As surely as survivors of a mass shooting can expect to see tweets from pro-gun politicians that send them “thoughts and prayers,” we can expect to get the vague commitment to “doing something” about “mental health.”

That’s usually where it ends. It’s not that they really want to do something about mental health – it’s that they really don’t want to do anything about the availability of guns.

In Maine, when the Legislature takes up gun regulation, it’s almost always to make guns easier to buy, conceal and carry. This year, proposals to ban high-capacity magazines and require background checks for private sales were predictably dead on arrival in Augusta, but there was hope for a “red flag” bill, L.D. 1312, which would let a judge issue a restraining order to temporarily confiscate weapons from someone who is a danger to themselves or others.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, narrowly passed the Judiciary Committee last week and faces a rocky path forward in the House and Seante. But negotiations  are said to be underway on a on a more limited version of the bill that could get enough support to pass. It would add a gun-seizure option to the existing legal process used to involuntarily commit someone to a psychiatric facility.

If a bill like that were to become law, it would be a step in the right direction, but a very small one. Making mental illness, as described in the law, the standard for limiting access to guns could contribute to the stigma surrounding mental illness and could make people less likely to seek help.

And it adds to the false impression that mental illness leads to violence. Multiple studies show that people with major mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than they are to be the perpetrator, and they are also more likely to be victimized than the population as a whole. Nationally, fewer than 1 percent of criminal defendants are found not guilty by reason of insanity. The legal standard for mental illness is necessarily narrow, so it leaves out many people who might be in a temporary crisis.


This is also true with suicide – the kind of gun violence where you would expect that the connection with mental health would be the strongest. Suicide is occurring at epidemic levels in Maine, and the method most often used is a firearm, accounting for more than 100 deaths a year in the state.

People who kill themselves can display many red flags, but having a diagnosed mental illness is not necessarily one of them, according to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control. Instead, “relationship problems or loss, substance misuse; physical health problems; and job, money, legal or housing stress often contributed to risk for suicide.”

We supported the original red flag bill, because its scope was broad enough to respond to those kinds of “red flags.” Similar laws have passed in 15 states, and have likely saved many lives and have not been ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

But gun confiscation is no substitute for a fully functional mental health system, which would save many more lives.

Lawmakers should pass the best bill that they can this year, as long as they commit to really doing something about mental health.





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