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Many issues to consider with mental health
Reforming gun lows a difficult fix, attorney says

Friday, January 18, 2013

When considering laws to curb gun violence, Henry County Commonwealth’s Attorney Bob Bushnell said he hopes legislators will take into account unintended consequences.

“After being involved in this work for 25 years, I’ve learned that quick, simple fixes don’t make the problem go away and frequently have (unintended) consequences,” Bushnell said. He added that he hopes legislators will “look very, very carefully at the impact of considered legislation” to address the issue “before proclaiming: ‘Mission accomplished.’”

Any solutions aimed at curbing gun violence should “be looked at from a practical matter,” Bushnell said. “I don’t envy the legislators who” are grappling with the subject.

The reforms announced by President Barack Obama on Wednesday are in response to the Dec. 14 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which Adam Lanza killed 20 students and six adults before turning the weapon on himself.

Already, there are a “boatload of (state and/or federal) laws restricting firearm ownership” on the books, Bushnell said. For example, convicted felons and people convicted of domestic violence and with mental health issues are prohibited from owning guns.

There also are laws against stealing guns, he said. “It’s been pointed out more than a few times that the guns used by the shooter in Connecticut were legally purchased” by Lanza’s mother, Bushnell said.

But, Adam Lanza took the guns from his mother and the weapons then were “used by him to kill her,” Bushnell said. Even if Lanza had been in a database of people with mental health illnesses, it “would not have kept him from stealing the guns.”

It also is difficult to know when a person poses a danger, Bushnell said.

Even if the person talks to a counselor and danger is apparent, “mental health providers do not always immediately call the sheriff or state police and say, ‘Hey I just talked to so-and-so, and I think this person might be dangerous,’” Bushnell said.

Also, Bushnell said there are differences in the way people react to mental issues.

He does not think “psychologists have simple and easy tests” to “distinguish from the person who is depressed and might be at risk for substance abuse” and/or self-imposed isolation and “the person who is depressed and decides to go and kill a bunch of people. This is not an easy issue at all.”

While “human nature says that only someone insane could do something like that,” in the Sandy Hook cases and others, Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joan Ziglar said “there are medical criteria and psychological classifications” that must be met to consider a person insane, “and it’s a pretty high standard.”

“We will never know” whether Lanza met that definition “because the young man is not here to do tests on. Simply doing something that society finds repulsive doesn’t mean you are insane. There are some people out there who are just evil ... mean and evil,” Ziglar said.

She cited the May 24, 2011, bludgeoning death of Donald Lawson, 58, of Martinsville, as an example. Lawson’s former stepson, Kenneth Brian Smith, 42, of Martinsville, pleaded guilty in July to the killing. According to court records, Lawson was killed because Smith wanted money so that he and his girlfriend could leave Martinsville.

Smith will spend the rest of his life in prison, and Alexander was sentenced to 25 years in prison, according to previous reports.

“How do you take an ax and hack somebody to death,” Ziglar asked. She added that while society finds his actions repulsive, Smith “is just as sane as anybody.”

Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said about 15 percent of state inmates are considered mentally ill.

That number is significantly lower than figures released in mid-2005 in a special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which is the statistical agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. Based on data from personal interviews with state and federal prisoners in 2004 and local jail inmates in 2002, that report concluded that more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem. Those with mental health issues include 705,600 inmates in state prisons, 70,200 in federal prisons, and 479,900 in local jails, the report stated.

Those numbers are significantly higher because inmates with substance/drug abuse are counted as having mental health issues, suggested Jim Tobin, director of Piedmont Community Services.

In Virginia, the number of inmates with mental health issues is fairly static, Tobin said, for two basic reasons.

“One is the idea that some people with a mental illness engage in criminal behavior and need to be in jail,” Tobin said. Second, “our society is not real good at dealing with people who are unpredictable” or those who exhibit risky behavior, “and there are some people that end up in our local jails because no one knows what to do with them.”

 

 
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