Opinion - DA Vern Pierson says Mass Shootings Common Thread is Mental Health Problems

by Placerville Newswire / Nov 18, 2017 / comments

[Vern Pierson, District Attorney, El Dorado County. Img inset: A recent booking photo of Kevin Janson Neal, the gunman in the shooting rampage in Rancho Tehama Reserve on Nov. 14. Randall Benton, SacBee]

Sadly, there was another mass shooting this week, this time leaving five dead victims in Tehama County. This follows the tragic shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people lost their lives.

One notable difference between these two horrific events is that they happened in states with very different gun control laws: Texas, having some of the laxest restrictions and California, having some of the strictest. Despite these differences, the gunman in each case had a history of mental health problems and was illegally in possession of the weapons used.

Similarities in mass casualty events do not begin or end with California and Texas. In every such event, from Sandy Hook Elementary to Las Vegas, regardless of weapon, the actor is somewhere on a spectrum from severely mentally ill to exhibiting what psychologists have begun calling the “dark triad” of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathology.

Despite these facts, these mass shootings lead once again to the oft repeated call for “sensible gun control.” What do these words mean without any specific details?

What do these words mean when we look deeper at the problem of mental health? What do these words mean in a state like California, where every year the Legislature passes more laws that restrict legal gun owners, while at the same time recently reducing the criminal penalties for gun crimes?

Moreover, the comparisons to gun violence in the U.S. vs. Europe are misleading and ignore the issue of mental health. After deinstitutionalization of mentally ill people from psychiatric hospitals in the 1970s, Europe built a comprehensive system for dealing with the mentally ill at the community level. In the U.S., we ignored this problem and increasingly have attempted to manage the mentally ill population by incarcerating them.

A major difference between the deinstitutionalization laws of the U.S. and of Europe is that in Europe, involuntary commitment laws do not solely rely upon imminent dangerousness for commitment or mandatory treatment.

As we emptied mental hospitals in the 1960s and 1970s, our prisons and jails began swelling with the mentally ill.

Unfortunately, recent changes in California law have converted many of these mentally ill prisoners into the homeless. One thing is abundantly clear: Anyone who says that the solution to this problem is simple is either grossly uninformed or is lying.

The time for meaningful conversations about this complex issue is now. Similar to what President John F. Kennedy once said about challenges the country faced; we need discuss the impact of mental illness on society not because the solutions are easy, but because they are hard, because these goals will serve to organize the best of our energies and skill, because the challenge is one we will accept, and one that we are unwilling to postpone.