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July 1, 2014
Viewpoints: Solution to violence lies in mental health, not gun control

RBGunshops5.JPG(July 1 - By Ken Maddox, Special to The Bee)

With the recent tragic shootings in Santa Barbara, Las Vegas and Seattle, I believe there is a distinct shift in how many in the media, public square and halls of government are discussing solutions to violence. The quick calls for more gun laws by groups such as the Brady Campaign and Violence Policy Center have shown little results, and I would argue hinge on antiquated rhetoric.

As a former street cop, Army officer and member of the state Assembly, I have a unique, alternate perspective based on my years of real-life experience arresting criminals, engaging the mentally ill, handling a multitude of weapons and then analyzing the public policy aspects of gun control.

It has been said before and it bears repeating once again - California has the toughest gun-control laws in the country. Many on the other side of the debate put forth the idea that if we just create more laws, Californians will be safer. This has never proven to be effective.

Instead, I suggest refocusing the policy discussion around mental health. As a police officer, I dealt with hundreds of individuals facing serious mental health illness. Many experienced a system that was not equipped to serve their needs and a society quick to stigmatize and cast them aside. They often self-medicated with narcotics and struggled with alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, these individuals were never prepared to break the seemingly endless cycle until they were so far into the throes of their personal darkness that serious and violent crimes became their outlet.

Rather than myopically viewing the violence issue through a narrow lens, California requires more innovative thinking. My former colleague in the Assembly, Sen. Darrell Steinberg, recently recommended the redirection of state funds for local police departments to better train officers how to deal with members of the public who are mentally ill, substance abusers or homeless. There is still much that needs to be done when it comes to providing the necessary treatment to our mentally ill.

Based on my experience as a former police officer, this proposal is far more solution-based. I believe the mental health approach more accurately directs where we ought to focus our collective attention and can truly help prevent tragedies. These types of potentially bipartisan solutions move the issue away from the polarizing rhetoric and closer to something all Californians can rally around.

Whether a handgun is semi-automatic (one pull of the trigger equals one bullet discharged) or an old six-shooter, most honest law enforcement professionals will tell you that the right of law-abiding citizens to possess these firearms does not have a negative affect on their safety or the safety of the general public. However, a person with a history of serious mental illness can be not only be a danger to themselves but to others as well.

To alleviate that issue, we need to stop wasting legislative time and effort on expanding firearm regulations, and put that energy and will into expanding access to mental health treatment and training those who most frequently interact with them.

California policymakers and other stakeholders should lead the way with an innovative and comprehensive approach to all violence prevention through unparalleled attention to those facing mental health illness.

Ken Maddox, a former 15-year police officer, served in the California Assembly from 1998 to 2004.