Gun control and mental health: DU panel takes aim

What role should mental health play in a discussion of gun-control legislation? Is it possible to limit access to firearms without trampling on the rights of those who battle mental illness? Is a future consensus on gun control within the realm of possibility, or are debates over the Second Amendment forever doomed to inspire little more than growing discord?

All of that, and more, was on the table last night at the University of Denver, where a panel of local lawmakers and other experts tackled these issues and more.

Moderator Fran Coleman made it clear from the beginning of the event that none of these questions would be answered -- but that wasn't the point of the discussion. Instead, it was designed to illuminate multiple perspectives on gun control and mental health.

Hosted by the University of Denver's Enrichment Program, "Gun Control and Mental Health" featured an impressive panel: state senator Lois Tochtrop, state representative Brian DelGrosso; former lawmaker Moe Keller, who currently serves as vice president of Public Policy and Strategic Initiative at Mental Health America of Colorado; MHAC's Michael Lott Manier; Colorado Ceasefire's Tom Mauser; George DelGrosso, CEO of the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council; and Denise Maes of Colorado's American Civil Liberties Union.

The discussion opened with the panelists offering brief reviews of their experience, in some cases going beyond the standard bullet points to include statements of personal belief and/or political conviction. "I believe a gun is a tool," said Brian DelGrosso, who favors the separation of gun control and mental-health issues. "The threat of losing their firearms prevents many people from seeking out the mental help they need."

Keller told the audience that mental-health issues are more common to American culture than most citizens realize. "One in four Americans are dealing with mental-health issues at any point in time," she said. "And it's easier to get a gun in the U.S. than it is to get mental health treatment."

Tochtrop also called for more attention to mental-health issues. "We need to educate without a stigma," she said before relating how hospitals frequently reject patients who suffer chronic mental illness. "Many hospitals claim to have only 'X' number of beds dedicated to mental-health patients and refuse to admit more once all those beds have been taken."

Manier echoed calls for higher quality mental-health care, but pointed out that only 4 percent of gun-related crimes are committed by people with a diagnosed mental-health issue. He also noted that 76 percent of the people who misuse guns in Colorado employ them for suicide, adding that "because two-thirds of national gun deaths are suicides, the most important aspect of any mental health and firearm legislation is how it relates to suicide."

Brian DelGrosso didn't buy it. "I don't believe that any of the current legislation will actually increase safety," he said. "I live my life in public just like anyone else. I have several kids who all go to public schools, too. If I thought any of the recent state legislation would do more to keep them safe, I would have signed it. But I didn't."

Tom Mauser and his son Daniel, who was killed at Columbine in 1999.
Tom Mauser and his son Daniel, who was killed at Columbine in 1999.

One of the last questions posed by Coleman dealt with the responsibility of families and the roles they play in seeking help for their own mental-health issues. No one was entirely sure how to answer, but the question inspired some insightful remarks from Mauser, who lost his son Daniel at Columbine in 1999. "We're not a nation known for being good at intervening," he said. "Americans place such a high value on privacy that other important issues are ignored and people suffer because of it."

At the end of the evening, panelists fielded questions from the audience. The first came from an older gentleman who appeared utterly disenchanted. "We hold manufacturers for cars and baby carriers responsible for certain regulations, but the gun lobby is so strong that no one even considers it," he said, thrusting an index finger toward several panel members. "You spent all this time talking and never even got around to the bigger issue."

Granted, gun control is a big issue with which to come to grips -- and the mental-health aspect of last night's event only added to the complexity. Each panelist came off as well-read, intelligent and experienced -- but their divergent perspectives mirrored the disagreement so familiar to any serious conversation about the Second Amendment.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Colorado gun-control laws: Columbine dad criticizes sheriffs' lawsuit."

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