Today marks the one year anniversary of the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that took the lives of 17 people. Like many mass public shootings, that horrifying event could have been prevented at many points in the months leading up to it, and without imposing broad and severe restrictions on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans.
Unfortunately, too many well-intentioned politicians and gun control activists continue to misdiagnose the problems that lead to school shootings, and grossly miscalculate the frequency of these events. Because they have mistakenly declared that the U.S. is in the midst of a school shooting epidemic, they also mistakenly insist that drastic actions be taken to combat it.
We at the Heritage Foundation have committed ourselves to prioritizing the security of the nation’s students through our School Safety Initiative. As part of this initiative, my colleague John Malcolm and I authored a paper last year focusing on school safety after Parkland. In it, we laid out the facts regarding the frequency of Parkland-style mass shootings and the truth about the decreasing rates of violent deaths at school. In short, these events are certainly devastating, but they remain extraordinarily rare. Further, the last 30 years have seen a significant increase in student safety from violent deaths and schools are by far the safest place for children to be at any given point on any given day.
John and I recently published a series of Heritage Legal Memorandum exploring the oft-overlooked role of untreated mental illness in certain types of gun violence, assessing the current mental health crisis in the United States, and evaluating the state of the nation’s laws regarding firearm access for those with mental illness.
In Part I, we detailed the complicated relationship between untreated serious mental illness and specific types of firearm-related violence. While most mentally ill individuals are not and never will become violent, mental illness does increase a person’s risk of committing suicide and a disproportionate number of individuals who commit acts of mass public violence suffered from clear signs of mental illness. A deeper analysis shows, however, that broad gun control restrictions on the general public are unlikely to meaningfully affect either overall suicide rates or the frequency of mass public killings. Instead, the available evidence strongly suggests that focusing on treatment and intervention for specific at-risk individuals would be a much more effective plan.
Part II looked at the history of mass deinstitutionalization in the United States, a process beginning in the early 1960s and 1970s that resulted in tens of thousands of seriously mentally ill individuals being released from inpatient psychiatric care without adequate outpatient alternatives in place. As a result of several medical, social, and legal changes during this time period, the number of public psychiatric beds in the U.S. decreased by 95 percent between 1950 and 2016. The effects of deinstitutionalization have been devastating for both those with untreated serious mental illness and for the communities struggling to cope without the necessary resources. We recommended that states implement a number of practical policies to combat these effects, such as increasing the number of public psychiatric beds of last-resort, strengthening their civil commitment laws, and better utilizing their existing mental health frameworks.
Finally, in Part III, we assessed the adequacy of state and federal laws regarding firearm access by mentally ill persons. Federal law correctly focuses on whether an individual poses a heightened risk of violence and not on the presence of mental illness alone, but fails to provide a mechanism by which individuals who are no longer a danger to themselves or others can have their Second Amendment rights restored. Several states have broadened their restrictions on firearm access in ways that are both constitutionally suspect and that wrongly focus on the mere presence of mental illness alone—despite the fact that the presence mental illness in and of itself does not mean a person poses a heightened risk of violence.
We conclude that states should refrain from imposing overly-broad restrictions on the general public or on individuals who don’t exhibit signs of dangerousness. Instead, we suggest that states increase their reporting of disqualifying mental health records to the NICS index, and focus on the prompt but temporary disarmament of individuals who, whether due to mental illness or other factors, show themselves by their actions to pose a heightened risk of committing an act of violence in the near future. This temporary disarmament should be based on identifiable and well-defined factors, should afford meaningful due process to the individual alleged to be dangerous, and should include mechanisms to restore the individual’s fundamental right to keep and bear arms when he or she no longer poses a heightened risk.
There is no one who does not mourn the senseless loss of life that occurred Parkland or any other school shooting. Everyone wants to ensure that the millions of parents who send their children to school every morning find them safe and sound in the afternoon. But in order to do that, we must begin by properly understanding the problem. The nation needs to engage in honest and fact-oriented discussions. We need the correct diagnosis, based on facts and evidence instead of emotion and panic. Moreover, we need solutions that target the actual underlying problems without unnecessarily infringing on the fundamental rights of law-abiding citizens.