Administration's aim getting better?

A year late, it's finally targeting mental health reform instead of guns

One of the lower points in our nation’s history occurred a year ago, when a clearly disturbed 20-year-old man shot and killed his school teacher mother, and then drove to an elementary school where he used legal weapons stolen from his mom to murder 20 children and six adults before shooting himself.

A year later, have we learned anything?

The Sandy Hook tragedy, like many others involving those with serious, untreated mental health issues, cried out for a re-examination of the way our country provides services to those with psychological and behavioral problems.

Instead, however, the Obama administration, like many others on the knee-jerk, blame-guns left, reflexively loaded the anti-Second Amendment ammo.

The effort misfired, and new polling released at the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre shows a majority of Americans oppose tougher gun laws – perhaps demonstrating an instinctive understanding that stricter laws affect only the law-abiding.

An announcement last week by Vice President Joe Biden, then, isn’t just a pragmatic admission that Congress won’t buck the people in pushing more gun restrictions, but that it’s time to focus on a less-polarizing issue that actually could reduce such violence: Biden said the administration will shift around already-available federal funding to provide $100 million for improving access to services for those with mental health problems.

Such vital reforms are precisely what this page recommended back in September, after the mass shooting at the Washington Naval Yard by a man who had been treated for mental illness at a Veterans Administration facility.

The shooter, Aaron Alexis, reportedly suffered from paranoia and heard voices in his head, yet the VA did too little to diagnose and treat his problems beyond handing him self-help prescriptions.

The administration’s announcement, in Alexis’ case, is an example of shutting the barn door long after the horses have galloped away. Might mental health reforms have prevented him from harming others if they’d been implemented after Sandy Hook, rather than the administration wasting its time bogged down in pointless attacks on gun rights?

We’ll never know. But we do know that our nation’s mental health treatment is woefully lacking. As Biden said in announcing the new funding, “The fact that less than half of children and adults with diagnosable mental health problems receive the treatment they need is unacceptable.”

He’s correct – even if he seems to be a late convert to the issue. Additional funding isn’t just badly needed; it’s so far overdue that much of the money necessarily will be spent making up for the time frittered away instead on anti-gun demagoguery in the year since Sandy Hook.

After the Naval Yard shooting, we noted that such a focus on guns is a distraction from the issue of dealing with the small number of the mentally ill who pose a danger to others. Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to talk about the nuances of fighting mental illness than to just propose more gun laws.

It’s too soon to tell whether the Obama administration finally understands that. But at least it’s taking a step in a more sane direction.

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