After a deranged former student shot and killed 26 students and staff last year at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., state legislatures across the country reacted to the tragedy in a variety of ways.
Some states, including Connecticut and Colorado, enacted tougher gun laws, including requiring background checks for all gun purchases and banning assault weapons. Those states, the sites of two of the largest mass shootings in 2012 in which the shooter or alleged shooter had a documented history of mental illness, also boosted funding for mental health services.
But in Wisconsin, the site of two mass shootings in 2012 — at a Brookfield salon where three women were killed, and the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek where six people were gunned down — the Republican-run Legislature has sidelined attempts by some Democrats to enact additional gun-control measures.
Instead, like 36 other states, Wisconsin boosted funding for mental health services in the hope that detection and treatment of mental illness would prevent such violence. Gov. Scott Walker added nearly $30 million last year to the two-year state budget to boost services for young people and adults with mental health problems and to expand the forensic units at Mendota Mental Health Institute.
This week, lawmakers will consider a series of bipartisan bills that would increase services for people with mental illness, including establishing “crisis teams” in rural areas with few mental health services and providing grants for psychiatrists and primary care physicians who work in underserved areas of the state.
The measures, which would cost about $5 million over the next two years, stem from recommendations made by an Assembly mental health task force put together by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
Rep. Sandy Pasch, D-Shorewood, who co-chaired Vos’ task force, said she expects the measures to pass the full Legislature.
State lawmakers also are considering a series of bipartisan bills that would improve police response and provide additional protection to domestic violence victims, prompted in large part by the shooting at the Azana Spa and Salon in Brookfield.
But will such efforts stop the next Newtown?
Probably not, said Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, which last month staged a mock “public hearing” on the Facebook page of Assembly Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Rep. Joel Kleefisch.
The move was an effort to pressure the Oconomowoc Republican to hold an official public hearing on a bill extending background checks to gun sales conducted privately and at gun shows.
The biggest predictor of who will commit gun violence is not mental illness but a history of violence, said Bonavia, citing research by Dr. Garen Wintemute, who studies violence prevention at the University of California-Davis.
“If the state government is really interested in gun violence, they should really be paying attention to the research that’s out there,” Bonavia said. “We know that, for example, in states that prohibit carrying of firearms by people with a history of violence, that has made a difference.”
But Vos said he was proud of the work his task force had accomplished.
Some have called the legislation the most comprehensive package of mental health bills the Legislature has ever taken up, Vos said.
“I think people are proud of the fact that we are looking at the issue,” he said.
He said he hoped the process could serve as a model for the Legislature in taking up complex issues in the future, adding that he is “open” to taking up more mental health bills in the future.
As for gun control, “many times gun control would have done nothing” to prevent mass shootings, he said. “Gun control is not a solution.”
Critics: Fix gaps in laws
Wintemute’s research found that California’s law prohibiting gun sales to people with a criminal history including violent misdemeanors has reduced the risk of firearm-related crime by those people by 23 percent.
Wisconsin prohibits convicted felons from possessing firearms but does not restrict the ability of people with a history of violent misdemeanors to have guns unless they are under a temporary restraining order prohibiting firearms possession.
Wisconsin law also prohibits gun possession by anyone who has been found not guilty because of a mental disease or defect or who has been committed to a treatment facility for the mentally ill, drug dependent or developmentally disabled.
But both of those requirements can be skirted by people who buy guns where no criminal background check is required.
Shel Gross, spokesman for Mental Health America of Wisconsin, said the bills being contemplated by the Joint Finance Committee “will increase access to mental health services and enhance response to individuals who are experiencing acute psychiatric emergencies.”
But Gross said he’s not sure whether such efforts would prevent the type of violence that prompted the renewed attention to Wisconsin’s mental health system.
“Obviously, there have been very high-profile situations involving individuals who are reported to have a mental illness,” Gross said. “Whether the existence of such programs as those being supported by the bills currently in front of the (Joint Finance Committee), or those passed earlier this year as part of the budget, would have impacted such situations is unclear.”
Pasch, a mental health nurse, agreed that preventing mass shootings and providing good mental health care are separate matters. She praised the move toward more comprehensive mental health services in Wisconsin but criticized Republican leaders’ unwillingness to consider other anti-violence measures such as requiring background checks for all firearm purchases.
Pasch said it’s unfortunate that mental health problems have been tied to the violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
But she added that she’s glad mental health problems are “finally getting some attention from the Legislature.”