We need protection from guns - and the Cuomo administration

Database of mentally unstable needs more specificity and consistency in its compilation

The Spectrum is consistently supportive of the SAFE Act, and gun control at large. But although keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and unstable individuals is of crucial importance, as is the prevention of gun violence in general, safety cannot come at the expense of civil rights and social equality.

Balancing freedom and protection is no easy task, but the scales have been tipped too far with the sweeping, hasty establishment of a database of approximately 34,500 New Yorkers whose mental instability is considered to outweigh their Second Amendment rights.

Individuals who are legitimately mentally ill or unstable – to the point where they’re violent or unpredictable, or a danger to themselves or others – should not be permitted to carry firearms.

That much is – hopefully – straightforward and logical even in the perspective of the most avid advocates for gun rights. But at issue here is the “considered,” the “legitimately” – who decides that a person is mentally unstable to the point that their rights should be revoked?

As important as gun control inarguably is, so are the rights of individuals as defined by the Constitution.

And currently, the Cuomo Administration and the SAFE Act are not sufficiently acknowledging this.

It’s important to contextualize the number of individuals in the database – 34,500 – with the 144,000 people admitted in 2012 for treatment in psychiatric facilities. Given the scale of New York’s mental health system, the statistic does sound more reasonable than initial impressions may suggest.

Nonetheless, the process of designating individuals who belong in the database is far from sufficient in terms of specificity and consistency.

Mental health professionals put forward the important detail that not all mentally ill individuals are violent – determining that someone belongs among the 34,500 is a process that extends beyond the identification of mental illness.

Unfortunately, as it stands now, there isn’t much of a process, but rather a singular act of rubber-stamping. There are several steps involved in placing an individual in the database, and there is room for failure in each one.

New York law requires mental health workers to review reports of mentally ill patients, checking over the details before sending it on to Albany. But overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases, many workers reports simply giving the information a cursory view or feeling unqualified to make a determination about the patient’s stability.

This is simply not acceptable.

Not only is there is clear lack of attention, time and knowledge on the part of officials making these decisions – a result of the failures of the system, not the employees in question – but the lack of specific criteria makes the database far too vague.

There are far-reaching consequences to this issue, beyond the immediate and serious problems associated with restricting individuals’ rights based on hasty and generalized decisions.

The incompetent handling of this database unfairly stigmatizes mentally ill individuals, further contributing to an inaccurate and dangerous stereotype that equates mental illness with violence, and leads to unjust fear and isolation of mentally ill individuals.

Mental illness is already taboo in society and the vague nature of this database’s requirements contributes to that.

It also makes individuals struggling with mental illness even more unlikely to self-report, since doing so seems to essentially guarantee inclusion in a club nobody wants to join.

The SAFE Act is a commendable law that helps protect New Yorkers, but its status as a pioneer in gun control doesn’t shield it from criticism and doesn’t guarantee that it is free of flaws. The Cuomo administration needs to recognize this, and welcome critique that could help improve the acts’ effectiveness.

The administration’s initial denial of The New York Times’ request for information on the database, and continued refusal to behave in a transparent manner in regards to the program is exactly what the administration should not be doing.

Not only are they fighting a losing battle – the government is legally required to turn over information on the database due to the Freedom of Information Law – but this reticence only hurts the administration’s reputation and ability to effectively govern.

New Yorkers deserve to understand what Cuomo’s intentions are, and how their rights as individuals are defined.

Even those citizens who are disallowed to bear arms have that right.

email: editorial@ubspectrum.com