Charlie Harper: Georgia, guns and mental health

March 19, 2013 

On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He had killed his mother before going to the school. He killed himself while there.

"Tragedy" is too trite to describe the incident, and doesn't begin to describe the event and its effect on the national conversation. It didn't take too long for many to capitalize on the situation for political gain.

Guns are now an active part of the political conversation. On the national level, limiting the size of gun magazines and clips and prohibiting the sale of nebulously defined "assault-style weapons" headlines the wish list of gun control advocates. Making background checks mandatory on all gun transactions is also part of a proposed solution.

At the state level -- where the Second Amendment holds a bit more reverence -- the legislative angle is in the opposite direction. Eliminating restrictions on where guns can be carried is the popular political solution du jour. Colleges, churches, public buildings, and bars are all under consideration where Georgians will possibly be permitted to legally carry their weapons.

It seems that the short time between the funerals in Newtown and the start of the Georgia General Assembly's session allowed for many to get themselves on the "right" side of the gun issue. At least 36 bills were introduced dealing with gun ownership this year. In an era where the national conversation is about placing restrictions on gun sales and ownership, many see good politics in pushing back at the state level.

Many on the gun rights side of the debate explain the events at Sandy Hook not as a guns issue but as a mental health issue. Mental illness remains the common thread behind all of the mass murders, and yet most of the policy reactions are along the politically expedient and incendiary issue of guns, rather than the complex, difficult, and expensive solutions of mental health delivery.

There were four bills or resolutions proposed that deal with the mentally ill and gun ownership. Three other bills deal with improvements or changes to mental health care delivery outside of the guns issue. They aren't generating the same headlines of "guns rights" bills, but need to be, as does the general topic of mental health. After all, if mental illness is to be blamed for Sandy Hook, then making the system that identifies and treats mental health issues a better one should be at center stage, not whether or not we can bring our Glocks to a pool hall on Saturday night or into the church sanctuary on Sunday morning.

Solutions should not be knee-jerk quick fix legislation to generate headlines rather than systematic improvement. To that end, an attempt to develop an accurate assessment of mental health care delivery and how it affects individual gun rights has been proposed by Representative Kevin Tanner of Dawsonville. House Resolution 502 would establish a joint committee to study the issue and Georgia's policies and procedures and recommend changes.

The sign that the study committee will receive traction comes in Tanner's co-sponsors. They include Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, Majority Whip Ed Lindsey, and Majority Caucus Chairman Donna Sheldon. A strong indication that the approach should be bi-partisan is that Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is also a signed co-sponsor. The resolution has passed the House and is near passage in the Senate.

The work of this committee will not be easy, as the problems itself are not as obvious as they may seem. Georgia law currently says anyone hospitalized for mental illness cannot legally carry a gun. But this also includes those who seek voluntary treatment.

A distinction in this circumstance could end up covering returning veterans who are encouraged to seek treatment after leaving war zones for post-traumatic stress disorder. A law barring legal gun ownership for those seeking or who have sought mental health treatment could keep a wide swath of soldiers and veterans from carrying.

Or, more importantly, could keep many from seeking needed temporary assistance in the first place.

One solution will focus more on those who have had involuntary treatment. The recommendation could include a legal review in a judicial setting -- rather than merely a doctor's signature -- before constitutional rights can be removed.

That is a quick and superficial description of one of the many issues the study group will face. But unlike the quick and superficial proposals to expand gun owners' rights, legislation that should be proposed by the group should have been well thought out and seasoned for effectiveness that lasts beyond the headlines of the current news cycle.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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