SID SALTER: Mental health treatment must remain a priority

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – President Barack Obama’s strategy of responding to the Connecticut school shootings and other recent mass shootings with overreaching limits on Second Amendment rights is burdened by precious little attention to the mental health component of such atrocities.
Obama proposes background checks on all gun sales, a renewal for the former assault weapons ban, renewal of a 10-round limit on magazines, a prohibition on ownership of armor-piercing ammunition and other initiatives designed to impede Second Amendment rights. But in terms of the mental health component of such crimes, the president’s initiatives are far less bold and intrusive on individual liberties.
Here in Mississippi, where public officials from the Governor’s Mansion to the town hall of the smallest hamlet are usually gun owners and staunch defenders of Second Amendment rights, the reaction was predictable. Gov. Phil Bryant flatly promised to block any new federal gun restrictions – that after forming a task force to make school safety recommendations.
Joining Bryant in that stance was House Speaker Philip Gunn and a number of state legislators. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is on record opposing any infringement on current Second Amendment rights and got out front of proposed legislation to fund a $7.5 million grant program to helps Mississippi schools hire more armed law enforcement officers.
Legal scholars question how effective the efforts of state officials to block federal gun restrictions can be. Since Southern states are virtually uniform in their opposition to additional gun restrictions, it stands to reason that many of those same legal scholars cite the “supremacy clause” of the Constitution as the basis for their doubts and liken opposition to new federal guns laws today to opposition to new federal civil rights laws in the 1960s.
But what is most disturbing is that for a nation appalled by the shooting of former Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the mass shooting at the Aurora, Colo., movie theater and in the Connecticut school shooting, guns were only half of the common denominators of those crimes. The fact that all three of these shooters had identifiable patterns of mental illness is left in the political dust of a rush to implement new laws that erode basic gun ownership rights.
The proposed laws speak directly to the question of just whom the Obama administration thinks should or should not own guns and what type of guns they should be allowed to own. But the same standards aren’t applied in the administration’s proposals to deal with how the federal government or state governments deal with the problems of mental health and funding mental health treatment.
The fact is, Mississippi – for all our “pry it from my cold, dead hand” majority views on gun rights – operates a mental health system that is lacking in many, many ways but is clearly more robust and responsive than that of our peer states.
As I recently cited, the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute reported that in Fiscal Year 2009, per-capita spending on mental health agencies in Mississippi was $108.96 per capita. That compared with a national average of $122.90 per capita. Alabama spent $77.89 per capita on mental health, while Arkansas spent $42.77, Louisiana spent $71.80 and Tennessee spent $78.31. Mississippi’s mental health funding declined 10.4 percent between Fiscal Year 2009 and Fiscal Year 2012 – but that percentage cut was far greater in other Southern states.
The question now remains whether Mississippi’s mental health system is efficient and effective enough to be a reliable factor in the Mississippi school safety debate. State officials who are leading on the protection of gun rights have an obligation – one President Obama skirted – to lead equally well on the mental health component of school safety.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com