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Gun violence and mental health

It’s safe to say most Fairfax residents know someone who works in the federal government, many of them in the military or as a military contractor. That’s why last week’s news of a shooter on the loose in our nation’s capital felt like such a punch to the gut. As with the terrorist attack on the Pentagon in 2001, there was a considerable amount of panic and confusion as people tried to contact friends or family members working downtown.

It’s important for us as a community to take a moment to remember the 12 victims killed, including four from Fairfax County, in the mass shooting at the Navy Yard. That’s part of what makes the Washington, D.C., area a community.

But after that moment of silence, it is time to take stock of ourselves as a country and look at the similarities between this horrible event and last year’s tragedy in Newtown, Conn. In both instances, a man with a history of mental illness stormed a government facility with a gun, apparently determined to kill as many people as possible.

There remains an overarching debate about gun control that we need to have as a nation — a tentative conversation about the balance of smart legislation versus civil liberties. How can people protect themselves while still allowing their neighbors to feel safe? This opinion piece isn’t about that. It’s about mental health.

The early reports from the investigation seem to show that Navy Yard shooter, Aaron Alexis, has something in common with Newtown shooter Adam Lanza and with Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho. All three have a history with mental illness and all three killed with a gun.

In each instance, one has to wonder if better mental health intervention could have spared these men and stopped them from taking the lives of others. After the Virginia Tech massacre, the was a brief push for increased mental health funding, which quickly evaporated as officials started looking for budget cuts in the wake of the recession.

In fairness, it’s understandable why funding for mental health is so seldom tied to our national consciousness in regard to mass shootings. The shootings are always linked in our imaginations as a single disturbed individual unconnected with the community. And whether the attackers are considered evil or sick, the number of mass shootings should require us to re-examine the funding for mental health.

Virginia and the U.S. both need to examine in detail how the treatment and outreach for those suffering from mental illness is funded and then how those suffering from serious mental illness can be prevented from having access to a gun. Would a robust mental health system have stopped any of the mass? A better system is almost guaranteed to prevent future instances of self-harm, which happens far too frequently.

Why hasn’t the topic of improved care for mental health been part of our gubernatorial campaign? Is there a reason we never hear about improved counseling for returning veterans or even high school students suffering from emotional problems? Why isn’t there a national system to check whether or not someone purchasing a firearm is being treated for a serious mental illness?

There are certain gun control advocates that will oppose limitations to anyone’s access to firearms. However, responsible gun owners should be stepping forward to limit the access of the mentally ill. It’s these shootings — whether it’s in the Navy Yard, a school, a shopping mall or someone’s home or place of business — that work to threaten gun ownership for everyone.

While wanting to imagine that there will never be another shooting like this, there almost certainly will. They seem to happen with increasing regularity. While we should rightly take the time to honor the victims and attempt to feel safe ourselves, we also need to institute something to possibly prevent them in the future.

Lip service alone won’t get the job done.