A story about guns and mental illness

Rick Nease / MCT

In her June 1 column about the recent Santa Barbara murders, Helen Ferré said: “Violence and mental illness were the problems; more gun control won’t solve it.”

I don’t know enough about that event to know whether she is right or not. And I doubt that Ferré does, either.

But let me tell you about my mentally ill brother Ross, whom I knew very well all my life until he blew his brains out at age 30.

Ross would (probably) be alive today if the pawn shop in Bangor, Maine, had refused to sell him the handgun he used to shoot himself. He bought the gun moments after he walked out of the state mental hospital where he often went after violent episodes directed against members of the family. His most recent outburst had culminated in throwing my father, then 71, down a flight of stairs.

Ross literally “lost his mind” at age 10 when he walked into the swing of a baseball bat at school and got smacked in the head. It took months of treatment and rehabilitation for him to recover from the visible physical damage. He never recovered from the unseeable damage to his brain, his personality or his grip on reality.

He didn’t totally lose his sense of reality. But he did frequently misplace it. When things were “OK,” Ross was a bit socially awkward (stemming from the many years of periodic institutionalization), but generally a kind and polite person.

In the 20 years between the baseball bat and the handgun, Ross crossed back and forth between crazed frenzies of violence and times of cheerfulness and accomplishment with regularity.

The problem for our family was finding ways to deal with the two versions of Ross. They provided the “happy, productive Ross” with a pleasant home life with our musician father and writer mother and younger autistic brother Walker. He had his own room. He could come and go as he pleased. And appeared to have a good life.

For the “agitated and violent Ross” the only solution they and government came up with was to put him into a vile snake pit of a state mental hospital to be “managed” by brutish, semi-literate and frequently sadistic attendants and bored, uncaring and badly trained “mental health professionals.”

It does not have to be that way.

What is needed is an alternative, highly secure but nonpunitive place where periodically violent people may live in pleasant but supervised surroundings with a generous amount of freedom commensurate with the risk they pose to others.

As to the connection with guns, Ross spoke often of suicide. Almost casually. Like: “I think I’ll have lunch, go for a walk and shoot myself.” His life was so shattered by the stints in mental hospital, guilt over the havoc he caused within the family while crazed, that “ending it all” was a common theme.

Only a gun gives you assurance of success. He had lived too long with the horrible results of what could have been a killing blow from a baseball bat and would not take the chance of surviving a botched suicide.

As to all the California gun laws that Ferré cites, they are nothing if they are empty and unenforced. Does California require that an applicant for a gun purchase first be cleared by the state’s mental health agency? Does the state maintain an active registry of persons deemed unfit to have access to a gun? Does anything meaningful happen during the “waiting period” or is that just designed to allow a hothead to calm down?

Are the thumbprints matched against the records of all mental health agencies in the state? Or are they simply filed away? The other elements of the California gun-control system (handgun safety certificate, written test, etc.) strike me as useless, make-the-editorial-writers-happy pablum.

Ferré is right in saying we need to find a balance between allowing violent mentally ill people wander loose and locking them away in places resembling the nightmare facility depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But solving that is still not enough. There has to be a way to identify those who should never be allowed to have a gun and enforcing it. And if anyone gives, sells, loans or in any way grants access to a gun for such a person, there has to be a severe penalty for that as well.

For example, the pawn shop owner who sold Ross the gun was a friend of our father’s. He knew all about Ross and his problems. And still he sold him the gun. I spoke to the police and asked if he would be punished for contributing to Ross’ death. The answer was No. He violated no law.

That has to change.

Seth Gordon is managing partner of GDB Miami, a public relations firm.

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