Continuing The Discussion With Representative Kavanagh


Posted by Bob Lord

[Background: In a post by
AzBlueMeanie, Arizona GOP Doubles Down on NRA's Idiotic Proposal, Representative Kavanagh started a discussion regarding proposals
to curb gun violence. The discussion continued in a post of mine, An Open
Letter to Representative Kavanagh
. I chose to place this response to
Representative Kavanagh in a new post because my prior post has moved too far
down the page at this point.]

Representative Kavanagh, 

I don’t ordinarily speak for my fellow bloggers here, let
alone our readers (many of whom are conservative), but I’m confident that many
share my appreciation that you would take the time to post comments on this
site. I hope you understand that my previous comments were intended as
criticism, not as an attack.

I’m not sure if my personal opinion counts for all that
much, as I have no special expertise here, but I’m happy to respond to your last comment, as you requested.  I also encourage our readers to chime in.

I would encourage you to step back and look at the big
picture regarding mental health. It’s not pretty and it’s very, very
complicated. Start with some very basic realities. First, mental health is a
continuum. People can be found at every point along the continuum, with the
exception of perfect mental health, a status none of us enjoy. Furthermore,
mental health is not static for any individual. Our mental health is in a constant state of flux. People often are not aware of their mental illness and, even if they are, often actively conceal it, rather than seek help, as they typically would for a physical ailment. Finally, all of us, even those
we consider completely “sane,” have a snapping point when placed under enough

With that as background, consider all the situations we’re
dealing with on the mental health front. We have millions of adults addicted to
alcohol and other drugs. They can’t control their impulse to imbibe and they
can be dangerous when intoxicated. We have a substantial portion of the
population taking psychotropic medications (Prozac, Xanax, Lithium, Adderall,
etc). If they go off their meds (and they very often do), their mental function
can break down. In this regard, we have a particular problem when children on
AHCCCS become adults and lose their coverage and go off their meds. If they
were taking an amphetamine-based drug for ADHD, it is not uncommon for them to
become Meth addicts. We have millions of people who have undiagnosed anger management or
impulse control problems.

We have millions of people whose mental health deteriorates
over time, sometimes gradually, sometimes not so gradually. For example, the
onset of schizophrenia often occurs in young adulthood, especially for men. A
20-year old male can be in good mental health when he buys a gun, but a basket
case by his 23rd birthday. [If you want to read a fascinating story about someone losing his mental health in early adulthood, pick up Man On The Bench, by Howard Jones, a short book about
how a homeless person who lived most of his adulthood on a bench arrived at
that place.] Another example is elderly adults who develop dementia, often concealing their dementia for years. But an
individual’s devolution may not be physiological. There are millions of cases
where a traumatic event triggered a serious mental disorder.  

Of particular significance to this debate, we have hundreds
of thousands of veterans who have returned from defending their country, who
are expert in the use of firearms but who are no longer whole mentally because
of traumatic events they experienced. 

Given this incredibly complex mental health scenario in
America, I think it is tragically misguided to believe that we can make a
meaningful impact on gun violence if our exclusive or even primary approach to
the problem is to attempt to identify those individuals not suited mentally to
own guns and take pre-emptive action. That is not to say that we should not
adopt measures to keep guns out of the hands of the seriously mentally ill. But
even if we could accomplish that task with the desired degree of precision,
the level of gun violence in America still would be intolerable and still would
be worse than all other developed nations.

So, I can answer the questions you’ve posed to me, but I
must tell you that I find your comments discouraging in the bigger picture, because you seem to view
gun violence exclusively or primarily as a mental health matter. In your first
comment to my previous post, you stated that your question was “met with a lot of negative criticism, sans the referral to the
video.” That’s not true. For example, Bess referred you to Australia as a model
for effective gun policy. My point here is not to criticize, as we all miss
things when reading, but to raise the concern that you seem to be hyper-focused
on mental health in this discussion, when in my mind measures to keep guns out
of the hands of the mentally ill are just one part of a multi-part program. 

As for the question you
raised regarding the encroachment on civil liberties if mentally ill persons
are identified as such in a database used for background checks on gun
purchases, I’m willing to live with some encroachment, but I think the encroachment
can be minimal. I don’t believe anyone should be permitted to buy a gun with a
simple background check. I would adopt the approach that other countries have
used, where obtaining a license to own a gun requires an application, in which
pertinent questions must be answered (under penalty of perjury), and a test of
mental fitness and knowledge of gun safety. And, just as applying for a driver’s
license requires a voluntary relinquishment of privacy, so would applying for a gun
license. Yes, a database would be required, but the actual release of
information from the database would be rare. That doesn’t eliminate the
encroachment on civil liberties, but in my view reduces it to the point where
concerns regarding civil liberties mush yield to the compelling public safety

Lastly, even within the subject of mental health, your
approach seems too narrow, as you seem to be overly focused on identifying the
“seriously mentally ill” and taking direct measures to keep guns out of their
hands. If you focus only on the “seriously mentally ill,” while neglecting the “somewhat mentally ill” or whatever you want to call those who are mentally ill but not seriously mentally ill. The obvious problem is that if we don’t treat the folks who are “just a little” mentally ill, they become seriously mentally ill and, because the identification and disarming of the seriously mentally ill will never be failsafe, we increase the risk of mental illness driven gun violence. Also, you dodged my inquiry as to whether you were willing to raise taxes
in order to secure the needed funds for this effort, stating only that you were
“willing to increase spending, although funds are limited.” Funds are limited only by the priority you place on the program in question. 

Again, thanks for taking the time to discuss
this issue with us. At least from my perspective, your comments are always welcome. 


  1. I have to agree, David. Banning military-style assault weapons and extended clips has broad public support. Now is the time. I hope such a measure will be proposed in the coming days.

    I also think it is well past the time to talk about how we treat mentally ill people in our state. During the last few years, we have cut the mental health budget and lost Medicaid matching funds. Human beings who have fallen through the cracks are being incarcerated in greater numbers. I would like to know whether Representative Kavanagh thinks Arizona should participate in Medicaid expansion via the ACA. If not, how will seriously mentally ill people and others living at the poverty level get health care.

  2. Well said, Bob. Shorter version: Kavanagh wants us to shift our focus to the “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” meme. Mental health is an important issue, but it’s a secondary issue as a way to curb gun violence. Fewer assault-style weapons in people’s hands means the chronically mentally ill and the temporarily insane have less opportunity to kill large numbers of people by using weapons of mass destruction. A “both and” approach is best, but the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Let’s make restricting the sale of assault weapons and extended clips our primary focus, adding background checks at gun shows if we can. Passing strong legislation on these issues is the first, most important step toward lowering the instances of mass murder in the U.S.