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February 28, 2013

Our View: Better mental health care alone won't end violence

Gov. LePage was at least partly right in his letter to President Obama and Vice President Biden.

Their response to the Newtown mass shooting was short on ideas to improve the kind of mental health services that might have been able to prevent that tragedy or one of the others that have shocked the nation over the last decade or so.

But LePage was dead wrong when he said that we don't need to look at gun laws when we talk about preventing gun violence. This is a complicated problem without a single answer and everyone's ideas, both Biden's and LePage's, should be on the table.

LePage is right when he says that untreated mental illness is a thread that connects the massacres at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Ariz., Aurora Colo., and probably Newtown.

The governor is also right when he says everyone should be concerned about issues of access and delivery of mental health services, not just because it could prevent a very rare act of violence but because it is the humane way for a society to take care of people who are in distress.

LePage is rightfully proud of Maine's "B" grade from the National Alliance on Mental Illness -- no state got a higher rating.

But that does not mean that Maine is doing everything to help people with mental illness. In addition to the $2 million in court ordered spending this year that LePage touted in his letter to Biden, he ordered $1.8 million in cuts that affect mental health services.

Mass shootings get headlines, but they are very unusual crimes. LePage has appropriately called attention to domestic violence in Maine, which is behind about half of the homicides in the state. Federal law prohibits anyone with a domestic violence assault conviction from owning a gun, but other violent misdemeanors are not disqualifying even if they were pleaded down from felony charges. A record of those offenses is far more predictive of future violent act than a mental illness diagnosis.

Alcohol abuse is also more of a risk factor for acts of violence and suicide than mental illness. Federal law prohibits people who use illegal drugs from possessing firearms, but there is no restriction for people with demonstrated alcohol abuse problems.

This is not an issue that is going away or one that can be solved simply by continuing current levels of spending on mental health services. Common sense gun regulations that respect gun owners rights should be part of the response to Newtown.

Gov. LePage was partly right, but it's too early to rule out changes to the law if we are serious about preventing violence.





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