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Proposed RESPONSE Act targets potential shooters


As I’m writing, my Twitter feed announces yet another public shooting, this one at a Walmart in Oklahoma. It’s a problem that gets worse as it gets more attention and the argument over how to approach the issue of mass shootings still continues down two separate and distinct pathways: Is this the result of too-easy access to firearms or is it one of untreated mental illness?

U.S. Capitol building flownaksala/Thinkstock

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) spoke on the Senate floor on Oct. 23, 2019, about new legislation he is cosponsoring in the aftermath of two mass shootings in Texas this past August. The Restoring, Enhancing, Strengthening, and Promoting Our Nation’s Safety Efforts Act of 2019 (S. 2690), or the RESPONSE Act, is designed to “reduce mass violence, strengthen mental health collaboration in communities, improve school safety, and for other purposes.” Sen. Cornyn notes that in the aftermath of those shootings he met with his constituents and he heard a common refrain: Please do something.

“Unfortunately, there is no quick fix, no simple answer, instead we are left to look at the factors that led to these attacks and to try to do something to prevent the sequence of events from playing out again in the future,” Sen. Cornyn said.

“While mental illness is not the prevailing cause of mass violence, enhanced mental health resources are critical to saving lives,” he said, adding that most gun deaths are from suicide. In his speech, he outlined the issues it would address – and despite his statement that mental illness is not the cause of mass violence – he went on to elaborate on the issues that the bill would address.

“First, this legislation takes aim at unlicensed firearms dealers who are breaking the law,” he said. This legislation would create a task force to prosecute those who buy and sell firearms through unlicensed dealers, and he notes that one of the Texas shooters was denied a gun by a licensed firearms dealer before purchasing one from an unlicensed dealer. That Sen. Cornyn’s proposed legislation would not create any new gun legislation is not a surprise: he has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association and his website’s fun facts include the statement: “Sen. Cornyn owns several firearms and hunts as often as he can.”

The rest of the RESPONSE Act takes aim at those who have or might have psychiatric disorders or a tendency toward violence. Sen. Cornyn noted that the act would expand assisted outpatient treatment (AOT, or outpatient civil commitment). He referenced this as a way for families to get care for their loved ones in the community rather than in a hospital and did not allude to the involuntary nature of the treatment.

Marvin Swartz, MD, is professor of psychiatry at Duke University, Durham, N.C., and lead investigator on outcome studies following the implementation of outpatient civil commitment legislation.

“AOT may be justified in improving treatment adherence and service provision,” Dr. Swartz noted, “but there is no direct line to serious violence. The violence we documented as reduced were mainly minor acts of interpersonal violence – pushing and shoving – what we call minor acts of violence. There is no evidence that AOT is a remedy to serious acts of violence – mass shootings included.”

In addition, Sen. Cornyn noted there would be expanded crisis intervention teams and increased coordination between mental health providers and law enforcement. Furthermore, the bill would make schools safer by identifying students whose behavior indicated a threat of violence and providing those students with the services they need. This would be done “by promoting best practices within our schools and promoting Internet safety.”

Finally, Sen. Cornyn talked about using social media as a means to identify those who might be a danger. “Because so often these shooters advertise on social media ... this legislation includes provisions to [ensure] that law enforcement can receive timely information about threats made online.”

The bill already has garnered both support and opposition. It has been supported by the National Council for Behavioral Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and the Treatment Advocacy Center. Those opposed to the legislation include the National Disability Rights Network, the American Association of People with Disabilities, the National Council on Independent Living, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. The American Psychiatric Association has not made a statement on the proposed legislation as of this writing.

The National Council for Behavioral Health posted an endorsement on its website. It notes: “The RESPONSE Act authorizes up to $10 million of existing funds in the Department of Justice for partnership between law enforcement and mental health providers to increase access to long-acting medically assisted treatment. Additionally, it requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop and disseminate guidance for states to fund mental health programs and crisis intervention teams through Medicaid as well as to issue a report to Congress on best practices to expand the mental health workforce. These provisions aim to divert more individuals from incarceration and will create more opportunities for community-based treatment and recovery.”

There is no question that psychiatric treatment for those with mental illness is underfunded and often inaccessible. But while it is true that some individuals become violent when they are ill, most do not, and targeting those one in five Americans who suffer from a psychiatric disorder each year in an effort to identify, then thwart, the rare mass murderer among us makes no sense.

Acts of mass violence remain rare. In 2018, the year we had a record-breaking number of mass shootings, there were 12 mass murders in the United States, according to the criteria used by Mother Jones, and 27 active shooter incidents using the FBI’s criteria. Approximately half of all mass shooters showed signs of mental illness prior to the shooting and of those, some had never come to the attention of mental health professionals in a way that would have predicted violence. While linking mass violence to mental illness may seem reasonable, the numbers just don’t make sense and targeting this presumed link between mental illness and mass violence is stigmatizing.

The text of the RESPONSE Act reveals proposed legislation that is perhaps more thoughtful than Sen. Cornyn’s speech suggested; the bill starts with funding services for those with psychiatric disorders who are being released from the correctional system, a population that may be at higher risk for acts of violence. The funding for outpatient civil commitment is worded in such a way that it is hard to know exactly what is required. The bill starts by mandating that each state must use 10% of the funding it gets from this bill for court-ordered treatment (AOT), but then lists alternative ways states may use that 10%, including “otherwise support evidence-based programs that address the needs of eligible patients.” In all, the proposed legislation is long and complex and attempts to address issues related to terrorism, the Internet, mental health, and the educational system. It’s an ambitious use of $10 million a year for our entire country.

Dr. Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. Dinah Miller

At a time when mental health care is desperately underfunded and many are unable to access treatment, it is tempting to endorse any legislation that improves funding. But does it serve society to endorse legislation that suggests psychiatrists can prevent mass shootings? Does that ultimately serve our patients? My best guess is that we should aim legislation at preventing mass murders toward limiting access to firearms and banning weapons designed to kill many people quickly.

Dr. Miller is coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of “Committed: The Battle of Inpatient Psychiatric Care (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and has a private practice in Baltimore.

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