During debate over the gun control legislation approved in the State senate and Assembly, the issue of mentally ill people using guns to kill others came up a number of times, particularly among legislators who are opposed to restricting access to assault weapons and other guns. Senator Kathy Marchione, who voted against the package, says most of the perpetrators of mass shootings in recent years have been suffering from a mental illness.
“In only one instance it wasn’t mental illness,” Marchione said. “We need to look at mental illness.”
Glenn Liebman, with the Mental Health Association, says that kind of talk creates the wrong impression about the vast majority of those with mental illness. He’s also worried about provisions in the new law that require mental health professionals to report patients to the authorities if they think the person might be a danger to themselves or others. Police would be able to confiscate their guns, if they have any, and they’d be red flagged in a centralized data base if they ever tried to buy a gun in the future.
Liebman says the changes unfairly stigmatize people with mental illness as more violent than the rest of society.
“It unfortunately continues to perpetuate that myth that people with mental illness are more violent than the general population,” Liebman said. “People with mental illness are twelve times more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence.”
Governor Cuomo, during negotiations on the bill, acknowledged that there needed to be better reporting of mentally ill people who had the potential to use guns against others. The governor, speaking at the bill signing ceremony, says he spent weeks of discussions trying to strike the right balance.
“It was a very complicated system to put together and a delicate balance to achieve,” said Cuomo “You want to protect the rights of mental health professionals, and patients of mental health professional.”
But the governor says, at the same time, he wanted a process that helps protect the patients from potentially harmful impulses.
“If a person is a possible threat to themselves, then you don’t want them to have a gun,” said Cuomo “Because they could possibly hurt themselves, also, as well as others.”
Liebman says mental health advocates were not given input into the bill. But he says the groups have had a good relationship with Cuomo Administration officials in the past and hope to now focus on ensuring better access to treatment. He says while New York has not cut services to the mentally ill as deeply as other states, funding has been declining in recent years.
“You see it on the streets, you see the longer waiting lists, you see people not getting services” Liebman said. “It’s a great frustration.”
Liebman says would like to “pivot” to a “thoughtful discussion” about how to make treatment and mental health services more appealing, and less stigmatizing.