What if gunmakers paid for mental health care?

December 19, 2012

The intersection of mental health care and gun control are suddenly tragically, and finally, the subject on every congressman’s lips and under discussion by dozens of state governors. But the two policy issues could not be further apart in terms of legislative remedies. Though both are complex and thorny matters, their respective roadblocks to resolution are diametrically opposite. 

The constitutional right to bear arms is nearly as old as our country but America’s mental health policy dates only from post-World War II.  The 2nd amendment was ratified in 1791. Harry Truman signed the “National Mental Health Act,” into law in 1946.

Though both issues are driven by unique interests, one constituency needs enormous investments of medical and psychological diagnostic research and a commitment to providing national and local support for overmatched families and schools educating thousands of children with special needs.  On the other side of the checkbook, the gun owning citizenry is led by a well-informed private industry with seemingly limitless wealth — much of it dedicated to discouraging government legislators from authorizing restrictions.  

Those populations most deeply affected, though each well-intentioned and noble, rarely overlap. Most parents of young (mostly) men suffering from psychotic episodes struggle mightily to protect and care for their ill sons while seeking ways to integrate them into the larger community. Most gun owners are careful and safety-minded, and the gun-manufacturing sector rightly argues that firearms are not solely at fault for the 12,000 murdered with their products each year.

But their issues have recently converged disastrously in the public square, at the movie theater, and unspeakably, inside the schoolhouse door. We can no longer ignore that these two seemingly intractable subjects bring out the worst in each other. Now the Obama administration and Congress will hear from proponents of both on how to resolve and pay for one problem and how to stop influence spending to avoid reforming the other.

They say politics make strange bedfellows, but no two interest groups are more oddly paired than parents of special needs children and the National Rifle Association

For 14 years, since the justice department and Congress revealed industry research acknowledging tobacco’s health hazards, billions of dollars in financial settlements from the largest cigarette manufacturers has been directed to state and federal budgets. Though far too little, some money even trickles into anti-smoking programs.

The NRA announced Wednesday it is “prepared to offer meaningful contributions” to address the public’s growing concerns. Since it’s open season on big ideas, here’s one for the industry organization. I suggest the gun advocate proactively re-direct a big chunk of its lobbying budget to support mental health outreach projects.

We may well have to wait to remove guns from the NRA’s cold dead hands, but at least they could allocate some profits to keep the rest of us alive and well.

Bonnie Goldstein is a Washington-based writer. Follow her on Twitter at @KickedByAnAngel.

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