Turning the gun debate to mental illness

Our View

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The 2012 mass shootings at the Aurora movie theater and at Sandy Hook Elementary School sparked discussion of the role mental illness may have played in the tragedies.

What can be done to improve treatment for the mentally ill? How can we make sure those whose illness manifests itself in violent tendencies don’t have access to guns?

That debate was quickly overshadowed by gun-control measures in Congress and in state legislatures that frequently became arguments over the Second Amendment. In Colorado, the 2013 legislative session, now less than a week from its scheduled end, will be remembered most for Democrats pushing through several gun-control bills to the outrage of Republicans.

But the mental illness aspect hasn’t gone away. We were reminded of this by last week’s scare in Littleton in which a police-issued safety alert cautioned that a man with access to a semiautomatic rifle had, weeks earlier, made threats to shoot people at the local hospital and at a big-box store.

The 24-year-old Highlands Ranch man had spent more than two weeks in the same hospital he threatened after being admitted on a mandatory hold for having homicidal or suicidal thoughts.

We know these details only because the safety alert inadvertently, police say, made its way into the hands of the public, largely because of various media reports. The alert, issued April 25, had been intended just for the people deemed most affected, such as the hospital, the man’s relatives and his former employer. It was distributed as “a precautionary measure and a courtesy,” Littleton police said, and the man had not been charged with a crime.

A day after the bulletin was issued, the man checked himself into a hospital seeking treatment and was not considered a threat, authorities said.

Media organizations and the public were given a peek behind the curtain at something that surely happens more often than we would like to think. Because of privacy laws, neither the media nor the public are privy to much of what happens before someone who is mentally ill commits a crime.

Let’s be clear: The vast majority of mentally ill people do not commit crimes, and may actually be more prone to being victimized, experts say. But some individuals with certain types of mental illness are driven to hurt people. And they should not have legal access to guns.

We have no way of knowing whether the subject of last week’s safety alert actually planned to hurt anyone or whether he is even mentally ill.

But the mere notion of someone with bad intentions and access to a firearm fuels thoughts of another tragedy.

What can be done? How can public safety best be protected without trampling on an individual’s rights?

There are lawmakers in Congress and in the Colorado General Assembly having this discussion. We hope they will put the same passion into these talks that we saw in earlier gun-control debates, sans the partisan politics.