In the aftermath of several recent catastrophic events involving guns, Congress has yet to deliver policies to reduce the easy access of guns, increasing the likelihood that additional tragedies of gun violence will continue to occur. In the wake of the mass shootings in an Aurora, Colorado theater and the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama pledged to what he could do to end the epidemic of gun violence traumatizing communities across the nation.
“We can’t tolerate this anymore,” the President said to an auditorium at Sandy Hook Elementary School filled with grieving parents, family members and residents of Newton. “These tragedies must end, and to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and it is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”
Despite several attempts at bi-partisan legislation to ban certain types of assault weapons and expand background checks to reduce the possibility of automatic weapons getting into the hands of the wrong people, the House and Senate failed to pass legislation to address the issue of gun violence. As he has done in other instances when Congress failed to act—President Obama acted on his own by issuing a plan—Now Is The Time—that included a series of directives to expand mental health research and services.
The latest of these directives was revealed Friday by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in remarks given at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The rules will require health insurance companies to provide comparable coverage for mental health services and substance abuse treatment that they provide for physical illness. The new rules amplify provisions in the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act signed into law by George W. Bush in 2008. Senior administration officials estimate that 62 million Americans will have greater access to mental health services under the new rules. However, whether there will be adequate supply of services to meet the potential demand is another question, particularly for people living in rural communities.
With this latest directive, President Obama has delivered on all 23 actions that he and Vice President Joe Biden announced earlier this year to address gun violence in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. The idea is that expanded mental health services will lead to more people being detected and treated for mental problems before they get their hands on guns and commit acts of violence. Some question the effectiveness of expanded mental coverage pointing out that only 3% to 5% of violent acts are attributable to serious mental illness and most of those acts do not involve guns. Others worry that people may be reluctant to seek help for symptoms of mental illness because documentation of their problems may prohibit them from acquiring a firearm.
We must continue to support the efforts of friends in Congress like Rep. Grace Napolitano (CA-32), co-Chair of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus, member of the Congressional Social Work Caucus, and vice-chair of the House Democratic Gun Violence Prevention Task Force who relentlessly pursue efforts to pass legislation to reduce gun violence. She is the sponsor of H.R. 628—the Mental Health in Schools Act—who began funding mental health services in schools in her district in 2001.
Without stricter background checks the myriad of state and federal laws already on the books seeking to prohibit gun ownership by people with criminal histories and mental problems are limited in their effectiveness since many gun purchases—such as those at gun shows and sales by private owners—are largely unregulated. While mental health professionals and advocates welcome the new expansion of behavioral health services, whether these new rules will have an impact on reducing gun violence remains to be seen.
Written By Dr. Charles E. Lewis Jr.
Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy
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