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Cutting mental health services at our own peril

And so the cycle returns. Another mass killing, eliminating one more place where folks could feel safe and relax. Gun-control advocates wring their hands, again demand restrictions on deadly weapons, and fear-mongering Second Amendment zealots spread apocalyptic warnings that even the most reasonable measures would limit our precious freedom.

Well, do you feel free now? Do you feel free to take your kids to a movie or send them off to high school or college or even let the little ones run around a playground during recess? Do you enjoy the freedom of shopping at your local mall or attending a community meeting?

Those seeking tighter controls ask why any private citizen needs a weapon with a large-capacity magazine that allows mass killing at will. And unless you are playing a macabre game with the facts, it is a reasonable proposition that no hunter needs to be armed with the killing capacity of a SWAT team.

Pro-gunners, who claim that any attempt to restrict their capacity to kill is un-American, dust off the old chestnut that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Aside from the logical conclusion that people with large-capacity magazines kill even more people, it deserves a closer look, especially since every news report about these mass killings describes a “deranged gunman.”

Set aside all the Second Amendment arguments, take those who say it is about people and not guns at their word and consider how we treat the “deranged” in our society. As these killings sweep the nation, instead of expanding that safety net that might catch potential killers, states are headed in the other direction.

In its 2011 study of mental health budget cuts, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that two-thirds of the states had cut mental health care appropriations, shredding the social safety net that our communities rely on to maintain civil order. Most folks just need a little help in times of trouble, but as these programs continue to lose funding, the chance of catching that “deranged gunman” before he acts grows slimmer.

Part of the problem is the result of states shifting mental health funds to local county officials as block grants. This allows local officials to allocate those dollars, and when social programs are forced to compete with other pressing local needs, mental health suffers. And then we all suffer.

Pennsylvania follows this trend, cutting the 2012-13 mental health budget by 10 percent. And a pilot program will allow some counties to opt-in to a block grant approach to mental health funds. This shortsighted approach to shrinking budgets ensures crowded emergency rooms, bizarre street crime, jails bursting at the seams at incredible public expense and an epidemic of senseless violence.

The only bright spot on the horizon is the Affordable Care Act, which includes mental health care in the coverage that all Americans must carry. As Joseph Rogers, chief advocacy officer of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “To not treat mental illness can really cost you.”

Any response to a “deranged gunman” requires attention to both the gun and the man. And when it comes to addressing the needs of the man, politicians are penny wise and pound foolish.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill. E-mail him at: [email protected]


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