Editorial: Don’t punish, scapegoat the mentally ill for gun violence

“Sicko.” “Maniac.” “Crazy.” “Nut job.” “Insane.” “Unstable.”

These are some of the derogatory names for the mentally ill being carelessly tossed about by our political leaders as they seek to cast the tragedy of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting as the fault of a “lone, crazed outsider” who should never have been able to get his hands on a deadly assault weapon.

Rather than point to the stockpiles of readily available military-style weapons like the AR-15 reportedly used by 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz to kill 17 people and wound 14 others in six minutes, these leaders would scapegoat mental illness as the primary reason for mass shootings — and further stigmatize an already maligned group of people in the process.

The NRA would be proud.

Shame on them.

RELATED: Scott, legislative leaders offer plans in response to school shooting

Adding injury to insult, when Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislative leaders unveiled their dueling $500 million plans to protect our schoolchildren from any future incidents, they set aside a mere $50 million of it for “mental health services,” statewide. For what they claim is the core of the problem.

To be sure, people who are a danger to themselves or others should be denied access to firearms. And expanding access to affordable mental healthcare should be a priority, for our state and nation. But this latest attempt to focus on the mentally ill as the source of gun-related homicides is part of an increasingly transparent effort by the pro-gun lobby to deflect from talking about real common-sense gun control policy.

Those who are suffering from mental illness — as well as those who care for them — don’t deserve this kind of broad brush; especially given that the association of mental illness with our nation’s history of gun violence is tenuous at best.

The fact is, most shootings are not perpetrated by people who have been found to have serious mental illness. According to a recent American Psychiatric Association (APA) study, less than 1 percent of gun-related homicides are committed by people with serious mental illness. Moreover, the APA study finds that only about 3 percent of violent crime in general is committed by people with mental illness.

Politicians should know better. The scourge of mass shootings in this country is real. Pulse Orlando and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport are still too fresh in minds of many Floridians. But the political rhetoric threatens to have people looking askew at children and adults who are already struggling and present no threat of violence. Worse, some may not seek the help that they really need, or even be excluded and ostracized from school or community activities.

RELATED: Mass shooting fix: Trump, Scott stress mental health; Dems, gun laws

And for what? To deflect from the real issue of far-too-easy access to assault weapons? And how disingenuous this sudden concern about firearm deaths and mental health when one of the first acts taken by President Donald Trump was to sign legislation making it easier for people with mental illness to purchase guns. Here in Florida, Gov. Scott signed a bill in 2011 that restricted the ability of doctors, including many mental health professionals, from talking to patients about firearms or risk a $10,000 penalty and loss of their medical license. A federal court had to strike down that provision.

As for funding for mental health services at the state and federal levels, it has rarely been a priority. Trump’s proposed budget reduces spending for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration by $665 million, and cuts the National Institute of Mental Health by 30 percent in 2019.

Enough with the distractions. We cannot allow Florida’s political leaders to avoid considering legislation to limit access to dangerous assault weapons or to close the gun show loophole.

Truthfully, Cruz has yet to be officially diagnosed as mentally ill. That he committed a despicable, evil act doesn’t make it OK to publicly shame every child struggling with depression, painful shyness, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or autism.

As a community, we are all horrified by the horrendous loss of life in Parkland. We all can agree that people with serious mental issues should not have access to guns. We can also agree that greater resources need to be spent on mental healthcare, both for school children and adults.

But pretending that gun violence is primarily a mental health problem is dishonest. We need greater courage from our elected representatives than to scapegoat people unable to defend themselves.

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