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World Expats debate: Does a mental-health strategy need to be part of Obama’s guns task force?

A man embraces a young boy as they look at a memorial in front of the St. Rose of Lima Catholic church in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 16, 2012.


President Barack Obama is to announce a guns task force in the wake of the Newtown massacre. The ideas already circulating among politicians and stakeholders include renewing a ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons that expired in 2004, limits on gun magazine clips and the number of bullets that can be fired, and a broader mental health strategy. The Newtown shooter used a Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, reportedly firing more than a hundred rounds.

The exact motive of the Newtown shooter – and clues from his medical history – remains a mystery. But increasingly, Americans are raising the issue of mental health in the context of gun control measures to prevent future mass shootings. So have Globe and Mail expats living in the U.S. Here are there reflections.

Dennis Sifton, physician in Williamsburg, Virginia, originally from southern Ontario:

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The pattern has become clear that there are many factors that are unique to each [mass shooting] but [they] have a recurring undercurrent.

The perpetrators are all young males with varying degrees of mental derangement some of whom have been involved with the mental health system. Many had been identified as being "odd" by educators. Also, a failure to intervene in some cases by family. They all have had access to guns of various sorts – usually assault-type semi automatic weapons with large clips.

I could speak to each of these factors by saying that a lot of people could have intervened in each case along the way. I think there is a crisis in mental health care both here and in Canada for this particular demographic. There is a paucity of professionals to treat these patients. There is also an unwillingness of those treating to take a stand when they see the danger signals as there is an overriding fear of lawsuits if a person is detained for mental health reasons.

There is also a problem of failure to identify some of the autism spectrum disorder patients. The education system and parents also bear some responsibility. Many of these young men are loners and are drawn to the profuse availability of violent movies and video games.

Anne Britton, optometrist living in Rapid City, South Dakota, originally from Montreal:

I don't know if gun control is the answer or if the gun culture here is too strong. Definitely, something needs to be done with [treating] mental illnesses.

The Facebook posts about this happening because we took God out of the schools bother me the most. I want to ask them: Does believing in God protect you from mental illnesses? Can you not raise kids into wonderful adults without the church? Funny, I'm doing it.

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Everyone tells me my kids are great kids. Polite, thoughtful, helpful to others, non-judgmental. And they never set foot in a church. These are my values. American can't keep from putting the blame on something else than us as society having a problem!

Sherry Halfyard, a career consultant in Phoenix, Ariz., from Vancouver Island, B.C.:

Why is that we need to have such (unsubstantiated) theories almost immediately after the event? Is it our personal fear? Could this happen to my family? I liken it to a car accident or a crime where we seem to flock together and simply watch – secretly thinking: "Lucky it wasn't me [or] us"…

Now all the "mental illness" speculation – the rationale being: how could a sane person do this? To be classified as mentally ill (in the eyes of the law) the shooter would have to have thought he was out hunting birds – not people. Based on the little bit I have heard, this crime appears to be premeditated [and], therefore, committed by a "legally" sane person. Of course "we" will never really know for sure. What is certain, there will be plenty of theories.

Robert Slaven, an actuary who moved recently to Arizona after living in southern California since 2008, lived for most of his life in Yellowknife, NWT. He is a gun owner and argues why an assault weapons ban would be "useless":

"Semi-automatic" means that when you shoot one round, the firearm automatically ejects the spent casing and cycles in a new round, without the need of any further action on the part of the shooter.

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Many proponents of banning semi-automatic firearms say, "If you have to reload each round, as in the case of a bolt-action rifle, it slows you down and reduces how many people you might injure or kill in a given amount of time."

My response would be to go dig up some footage of biathlon shooters in any Winter Olympics. They have bolt-action rifles with magazines, and the bolts are designed to be cycled with an absolute minimum of effort and time. Give me one of those rifles and put me up against someone with a semi-automatic, and I could probably get shots away in almost the same time as the semi-auto shooter with a bit of practice ...

The only gun control measure I'd be in favour of would be to reinstate the [Clinton-era] provision limiting magazines to 10 rounds or less.

The Tucson shooter in the [Congresswoman] Gabby Giffords shooting had a 33-round magazine protruding from the grip of his handgun, and was tackled when he tried to change magazines. If he'd had to change after only 10 rounds, his toll would have been lower. This is the only gun control measure that, in my opinion, would have any serious impact on the frequency of possible future incidents.

The biggest difference we can make would be to vastly improve how we handle mental health in our society… We don't know exactly what demons were going through the mind of the Newtown shooter. But for this and for millions of other reasons, we need to take the resources we currently devote to mental health in this society and increase them ten-fold, if not a hundred-fold.

Colleen Pendergast, a former school administrator in Nantucket, Mass., from Edmonton:

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I am struck by the amount of people suggesting that school principals should start carrying guns and the suggestion that the principal in the Sandy Hook shooting would have been able to take him down if she was armed.

Is she supposed to be walking around school with an assault rifle? Or was there supposed to be time for her to go and get said gun? I can say that as a school principal I would never, ever carry a gun inside of a school.

I know enough about myself that I am not comfortable with guns and never will be. I could never live with myself if a child or staff member or visiting parent was harmed in anyway from me "being armed." And there are a lot of troubled kids out there who would think it was a great feat to get a hold of the "school's gun."

I am assuming that these people who are saying this are not aware that most middle and high schools (and many elementary) have school resource officers (police officers). They carry guns, because they are police officers. That has obviously not prevented school violence, I hate to say. I hope this argument [to arm school principals] goes away very quickly.

Meredith Miller, who works in communications in Pittsburgh, Penn., is originally from Toronto:

I've heard a number of discussions and debates after events like this that disarming the public only works in favor of those looking to commit harm. If someone is looking to inflict such devastation, are they more likely to do it in a place where they know someone won't shoot back? In the case of schools, in the vast majority of school districts, school security personnel are unarmed. Looking back to Aurora, Colorado earlier this year, for someone looking to inflict mass harm, that movie theatre certainly wasn't the largest in the city, where the number of targets would be greatest. It was, however, one that did not allow guns on its property.

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I heard an interesting question asked on the radio while driving into work today. The announcer was talking about how we have stickers in our windows and signs on our front lawns that indicate our house has a home security system as a way to deter criminals. They then posed the question: Would you put a sign on your lawn saying "this is a gun-free zone" and feel at ease?

I certainly don't have the answer to all this, but I think it's a much larger issue than scooping up all the guns off the street. We need to figure out what is driving these (mostly) young males to commit such crimes. How did they fall through the cracks? And how can we ensure that psychological resources are readily available to intervene before things like the events of Friday ever happen.

Derek Congram, archaeologist in Honolulu, Hawaii, originally from Ontario:

One can only hope that out of such tragedy comes reason: that we can counter the argument of those who believe irrationally that their right to own and use lethal weapons trumps the security and lives of children.

We've already seen that gun ownership rights outweigh the right to security of adults or even high school students (think of mass shootings in recent years in the U.S. and the lack of legislative response).

And perhaps mental health welfare will also get greater consideration as a result.

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Both in Colorado and Connecticut it is plain to see that beyond the very complex factors of culture and society that contribute to mass gun killings, mental health and the availability of guns are major components of this tragic national phenomenon.

These contributions have been edited and condensed.

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