Are Guns Really the Problem?

In Buzz, November 2015 by Christa GalaLeave a Comment

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Every time I teach my class at UNC-Chapel Hill, I lock the doors once my students are seated. I didn’t do that two years ago. But the sad reality is that mass shootings are commonplace.

And every time another shooting occurs, the gun control demands are loud. But for me, they ring hollow.

As someone who has an odd passion for watching the media, I just have to ask:

Why aren’t we looking at the actual motivation that makes a person pick up a gun and start shooting in the first place? What is it?

Without exception, every single shooter has struggled with mental illness. We’re even starting to develop a profile. Typically it’s a young male in his late teens, 20s or 30s (when serious mental illnesses peak), struggling for years with little to no intervention, which results in isolation, frustration and a trajectory that leads to violence.

CBS is airing a new segment “Voices Against Violence” that explores the issues behind mass shootings. I’m not saying our gun control laws couldn’t use some cleaning up, but former congressman Patrick Kennedy, who’s lost two uncles to gun violence (one president and one senator), said this:

“We ought to wrap our arms around the people suffering from these illnesses and treat them early as opposed to ignoring them until they become pathological stage four illnesses…”

The U.S. is sorely lacking in providing safety nets and resources for the mentally ill. And each city plays a part in that role, including ours. We closed Dix. It’s wonderful we’ll get a nice new park, but where do our mentally ill go?

They end up in prisons, in the ERs and on the streets without any treatment–ticking time bombs for whatever comes next. To be clear, the vast majority of those struggling with mental illness never turn violent, but there is a small percentage that does. Small—and deadly.

Providing resources for the mentally ill won’t be cheap. Honestly, wrestling with the NRA over gun legislation would be easier. But if we do it, we have a real shot at changing the trajectory.

It was actually Zak Williams, the son of the legendary comic Robin Williams, who got me thinking about this. He came to Raleigh in September for a Foundation of Hope fundraiser at the Angus Barn (see page 14). Robin Williams struggled with mental illness and took his own life in 2014.

Zak Williams had a good idea. He thought high schools and colleges throughout the nation could play a crucial role in providing resources to those struggling in this age group. Those identified with serious illnesses could receive more comprehensive counseling, medication and courses of treatment.

It makes sense. Almost every professor I’ve worked with has had a student drop out due to mental illness, attempt suicide or stop attending for weeks at a time.

It’s such a tough age—the late teens to early 20s. There’s a lot of pressure, responsibility and uncertainty, which often exacerbate emerging genetic issues.

I asked our intern from NC State, Annie Grant, to write down her thoughts about the subject (see box).

For many, these years are a relatively small hurdle, but for some, there’s something bigger going on.

As a university instructor, I would love to get a conversation going. Email me your ideas at

Close to home

Cary Police arrested and charged a 17-year-old Panther Creek High School student with communicating threats that included sending texts to classmates threatening gun violence.

The student said he had a “hit list” and certain students were on it. Police searched the home and found no indication such a list existed. According to reports, he told police he’d been depressed and felt it was “him against the world.”

When the best years aren’t

There have been 17 shootings on college campuses this year. The most recent at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College left 9 dead.

I try not to think about something like that happening on my campus. But the truth is that college is a stressful place. I’ve been at N.C. State for two years and I’ve enjoyed it, but at times it’s completely overwhelming. I know how hard it can be so I wonder how some students are really doing.

When these things happen, it makes me think about those with mental health disorders who aren’t receiving the help they need. I know they’re out there, especially on college campuses, but they’re held back by the stigma surrounding mental health problems and the expectation that college students should be having fun, not struggling.

There is pressure on college students to have the best years of their lives, but what happens when college is more difficult and unsettling than exciting? Usually nothing. Usually no one will talk about it or dare admit that college isn’t living up to the expectations set by others. Because when it isn’t fun, it feels like a personal failure.

We ignore it, but the stigma regarding mental health keeps college students from seeking the help they need. If we want to combat this stigma and see a change, let’s extend understanding toward struggling college students and encourage them that seeking help shows their strength, not their weakness.

Annie Grant is a sophomore at NC State from Greensboro.

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