Why A New Gun Bill Ticks Off Mental Health Advocates

May 30, 2013

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
Credit faxpilot/flickr

The Florida Legislature passed a gun control measure this year that would prevent more people with mental illness from buying guns. 

It essentially closes a loophole that enables people who seek mental health treatment to buy guns.

The bipartisan bill even got strong support from the National Rifle Association.

But some critics think it may do more harm than good.

“A history of treatment is not an indicator that a person is dangerous,” said Dana Foglesong, a 31-year-old certified peer recovery specialist in Fort Myers.

Foglesong works with people who, like herself, are living with mental illnesses.

She's been hospitalized 11 times for mental health issues, but only the first two times were involuntary. She needed treatment for a variety of reasons – suicidal thoughts, panic attacks, and side effects from her medications.

Fogelsong is afraid that people already concerned about the stigma attached to mental illness may be less inclined to seek help if this new law goes into effect.

“There are many times that individuals are committed not because they're dangerous to society, not because they're violent,” Foglesong said. “It may be because they are neglecting their self-care and they may just want help but they might not agree to the treatment that is being suggested.”

Miami Dade County Judge Steven Leifman, who helped craft the bill, thinks it will do more to prevent suicides than mass murders such as Sandy Hook in Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado.

“The Sandy Hook situations of the world are the most horrifying, tragic situations, but it's not a realistic picture of people with mental illnesses,” Leifman said.

He chairs a task force on mental health and substance abuse issues for the Florida Supreme Court and said the new law is largely about protecting those who are more likely to harm themselves than others.

We're not talking about the Hannibal Lecters of the world who have no empathy and they have no feelings towards people. ~ Judge Steven Leifman

“We're not talking about sociopaths. We're not talking about the Hannibal Lecters of the world who have no empathy and they have no feelings towards people,” Leifman said. “We're talking about people that have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness which generally includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression. These are organic illnesses of the brain. They should be treated no differently than diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.”

Most people who get mental health treatment do so voluntarily. They're able to buy guns because they weren't committed by someone else to a mental institution.

Under the new law, a judge will ban gun purchases for anyone who seeks treatment and is deemed by a doctor to be imminently dangerous.

“If you're voluntarily taking treatment, you still go on the list,” Leifman said.

Gov. Rick Scott has received thousands of emails from gun rights enthusiasts asking him to veto the bill.

The advocacy group Disability Rights Florida also wants a veto. Legislative director Dana Farmer said penalizing someone who seeks mental health treatment is the wrong focus in the gun safety debate.

“There are studies and analysis that demonstrate little relationship between people with mental illnesses and gun violence,” Farmer said.

Psychiatrists must make quick determinations about whether patients are imminently dangerous and should be held for treatment.

But, Farmer said, there is no reliable way to predict who will commit a terrible act like Sandy Hook.

There are factors other than simply mental illness that should be looked at when you think about people who may be prone to violence. ~Dana Farmer, Disability Rights Florida

“People with mental illnesses – just like everybody else – are very different from each other, and there are factors other than simply mental illness that should be looked at when you think about people who may be prone to violence,” Farmer said. “These are psychiatrists, not psychics, and they may be little if at all better able to predict future dangers than you or I are.”

The World Health Organization said 1 out of 4 people experience some kind of mental disorder during their lives.

Mental illness can happen to anyone, Fogelsong said, and there's still a lot shame associated with it.

“Individuals with mental illnesses are not monsters," she said. "We should not be feared.” 

Unless the governor vetoes the bill, it goes into effect July 1.