Wednesday, July 13, 2011


There's wide agreement that firearms in the hands of mentally ill people--for example, Tucson's Jared Loughner--constitutes a public health threat. Even the late Charlton Heston, when president of the NRA, stated in a video on that organization's website, “…we all agree that guns don’t belong in the hands of people who are mentally incompetent, so gun-buy background checks ought to include mental record checks…” Yet strangely, laws intended to protect patient privacy also protect their arms ownership.

A man in our town is mentally ill and known to be armed. I suspect he exemplifies similar situations around the country. When he's properly medicated he presents no problem, but when he goes off his meds his behavior become so erratic and threatening that his neighbors call the police. The police arrive to find the man composed. The frustrated neighbors tell them he's a mental patient who was acting crazily till twenty minutes ago, and give them his psychiatrist's name. The police call the psychiatrist to ask if the man is indeed his patient. The psychiatrist, obeying the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, ("HIPAA," pronounced HIP-a), says he's not permitted to tell them whether the man is his patient. The police are left, then, with neighbors complaining about a man who's acting, at least for the moment, eminently sane.

Can there be no solution? In 2002, the state of California enacted a law, AB 1424, which recognized that people who are seriously mentally ill can occasionally appear sane. The law stated that mental health professionals qualified to involuntarily hospitalize can no longer rely exclusively on their momentary meeting with a patient. They must consider a longer and wider history, including information provided by a patient’s family and others.

Yet even here there remains a disconnect, as police officers aren't qualified to diagnose mental disorders. They could legally arrest this man in order to bring him to a mental health professional, but they haven't done so, possibly because of liability should the man be found normal. Taking into account, then, the possibility of an error in one direction or the other, our society's current ethical ambience seems to favor protecting the man's gun ownership over protecting public safety.

Are you aware of similar situations in your locale? What's your take on this?


  1. We are dealing with a very similar situation in our neighborhood, a bipolar man possessing weapons who threatens and intimidates neighbors yet acts "normal" when law enforcement arrives. Law enforcement is seriously concerned about this man and has tried to work the county mental health department, which has refused to cooperate with the Sheriff's department, siting privacy and thus further endangering public safety in this neighborhood. It is extremely frustrating to see the negligence in the care provided to someone who clearly needs more support an monitoring, and shocking that two county agencies cannot work together. It is very sad to see a neighborhood living in constant fear because someone who is mentally ill is being allowed to terrorize them. Unfortunately Laura's Law is not working.

  2. To follow up on my previous comment, what we are looking for is a solution. Has anyone out there gotten action, resolution or truly responsible behavior out of therapists, family members or the mental health department in a situation like this? If so, we would love your advise, thank you.

  3. The problem with banning mentally ill people from owning guns is that diagnosis is subjective and often wrong. In addition, many mentally ill people are productive members of society and not at all dangerous.

    I was diagnosed with depression, then bipolar disorder. A number of years later my GP discovered I have a pituitary tumor (prolactinoma). After treating the tumor, all psychiatric symptoms disappeared. It has now been 5 years since the tumor was treated, and I have not had a single episode of depression or mania. I had moved shortly after the tumor was treated and recently saw my GP again. She was amazed at how healthy I am.

    If a law forbade people with at history of mental illness from owning guns then I would be denied my 2nd Amendment right because of a mistake. So would many other law-abiding citizens who have been misdiagnosed or have occasional bouts of depression. Hell, anti-depressants are the most prescribed drug in America!

    I'd like to see a study that looks at all violent crimes involving a firearm over a several year period. Find out exactly how many of those crimes were committed by people with a serious mental illness.

  4. How about keeping firearms away from people not just diagnosed (perhaps erroneously) as mentally ill, but court-certified as a danger to self or others as a result of mental illness? Courts consistently hold that the Second Amendment doesn't permit universal gun ownership. Small children don't have the right, nor do imprisoned felons. And, like Dr. Kane writes, if we can't keep deadly weapons out of the hands of people legally certified as dangerous due to mental illness, then our whole society is crazy.

  5. If your mental illness is so severe that you need medication to control yourself, you are indeed too dangerous to own guns. People with mental illness such as nervous breakdown should be able to own guns after they recover. Police officers suffers from nervous breakdowns all the time, and after they recover, they return back to work. As you can see, some people with mental illness are still safe to own guns.

  6. An anonymous commentator (July 21)was right in interpreting what I wrote in the blog. There are many degrees of mental illness, some obviously more incapacitating and potentially dangerous than others. Additionally, some people recover. That many police officers recover after suffering "mental breakdowns" is a point well taken.

    I was suggesting keeping weapons out of the hands of people who are CERTIFIED BY A COURT AS DANGERS TO THEMSELVES AND OTHERS as a result of mental illness. If our society officially labels someone as dangerous because of mental illness and their Second Amendment right ISN'T abrogated as a result, then there's something terribly wrong with the rest of us.

    Jeff Kane

  7. It sounds okay -- letting the court certify someone as 'too dangerous to own a gun' -- but then what about Rebecca Rosenburg who commented above? Do the courts get to take her guns -- and how does anyone later certify she is NOT a danger and therefore -- after tumor removal -- is once again okay to own guns? It's appealing, but not a sufficient remedy.

  8. Almost daily we read of someone, very often someone with a history of mental illness, shooting a number of people.

    As members of a so-called civilized society, why do we put up with this? Is virtually unlimited gun access more sacred than citizens' right to be free from random violence? Does the Second Amendment trump the Declaration of Independence's promise of "...Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness?"

    What remedy do you suggest?