Following the tragic death of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield on Saturday, the issue of mental illness has taken center stage in the debate on gun control.
We, as a nation, need to do a better job of helping those individuals who are struggling with mental illness – on this, both sides agree.
Though, the question is really about how to help those who need it without unfairly striping them of their constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
Not everyone who has PTSD or who suffers from depression or anxiety is ‘mentally defective’ and incapable of safely handling a firearm. On the contrary, the majority of individuals who have these afflictions can – via treatment and counseling – overcome them without incident.
So, to put the question another way, how do we as a society separate those who present a danger to themselves and others from those who just need someone to talk to, a friend, a shooting buddy, a mentor, a counselor?
Unfortunately, it’s a complex problem with no easy solution. On one hand, there is this temptation to have the government get more and more involved in the lives of every individual (i.e. nationwide mental health evaluations), which raises all sorts of concerns not only about Second Amendment rights, but also about civil liberties and privacy rights.
And on the other hand, there is a fatalistic attitude that permeates the culture which holds that no matter what we do as far as government intervention we will never be able to stop homicidal or suicidal individuals from gaining access to guns and killing either themselves or others.
To use an analogy, this is a surgical problem that requires a scalpel, yet the only implement we have at our disposal is a government hatchet. We can either lop off a large part of flesh (which may only exacerbate the patient’s condition) or we can do nothing and be resigned to the status quo.
Neither is acceptable.
As it relates specifically to the gunman who murdered the two men, 25-year-old Eddie Ray Rough, a former Marine who told authorities he had PTSD – how was Kyle or Littlefield to know that this young man would snap and turn on them?
Sure, in hindsight, one can say something glib and stupid like “Chris Kyle’s death seems to confirm that ‘he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.’ Treating PTSD at a gun range doesn’t make sense,” as former Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul tweeted on Monday.
But life is complicated. And the truth is that as forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner told CNN, PTSD by itself “is rarely associated with homicidal violence.”
Kyle had helped hundreds of troubled veterans in the past by taking them out shooting or hunting. One can argue that these veterans may have never sought out help if it wasn’t for Kyle’s brand of exposure therapy (Where would these vets be today if Kyle hadn’t offered help?).
Speaking to this point, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Paul Rieckhoff told the Associated Press about how these outings can be helpful to veterans who are reluctant to meet with a psychiatrist or undergo therapy sessions.
“These types of programs can often be an on-ramp for people who won’t go to any other type of program,” Rieckhoff said. “Anything that is connected to the military culture is an easier bridge to cross.”
Rieckhoff later added that more research and programs are needed to help veterans. He said that guns “might be a part of that discussion, but were neither a panacea nor a huge danger.”
“We’re not going to just start handing out guns to everybody and say, `Hey, this is going to help you with PTSD,’ any more than we would hand out dogs or medication,” Rieckhoff said.
All of this circles back to the fact that there is no easy answer. Nevertheless, we need to keep searching for an amenable solution.