There’s More to Gun Violence than Mental Illness

November 18, 2014
Newtown. Aurora. Tucson. These three shootings, at an elementary school in Connecticut, at a movie theater in Colorado and at a constituent meeting in Arizona, are just a few examples of the mass shootings that have captured the media’s attention in the past few years. While the shootings have sparked discussions on gun violence in this country, they have also led to conversations about the intersection of gun violence prevention and mental illness. In each of these cases, mental illness was at one point or another discussed as a potential cause of the violent crimes committed in these three towns. Whether the shooters in these attacks were mentally ill or not does not impact the importance of keeping guns out of the hands of people with mental illness. Moreover, the focus on gun violence and mental health can be limiting. Only four percent of all violent crimes are committed by people with mental illnesses. In fact, individuals with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of crimes than to commit them. Although the connection between mental health problems and mass shootings is often emphasized by the media following high-profile mass shooting, an estimated 31,000 people die from gunshot injuries each year and many of these cases do not involve people with mental illness. While it is important to advocate for the treatment of people with mental health issues and for universal background checks that would prevent people with a mental illness from purchasing guns, it is essential to also avoid stigmatizing mental illness and to recognize that gun violence is not only caused by people with mental illness. As Jews, we recognize the importance of treating mental illness. When we say the mi shebeirach (prayer for the sick), we pray for a refuah sheleimah—a complete recovery—and specify that that recovery includes both refuat ha-nefesh u'refuat haguf, a healing of the soul and the body. From 2009 to 2012 alone states cut $5 billion from their mental health services budgets, preventing many Americans from receiving the treatments they need. The Excellence in Mental Health Act (S. 264 / H.R. 1263) creates criteria for establishing community behavioral health centers, makes sure that such centers are eligible to take patients with Medicaid and awards matching grants to states or Indian tribes to expend funds for the construction or modernization of facilities used to provide community-based mental health and substance abuse services to individuals. Take action now to support the Excellence in Mental Health Act. While increased treatment for mental illness can help prevent some gun violence, more needs to be done to prevent gun violence in this country. Jewish tradition teaches us that we must not “stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Leviticus 19:16). Our responsibility when it comes to unnecessary death is therefore broader than simply not murdering (Exodus 20:13); we must also not be complicit in unnecessary bloodshed. To this end, the Reform Movement has partnered with Metro Industrial Areas Foundation to reach out directly to local mayors to ask gun manufacturers to lead reform in their industry by asking gun manufacturers to create first-rate networks of dealers that meet high standards of security, record keeping and cooperation with law enforcement and that bring child-proof, theft-proof guns to market. Take action now to tell your mayor: do not stand idly by on gun violence.

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