COLUMN: Murder, guns and mental health

Tragedies can be avoided and it is important we are ever vigilant in identifying signs of crisis in our friends and families.

Gun violence has become so normalized in the U. S. that it hardly makes headlines. The recent horrific murder of two young journalists, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, in Virginia was another, almost daily occurrence.

What made it so shocking was that it took place on live television. The killer had a sick desire to go down in infamy. Like many others before him and sadly others to come, shooters will continue to escalate the horrendous nature of their crimes in order to be added to the list.

The increase in gun violence is not in our imaginations. The U.S. has seen an escalation in mass murder and firearms-related homicides. Criminals are arming themselves with assault rifles, automatic weapons, handguns and other weapons to commit heinous offences.

In Canada, gun violence is far rarer, but we are not immune. The RCMP has dealt with multiple murders of their own members and recently, an Edmonton police officer was shot and killed on a routine call.

In B.C., we have been dealing with gang violence, which has had the additional impact of putting innocent people in harm’s way. There has also been  numerous domestic-violence related murders, some with innocent children as victims.

Both in Canada and the U.S., mental illness is consuming more police and health care resources, and while I will not make a direct link to an increase in mass shootings, I do believe that mental illness is likely a contributing factor in many of these incidents. Police services across North America report that anywhere from 20-30 per cent of calls are related to people suffering from mental health issues, and while the vast majority of these individuals are not violent, a small percentage commit unimaginable crimes.

Mental illness, combined with the ease of acquiring firearms, is a serious threat to public safety, yet there has been little political will to deal with the issue. It is time to take action.

A population with increasing mental health issues, which has easy access to deadly weapons, will have devastating consequences. The right to bear arms should not be more important than a police officer going home to his or her family at the end of a shift. It should not override the right for people to practise their religion with a sense of security, or for children to be safe from violence in their classrooms.

While the political struggle against gun laws does not exist in Canada, we must commit to treating mental health issues. We need more mental health care professionals working with police, and more resources for early intervention for youth and families showing signs of stress. We must not criminalize mental health, but rather, ensure that those suffering have timely access to effective hospital, residential and community treatments.

Too often we hear that a shooter was behaving oddly, or his life pattern changed, but there was no intervention or assistance in seeking help.  Tragedies can be avoided and it is important we are ever vigilant in identifying signs of crisis in our friends and families. We owe that to our communities and to those whose lives have been cut short due to gun violence.

Jim Cessford is the recently retired chief of the Delta Police Department and has spent more than 40 years in law enforcement.

 

 

 

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