By Fawn Johnson
It takes only a few minutes of talking with Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., a psychologist by training, to recognize just how daunting it is to write laws that would keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people who could become violent. In exploring the mental-health issue, Murphy has to tread a careful line with pro- and antigun constituents.
"There are those who want to take some guns out of the hands of all people. We should focus on taking all guns out of the hands of some people," he told National Journal in advance of a hearing he will hold Tuesday with Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., on violence and severe mental illness. The hearing will probe the impediments to mental-health treatment and government best practices.
Murphy's primary aims are to shore up weak mental-health funding and research and to remove stigmas, though he is willing to find ways to bolster the background-check system. His views differ from those of the largely Democratic group of gun-control advocates, DeGette being one, who want to create a universal background-check system and to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips.
In a statement provided for National Journal, DeGette said she wants to work both the mental-health and gun-control fronts. "The truth is there's no one solution to keeping killing machines out of the hands of disturbed individuals," she said. "If my congressional colleagues only focus on mental-health issues to address gun violence, not only won't we solve the problem for our country, but we certainly won't be advocating for the will of the people."
Yet it's on the mental-health issues, not gun control, that Republicans and Democrats more easily converge. The vast majority of mentally ill people who commit violent acts with firearms harm themselves rather than others, Murphy said. He believes it is in the government's interest to prevent that kind of self-harm as well as isolated, horrific acts of violence against innocent people that are committed by those with severe mental disorders.
How do to it? It's complicated. When it comes to keeping weapons out of the hands of violent people, "How do you define that?" Murphy asked. "Who has a certain diagnosis?... Do you define it based on involuntary treatment, which is what we do now?" States have different criteria for who gets committed, some of them don't share records, and the privacy concerns are real. There are no easy answers, and it will take time to understand where the shortcomings are in the system with regard to research and access to treatment.
And the sheer magnitude of the task--wading through mental-health definitions, state laws, and government funding streams--can look like a delaying tactic to avoid legislating on gun control.
Murphy is sympathetic to gun owners' concerns about whether their rights will be preserved as lawmakers grapple with gun-control measures in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. To make sure that guns stay out of the hands of those who could do harm with them, Murphy said it is critical that the correct diagnoses take place, that people with difficulties have access to care, and that they realize it and seek it out. In other words, it's a long, slow, hard road.