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Commentary: The Deadly Combination of Guns and Mental Health

Courtesy photo
Beth Howard

Nine years ago this month, in 2012, I sat at my desk in rural Iowa with my jaw hanging open and my heart breaking as the news unfolded. Twenty first-graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School had been gunned down by a 20-year-old man armed with the kind of assault weapons designed for fighting wars.

In the hours that followed, the news along with social media blew up with outrage and arguments about gun control. And blame. Whose fault was it, the sick young man’s or his mother’s for buying the guns? Neither were alive to question or prosecute, because he killed his mother before going on his deadly rampage and killed himself afterward. Was it the fault of the gun shop where the firearms and ammo were purchased? The gun manufacturer? Or was it the lax gun laws in America?

After the funeral processions of child-size caskets made their way past the Christmas decorations and makeshift shrines of Newtown, Connecticut, the questions and disagreements continued. Lawsuits were filed. Not-for-profit organizations like Sandy Hook Promise and Everytown for Gun Safety were created. Congress convened.

You would have thought the school shootings, and all mass shootings, stopped then and there. Instead, the senate in 2013 shot down proposed gun control bills and the violence has kept growing.

America likes to be number one, and in mass shootings we are the winners by a landslide. If you look at a graph, every first-world country ranks at the bottom, compared to the U.S.A. which ranks so high it’s literally off the chart. Obviously, this is not something to be proud of.

And with the November 30th tragedy in Oxford, Michigan, where four teenagers were killed and seven injured by the bullets of a classmate, here we are again. The same outrage. The same arguments. The same politicized battles. The same rush to buy even more guns by those claiming self-protection, with others stockpiling them out of fear that the government is going to take their firearms away. And the same senseless idea put forth by some that arming teachers, and ourselves, is going to solve the problem.

But no amount of safety training, permits, or expanded background checks is going to put an end to gun violence. Why? Because we cannot be trusted with guns—sometimes we can’t even be trusted with cars—for one simple reason: we are only human.

The wiring in our brains is precarious and faulty. I’ve seen first-hand how quickly and easily it can short-circuit. For one, I’ve experienced my own hormone-induced mood swings. I also have a brother who, at age 19, after a mental breakdown and suicide attempt, was diagnosed as bipolar with schizophrenic tendencies. I was still in high school at the time and one evening while everyone else went out, I was asked to stay home with him. Me, babysitting my older brother who I loved, who was now mentally ill, dangerous to himself and possibly to others. At one point, I went to check on him and as I turned the corner into our kitchen, I found him standing in front of the patio door staring at his reflection in the glass—while holding a butcher knife over his head. Another day, after hearing voices, the delusional ones that arise from psychosis, he went to a neighbor’s house and told them he had just killed our whole family.

Imagine if we’d had a gun in the house, he might have actually done it, and killed the neighbors, too. Imagine if he had turned the butcher knife on me. Would I have had time to retrieve a gun to protect myself? No, but if I had, would I have shot my own brother? The thought of shooting him, any human, or any living creature sickens me.

That was in 1979, two years before Ronald Regan repealed the Mental Health Systems Act, wiping out critical services that have led to the deteriorating conditions of our society today. Back then, fortunate to have had access to the mental healthcare and support he needed, my brother was admitted to the hospital, safely locked in the psych ward until the right combination of sanity-restoring medications was found.

A 2014 report from Connecticut’s “Office of the Child Advocate” on the Sandy Hook perpetrator, surmised “had his mental illness been adequately treated in the last years of his life, one predisposing factor to the tragedy of Sandy Hook might have been mitigated.” Of note, another factor was his obsession with playing violent video games, a red flag we should also be addressing.

As for my older brother, he has gone on to live a healthy and productive life. Monitoring his meds is an ongoing process—brain chemistry is not an exact science—but at age 60 he is one of the kindest, gentlest, most well-balanced people I know.

We are in the midst of a perfect storm of inadequate mental health care, accelerating gun sales, stymied gun safety laws, lack of accountability from gun manufacturers, a culture of fear driven by politicians and media, and a breed of citizens misinterpreting the Second Amendment to promote their own agenda. America’s gun violence has gotten so out of hand, I can no longer go grocery shopping, let alone go anywhere in public, without wondering if I’ll come home alive. My heart goes out to those who didn’t, and to the families who will be forever grieving them.

For holiday gifts this year, please consider making a donation to a mental health or gun safety organization.

Commentator Beth Howard is an author and blogger. Her website is

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.