(This article appeared as an op-ed in Florida Today, this date: 6/8/21 )
by Marshall Frank
Whoever coined the adage “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” was spot-on, because it’s true.
Firearm-related crimes often involve guns that are stolen or purchased illegally. Background checks have little effect on getting to the root of gun crimes, because such checks mostly involve people who are law-abiding. We rarely find violent criminals or the mentally ill via background checks, because the black market gun business is easily accessible for people with criminal intent. Mass shootings continue to terrorize Americans.
We are spinning in circles instead of getting to the heart of the problem, which is two-fold: unshackling law enforcement to reduce crime and properly dealing with the mostly ignored mentally ill.
Why do we try to reinvent the proverbial wheel when we have evidence of success? Do we study what works and what does not? Politicians in every city and state should educate themselves about the astonishing accomplishments of Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg in New York City, between 1994 and 2013, and learn what measures actually worked. That’s when gun crimes in NYC dropped to record lows and people were safer. The rising anti-cop movement may cause some officers of today to look the other way, if they can.
Without question, severe mental illness is the most complex of problems. It’s where our leaders have fallen short of facing facts. Suicides, gun crimes and mass shootings are many times a product of psychotic individuals. But we do nothing, except perform background checks. Then, there’s jail.
Times have changed drastically over the decades. In the 1960s, mentally disturbed people in Florida who showed symptoms of severe psychosis could be held in a psychiatric facility for further testing and evaluation. If determined by a judge to be a danger to himself or herself or others, that person could be remanded to a psychiatric institute for long-term care, with periodic reassessments.
I was one of those officers who brought such people to court. It was a process that worked far better in 1964 than in 2021 — for everyone.
Thus, prisons and jails have assumed the role of mental institutions. A myriad of studies have concluded over 26% of prison inmates today suffer from severe mental illness. One study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice found that the mental health crisis is greatly pronounced among female prisoners, whereby 75% of women incarcerated in jails and prisons suffered from mental illness.
It takes only one deranged person to kill 10, 20 or 50 people in a single event. In 2020, 19,379 died by gunfire, including 611 in mass shootings, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. That does not include more than 24,000 suicides by gun.
In 1955, more than 558,000 patients occupied beds in mental hospitals. Today, that number has diminished to 35,000 in a period when the national population more than doubled, from 158 million to 331 million. So where is the extreme overflow of 2021 coming from?
Correctional facilities are struggling with the reality that they have become the nation’s de facto mental health care providers, although they are ill-equipped for the job.
While America is rife with sick, homeless, drug addicts, gangsters and sexual predators, we are apparently unable to help the mentally disabled, until they’re caged like animals. According to HUD, there are more than 580,466 homeless living in squalor today.
Millions of mentally challenged people who are fighting afflictions on their own commit crimes just to eat. Crimes translate to victims. It is the victims who we must protect and serve. I fear we are not doing a very good job at that.
In America 2021, the bottom rung of all mental health treatment is prison.
Who cares? We better.
Marshall Frank is a retired police captain and author of 15 books. www.marshallfrank.com