Gun Control, the Right to Bear Arms, and Mental Illness

Hearing President Obama read the names of the children who were killed in Newtown was heartbreaking. In the background, you could hear the families gasp when their child’s name was called. That struck straight to the heart of every parent watching… what would I do if he spoke my child’s name?

Every year, we have some shooting that makes the news and restarts the gun control debate. Let’s take a look at this from a legal perspective first by looking into the breadth and purpose of the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights states, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The right to bear arms developed in response to King James II’s attempt to take all weapons from Protestants in England. The king was Catholic and he was having a hard time ruling well armed Protestant citizens. When he was overthrown, William and Mary had to accept the newly codified, if not newly created, “right to bear arms”. So, the right to bear arms literally was created to provide an avenue to over-throw the government or keep the power of government in check. The right to bear arms was also certainly important to the founding fathers to “discourage undemocratic governance” or provide the “only sure guarantor of liberty”.

If we look back to the founding of the country, we could think that a “well regulated militia” means that colonists needed guns to fight the British or other invaders. That need is no longer viable today, or at least not as viable. However, just a few years ago the U.S. Supreme Court held that the right to bear arms is an individual right unconnected with service in a militia. District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). Just two years ago, the Supreme Court held that states and local governments are prohibited from infringing on this right. McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 3025 (2010). Regardless of our personal beliefs on gun control, any attempted changes will face huge constitutional hurdles.

Since gun control will have such obstacles, we should start moving on the other side of this issue, mental illness. Please take a minute to read the following case that I handled three years ago. Anthony Zichi was a troubled young man. He grew up in a loving household with a mother who doted over him. However, when he was born the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck. As a result, he had some period of time with reduced oxygen and resultant behavioral problems. He would just “snap” and lash out at people. In high school, he would punch into walls, beat up his mother, and at times of lucidity would beg her to help him. Eventually, he was committed to a mental illness facility for the first time.

Mental health facilities in North Carolina are limited, underfunded and understaffed. So, Zichi was committed just for a few days in Greensboro, drugged, then released. Over and over he was hospitalized in High Point, Burlington, Greensboro and released. After being committed a few times, he was then jailed for assaults, etc. His “rap sheet” was twenty-seven pages long. He would spend a night or two in jail, and then he was released. Once, he was found lying in the cell naked with his feces smeared all over his body. He was placed in adult care homes. He stabbed another resident in the neck with a pencil. He was sent to Broughton, and released. He got an adult care home owner’s handgun and started firing around the home. By age twenty-five, Zichi had been involuntarily committed NINE times to Broughton and Butner as well as other facilities, jailed countless times. When he was discharged the final time from the state mental health facility in Butner, he ended up getting placed at Evans Family adult care home in Burlington.

Also living in Evans home was Ruth Terrell. Ruth was eighty-five years old, and she was a sweet lady. She loved doing crossword puzzles, was very active in her church, and loved spending times with her children and grandchildren. However, she didn’t like Zichi. He was mean to her, and mean to staff. One night, Zichi climbed out of bed and went into the kitchen. He got a butcher knife and walked into Ruth’s bedroom. He put his hand on her throat and stabbed her over and over. When questioned by police, he said that he saw rats running all over her and he was trying to kill them. Ruth lived for a few days, spent her 85th birthday in the hospital, and died with her children at her side. As of this writing, he is involuntarily committed. Apparently, it takes a murder to keep him that way.

So, what does Zichi who used a knife, have to do with gun control? Zichi’s mother was begging anyone who would listen to help her son. She told people he was dangerous. She told people that he was going to kill someone. She wrote politicians, doctors, and psychiatrists. They ignored her. The mental health system has failed us. It failed Zichi. It failed Ruth. In this regard, take a moment to read this article from one mother of such a child: This mother’s account is eerily similar to Zichi’s mother. The mentally ill are scary to the public, something that they don’t want to think about. Just because we choose to not think about them, doesn’t mean that the violent, mentally ill aren’t walking among us. While the gun control issues are complex and legally difficult, treating the violent, mentally ill isn’t. Just look at these shooters, and you will see the common thread of violence and mental illness.

In Aurora, the shooter dyed his hair orange to look like the Joker. Before the shootings, he was becoming erratic. He began seeing three psychiatrists. He dropped out of his neuroscience program. He told people that he was going to kill people… then, he started buying guns. The problem was that the mental health treatment that he was beginning to receive was associated with the university. Once he dropped out of school, the treatment stopped. The psychiatrists never notified anyone, as he was no longer a school problem. He was then our problem, we just didn’t know it yet.

At Virginia Tech, the shooter was obviously mentally ill to the people around him. Since he was young, many of his family members thought he was mentally ill. In eighth grade, he wrote in a school assignment that he wanted to “repeat Columbine”. He was placed in special ed classes in high school for emotional disturbances. Some mental health treatment was attempted, but he quit attending sessions when he was a junior. None of these records were sent to Virginia Tech. At VT, his professor said that he was mean and intimidating and was writing about violence. She said that she would quit if she had to continue teaching him. He was confronted by campus police three times for stalking. As a result of these events, he was committed to a psychiatric facility as a danger to others. After a few days, he was released…. then, he started buying guns.

Rep. Giffords’ shooter started odd behaviors in high school. He would talk about the government and conspiracy theories constantly. He became erratic and hard to understand. He laughed at a student’s account of her abortion, laughed out loud about making a baby bomb, and then started talking about terrorism. He was suspended, dropped out of school… and then he started buying guns. On Facebook, his last words before the attack were, “Goodbye friends. Please don’t be mad at me. The literacy rate is below 5%. I haven’t talked to one person who is literate. I want to make it out alive. The longest war in the history of the United States. Goodbye. I’m saddened with the current currency and job employment. I had a bully at school. Thank you. P.S. plead the fifth.” Meaningless, incoherent babble of the criminally insane.

Now, in Newtown, we have a young man with a history of mental coping difficulties. While it is too early to make a clear determination as the cause and motive, there is certainly a pattern developing of violent, mentally ill young men causing mass killings. Surely, we can see the most immediate problem and start working toward solutions.

Irrespective of our long term positions on gun control and the upcoming countless debates over the right to bear arms, the mentally ill need treatment now. In particular, the mental health system treating patients with violent tendencies should be scrutinized, reformed and funded. Get informed and get involved, focusing on the treatment of violent, mentally ill is our best immediate option to the current tragedies. It is our obligation to ourselves, our children, and the mentally ill themselves.