I Come From a Family of Guns and Mental Illness

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A woman walking on a dirt path.I come from a family of guns, hunting trips, and skeet shooting. I grew up on a small farm, and we had a shotgun that my step-dad regularly used to kill any woodchucks that would come in and eat our hard-earned crops that we would eat and sell to pay the bills.

This isn’t a story that is likely that common in Fairfield County, but it is my story, and this is my county.

I also come from a family that has been plagued by mental illness. My grandmother had paranoid schizophrenia that was well managed most of her life but was bad enough that she twice had to be institutionalized for her safety and everyone else’s. And alas, mental illness is both hereditary and environmental, so I know all of her descendants are statistically more likely than average to suffer from depression and anxiety, including myself.

As we witness yet another mass shooting, I am marking the 6th anniversary of a suicide attempt of one of my family members that was thankfully unsuccessful.

And I attribute that success primarily to the waiting period necessary to do a background check, which “was going to take too long,” and so another suicide method was attempted.

The sad thing is, I am also confident that the background check and waiting period saved at least two lives because I suspect that other people who had wronged them might have been easy enough to kill in a murder-suicide. Alas, when you are in a state where you are ready and willing to take your own life, it is sadly too easy to similarly devalue the lives of others.

So, when I see another tragedy carried out by a person who was suffering from mental illness but who had ready access to deadly firearms, I find myself angry and disappointed that simple things like background checks and red flag laws aren’t yet something that we can all agree upon and implement in a universal way.

When you are of sound mind, waiting for a probate judge to ensure that you are legally eligible to carry a firearm (typically 2-7 days) isn’t a terrible burden. However, it does stop emotionally driven impulse sales.

When you have a restraining order against you or if a family member sees that you are potentially a danger to yourself or others, it is the right time to have a vacation from your firearms. According to the last data analysis for Connecticut, this isn’t something that happens lightly, as evidenced by there being less than 60 “imminent risk” gun seizures per year. 

I honestly dream of mental health checks as part of the gun purchasing process. Maybe it is your doctor who signs off on your wellbeing. Perhaps it is an objective third-party physician who meets with you to check that you aren’t raising any red flags.

Because really, it is in everyone’s best interest to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people. This should be something we can all agree on.

Reputable gun dealers don’t want to be traced back as the origin of a gun that has killed people, so shouldn’t we set up a system that helps empower them to help us keep guns out of the hands of people seeking to do harm. Cops and gun owners don’t want guns in the hands of unstable people because they know the damage this can result from this unhealthy combination.

We need to stop listening to a small number of people making outsized political donations to prevent common-sense legislation that will keep us all safer. We need to band together across professions and political differences to help enact change.

We have reached the point where the tens of thousands of people killed by guns each year (causing nearly 100,000 injuries annually) is a significant public health crisis

Especially in the wake of the COVID pandemic, people are also waking up to the mental health crisis plaguing people young and old. 

We need to talk about these serious issues, even and perhaps, especially because they make us uncomfortable. And we need to do so much more than talk. We need to act to make our world safer for our children and ourselves.

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Erika is a professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies and mom to two kids (2010 and 2013) plus two cats (2005 and 2019). A Midwestern transplant who has lived in 32 places, she has happily called Fairfield her home for the past 12 years. At work, she directs a program to support first-generation and underrepresented student success in science. In town, she can often be found driving her kids back and forth to their respective sporting events and teams or sitting in a coffee shop using the wifi to get a little work done before pick up. Erika loves spending time enjoying the water, cooking, theater, reading, and hanging out with her husband.

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