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Guns, kids and mental health

Published January 10, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A month ago, on Dec. 14, I spent much of the day contacting the parents of children I work with as a child psychologist. Specifically, I called the parents of the children who were already anxious. "When he gets home, don't let him watch TV or go on the Internet.

"Just unplug this weekend," I said. "You'll have to tell him what happened soon enough, but do it when the images on TV and the Internet have faded."

I reasoned that already anxious children did not need to see those images from Sandy Hook Elementary: adults running in terror; children huddled in fear; SWAT teams storming yet another place that should be safe — but wasn't. It is up to adults to reassure.

But, as someone who gives reassurance professionally, this is getting hard. We can (and should) remind children that the overwhelming majority of schools are safe. While true statistically, this reassurance is sometimes of little comfort.

Eventually, we have to face some difficult truths. For instance, there will always be people who are disconnected and angry. They perceive themselves as victims, and, by logical extension, everyone else as persecutors. "Guns don't shoot people," we are reminded, "People shoot people."

Actually, people don't shoot people. People shoot objects. The Columbine shooters weren't, for instance, shooting other kids. They were shooting jocks. They were shooting bullies. They were shooting snobs. Once we label a group we dehumanize them. And once successful at dehumanizing, a very small minority can justify the unthinkable.

So what are we to do? With the images of Newtown, Conn., fading, so, too, I fear, fades our moment of opportunity. Yes, part of the solution is to increase the availability of mental health services. But most of those who are mentally ill are not violent and those who are violent often refuse treatment. Increasing mental health services is necessary, but insufficient.

We have to take another look at gun control. I have no problem with most guns; however, I fail to understand how we can rationalize the widespread availability of assault weapons. These are weapons of mass destruction designed to kill people — a lot of people. The arguments against some reasonable limits on these guns are, in my opinion, unconvincing.

For instance, imagine a gun were available that, instead of bullets, shot aerosol canisters of smallpox. Would our response be, "Oh well, that's the Second Amendment for ya"? No. Such a weapon would be a bridge too far because no one shoots deer with smallpox.

I understand that limiting some guns will not limit all gun-related crime, but putting locks on doors does not prevent all break-ins. Should we stop locking doors? The disconnected and angry will still commit acts of violence, but should we make it easy for them?

It is argued that any limit on guns is a slippery slope. But which slope are we, as a country, closer to going over? Having all our guns taken away? Or permitting all types of guns and psychologically compelling everyone toward full armament?

An arms race between neighbors is now a more real and frightening possibility than any arms race between countries. Given our culture of violence and social disconnection, which slippery slope is more likely?

So, blaming the mentally ill is not justified, and banning all guns isn't the answer. We need a balanced approach to a complicated social problem. All options should be considered before we miss our opportunity, as we did after Columbine.

Eventually, the images of Newtown will likewise fade, our resolve will weaken, and we may find ourselves, once again, reassuring children in the face of the unthinkable.

Bryan Bushman is a licensed psychologist in Ogden. He lives in South Ogden.