Gun-Control or Mental Health? 

Why Can't It Be Both?

On February 14, 2018, 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were killed and another 17 were wounded in a mass shooting.  Everyone agrees this was a horrific act that defies rational explanation.  Immediately after the shooting, gun control activists began calling for gun control; some called for mental health reform.  My question is why does it have to be either a gun issue OR a mental health issue?  Why can’t it be both? And why do we have to limit it to just one or two issues?  

Recently, I sat in a meeting with 6 other mental health professionals and all 6 totally agreed the underlying issue with the Stoneman Douglas High shooting is a gun control issue.  This places the focus of what happened in Parkland on the instrument the person picks up rather than why he picked up the instrument in the first place.  Focusing on only gun control gives us a false sense of security by implying that if the shooter did not have access to a gun there would not have been any violence.  The apparent assumption is that without guns there would be no violence, but that is an assumption I am not willing to make.  

A purely rational person chooses a course of action that has only 2 possible outcomes: death or life in prison.  Make no mistake, no one is getting away with an act this horrible.  Even if the shooter initially eludes police, the ensuing manhunt would be the manhunt of all manhunts.  So when a person chooses such a dead-end path, why do we only want to focus on the weapon and ignore the issue of why he picked up the weapon?  I am not saying the person has to have had a mental illness, but within the broad arena of mental health/wellness, something went terribly wrong.

Focusing exclusively on the instrument of violence makes us feel safer; there is a huge difference between feeling safer and making us and our children safer. This focus is also a relatively easy fix, especially to those who advocate stricter gun control, and as such it makes us feel we could be safer very soon.  Also, this focus on gun control has a subtle by-product of making some people and organizations the scapegoat; if these people were only more reasonable and rational we all would be safer, or so the thinking goes.  

Mass shootings are complicated and I hate to see us overlooking the mental health issues.  I do not know if the shooter has a mental illness, but there has to be a mental health issue involved when someone chooses such a dead-end course of action.  If either of those possible outcomes is better than the perceived present or future, there is a mental health issue somewhere.  I do not know exactly what troubled the shooter, but something was terribly troubling and we owe to everyone, especially our children, to begin to look at mental health issues.  

We can look at mental health issues and gun control issues simultaneously.  It does not have to be one or the other.  We should not let the lure of a false sense of safety interfere with us addressing all the issues that likely played a role in the Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.    

--- Dr. Noles, a licensed clinical and sports psychologist, has been working with adolescent and adult clients for over 30 years.  In all aspects of his practice, the focus is on performance enhancement.  He currently has an active private practice, is a staff member of the University of Richmond counseling center, and serves as the Learning Disability Consultant at Hampden - Sydney College. He began as a US Navy Staff Psychologist.   

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Steven W. Noles, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist & Certified Sports Psychologist