Shortly following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo joined the chorus of several politicians crying out for increased gun control. Cuomo promised to submit a number of gun control bills, and even suggested a mandatory state buyback of guns—i.e. confiscation of private property. It seems as though Cuomo is serious about preventing shootings—at least on paper.
Unfortunately, none of his proposed laws could have saved the children at Sandy Hook School. Connecticut already had some of the toughest gun laws in the country. It already wasn’t legal for Adam Lanza, a 20-year old, to be carrying a handgun at all, never mind carrying one in a “gun free” school zone. The shooting at Sandy Hook School happened in part because Adam Lanza was severely affected by mental illness—as were Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Seung-Hui Cho, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold . A sane person cannot shoot their own mother multiple times in the head and then proceed to shoot 20 six and seven-year-olds. That’s just not normal. They need help.
Gun laws did nothing to stop Lanza from opening fire into a classroom full of six-year olds. Getting him off the streets, like his mother reportedly planned on doing, would have. Unfortunately, thanks to the 1963 Community Mental Health Act, which encouraged “community based care,” many states took the federal money meant for mental health “community” care and closed their institutions, putting the mentally ill populations on the streets. Obviously, a person on the street isn’t going to be receiving treatment for their illness. If a person’s illness goes untreated, it’s putting the general population at risk.
It’s interesting that Cuomo would clamor for more gun laws, which would result in taking away guns from well-behaved citizens, when he’s done an abysmal job with the mentally ill population of New York State during his term as governor. Cuomo closed two wards at the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center in Utica, NY, while leaving an older, lesser-equipped hospital in need of renovations open in Syracuse. This doesn’t make sense.
The patients at these hospitals, who are among the most vulnerable of society, are going to be left out on the streets, and they’ll probably end up in prison. Twelve patients already have some sort of criminal history, and they’re being released to their home counties, where who knows what will happen with them. Prison is, unfortunately, the final destination for many of America’s mentally ill— in 1997, 15,000 inmates was treated for mental illness at Riker’s Island prison in New York City. In Michigan, the population of psychiatric hospitals has decreased by 23,000 since 1955, and its prison population has increased by 37,000. Mental illness isn’t going away. It’s just going to jail, untreated.
If Cuomo wants to actually do something to prevent gun crime, he could start first with ensuring that police officers are properly trained (last August, nine people on a street were injured from NYPD bullets when they missed their target), and by making sure that those who are mentally ill (and could possibly commit some kind of shooting) are getting help. This isn’t possible if he continues to push the closures of psychiatric hospitals. Disarming citizens isn’t the answer: giving psychiatric help to those who need it is.
Christine Rousselle | Providence College | @CRousselle