Why Mental Health Professionals Are Concerned About New York’s New Gun Safety Law

On Tuesday, New York became the first state to enact sweeping gun safety measures in the wake of last month’s horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The provisions of the NY Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) signed into law yesterday, are far-reaching in their scope and address everything from high-capacity magazines to gun registration requirements.

But certain portions of the bill meant to address the mentally ill — particularly a requirement that medical professionals report patients with violent thoughts to public health authorities — have some experts concerned that the law might end up doing more harm than good for Americans in need of mental health services.

Medical professionals worry that the new legislation could deter mental health patients — regardless of whether or not they own a gun — from discussing thoughts of suicide or doing harm to others with their doctors, since they may fear the stigma of being reported to authorities. As Columbia University’s Dr. Paul Applebaum told the Washington Post, requiring doctors to report their mentally ill patients could put an enormous strain on the doctor-patient relationship, and potentially exacerbate the problem the new law is trying to address in the first place:

“It undercuts the clinical approach to treating these impulses, and instead turns it into a public safety issue,” Appelbaum said.

He also noted that in many mass shootings in the past, the gunman had not been under treatment and so would not have been deterred by a law like the proposed measure. Before the mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater last July, gunman James Holmes had been seeing a psychiatrist, but Appelbaum said he doesn’t know whether a law like New York’s would have made a difference.

Dr. Steven Dubovsky, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University at Buffalo, called the new measure meaningless. “It’s pure political posturing” and a deceptive attempt to reassure the public, he said.

The intent seems to be to turn mental health professionals into detectives and policemen, he said, but “no patient is going to tell you anything if they think you’re going to report them.”

And considering the fact that over half of all gun deaths are suicides, the SAFE Act’s onerous requirements regarding patients with “harmful” thoughts could even disproportionately affect suicidal Americans by making them feel insecure in their doctor’s offices.

Since the shooting in Newtown, what began as a meaningful conversation on the issues with America’s mental health care system has devolved into an effort to sidestep gun safety laws by scapegoating and stigmatizing Americans with mental health problems as the real root of gun violence — as the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre did during his bizarre press conference last month.

But people with mental illnesses are not actually prone to violence, and the fact that several high-profile mass murderers in recent years have suffered from mental health problems should not fool anybody into believing that all Americans living with mental illness are at risk of becoming murderers. Ultimately, as President Obama pointed out today while unveiling his sweeping gun safety proposals, “someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator.”