Such an ideological statement can’t possibly apply to ALL, only to those reasonably capable of choice. The many millions of people, present and future, who suffer Alzheimers and may be occasionally found wandering the streets in the middle of the night or day are not CAPABLE of being responsible for their actions. The same applies to many, if not all, mental illnesses, whether induced by childhood trauma, ever increasing toxins hidden in the environment, or SSRI’s to a tiny minority. t

  • Hawthorne

    For the most case a fine case against gun availability but perhaps you do your neighbors an injustice in thinking so low of them? Should one really assume that because the “young guy” in question is uncivil enough to throw a cup of coffee (even a full one) against a driver’s window, when confronted by the possibility of being hit by a slow moving car, he’s therefore wicked–or in your parlance “ill”–enough to try and shoot a driver. Granted anything’s possible in a red state, but there are a whole lot of presumptions there.

    • editorsteve

      There was no possibility. As the article noted, I stopped in time, THEN he threw the coffee. I might add that I was driving a Camry, which has a very wide front roof support, which blocked that sight-line angle was well. Very popular car. Walking in front of it is not wise. I was being careful mainly to watch for kids, of course. Hard to believe an adult would be so blase.

      • http://twitter.com/MonkeeRench Lou Puls

        I hope you are getting more out of these comments than an opportunity for a sloppy, self-centered response. You have some good points, but like virtually all of the mainstream media, you are failing to recognize that (whether its drug correlation or causality) unmonitored and off-label (especially for young people) SSRI prescriptions are involved (but publicly suppressed) in most mass shootings. This is a rare (but difficult, due to big pharma protective collusion) opportunity to investigate the real reason for the rapid rise of suicidal and mass shootings.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sharon.santora Sharon Santora

    I think drugs have a huge influence on psychological behavior – and I mean bad behavior. I was on Effexor for six years because of symptoms of syncope (look it up). I don’t know why I was prescribed Effexor – but that is the way it was. When I decided I wanted to wean myself off of the drug I set a goal of one year to do it. I was able to wean myself off Effexor in six months. In that time I thought I was going crazy, hurt myself or someone else. The withdrawl effects of this drug (and I am certain other drugs like this as well) are horrible. If I had owned a firearm I could have used it on myself or Gof forbid someone else. I feel fine now and I would like to own a fire-arm so I could take it to the local range and fire off a few rounds for “stress” relief – they are fun to fire. I should also add that I was in the Army for six years as an M60 gunner in the Light Infantry. The M60 is loud but very fun to shoot (also illegal to own – so don’t try to buy one). Anyway, a major factor of gun violence, I believe, stems to prescribed drug use. Guns don’t shoot by themselves – people have to pull the trigger. Make sure the person who owns the gun, or has access to a gun (lives in the same household as the gun owner, etc…) are properly screened before allowing that household to have a gun. I love guns, but I am glad I did not have one when I was weaning off of Effexor (because I was being treated for Syncope – fainiting episodes – look it up) I was not being treated for depression. I want to make that clear. If anything should be illegal it is Effexor…

    • KGB

      Good to know you managed to kick that particular crutch and came out the other end OK. Although you mentioned you weren’t technically diagnosed with any ‘metal health issues’ it might be worth following that up with your Doc to clarify (and get it in writing if you can) – that drug is usually for ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety disorders’ so its presence on your medical record might disqualify you from fire-arms ownership – certainly under a whole raft of proposed mental health legislation a goodly section of law abiding citizens would be deemed ‘unfit’ for seeing a psych never mind being put on SSRI (et-al) meds.

    • http://twitter.com/MonkeeRench Lou Puls

      Anyone prescribing Effexor is warned to closely monitor the patient, which it sounds like you were not. Often such “off-label” prescriptions as yours are given because a ‘benign’ side effect might indirectly help relieve the patient’s symptoms. THAT is what should be illegal.

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