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December 16, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Chaining mental health reforms to gun control is a failed strategy

The serial tragedies of gun violence perpetrated by young men provoke two responses, depending on which adjective you focus on: gun or mentally unstable.

A memorial in Newtown, Conn., one year later. / ASSOCIATED PRESS

A memorial in Newtown, Conn., one year later. / ASSOCIATED PRESS

I ranted in October that proposed public policies to address recent shooting incidents got lost in the shouting about the first adjective. Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, were culpable because they wouldn’t decouple mental health improvements from the gun issue, believing, I suspect, that is the only way the latter will pass.

Well, something happened last week that gives me hope.

The Senate Finance Committee passed a very important bill, S. 264, the Excellence in Mental Health Act, which could begin restoring funding to the nation’s 2,000 community mental health centers.  The legislative mechanics are messy (as described by the liberal blog thinkprogress.org), but it has legs.  Here’s a summary by the National Council; in short, the proposed bill opens new federal financing in exchange for new standards for long-established mental health centers (such as Seattle-area providers Navos and Sound Mental Health).

The bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, and Roy Blunt, R-MO, is bipartisan because everyone has a mentally ill friend or loved one, and every legislator has had their ears blistered by a constituent ill-served by the system. Poor mental health care is identified in this Gallup Poll as the leading cause of mass shootings and Republicans and Democrats agree on it.

So why the movement now? Because the one-year anniversary of Sandy Hook passed on Saturday with a stirring of federal gun control legislation.

The echo of 26 bells in Newtown, Conn., has to ring in some kind of federal response. Coupling contentious gun legislation with widely supported mental health legislation has failed the nation’s millions of mentally ill people, and hasn’t made anyone safer. I hope the Stabenow-Blunt bill is the first crack in the dam.

Here’s video of Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-WA, speaking in support of it.

Comments | Topics: democrats, gun control, mental health

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