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By Laurence T. Beahan

The National Rifle Association is right. There is considerable danger that reasonable people, including many NRA members, will conclude that there are too many guns of all types available in the United States and that there will be a movement to reduce that number.

Our gun deaths, 10 for every 100,000 people each year, are far too many. Our gun death rate is five times that of neighboring Canada. We have 88 guns in this country for every 100 people, and that includes children.

The Injury Control Center at the Harvard School of Public Health has published article after article that demonstrate, “in homes, cities, states and regions in the U.S., where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide.”

But the gun-manufacturing NRA leadership says our gun death problem is caused by “the way we deal with the mentally ill in this country.” We do not do well by our mentally ill citizens. But most of those NRA guys don’t realize that mental illness comes and goes and many of their law-abiding, gun-owning members as well as the general population suffer from mental illness from time to time.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict who is so likely to do violence to themselves or others that they should be confined or denied weapons.

No one is good at making this kind of decision. I practiced psychiatry for 35 years, including several years in charge of the psychiatric emergency service at the Erie County hospital, and as a consultant to the jail. It was a necessary part of the job, but one I approached with the knowledge that no one was really good at it.

An article in the British Medical Journal reviewed the world literature on the subject of violence assessment involving nearly 30,000 people. It concluded, “even after 30 years of development, the view that violence, sexual or criminal risk can be predicted in most cases is not evidence-based.”

If you try to eliminate gun violence by picking out the dangerous shooters in advance, you will miss many of them and you will confine unacceptable numbers of those who would not become murderers.

There is one predictor that can be relied upon. In the first week after purchase of weaponry, the purchaser is 57 times more likely to commit suicide. A psychiatrist, and for that matter society in general, can only be comfortable that a mentally ill person, be he a member of the NRA or of the general public, will not shoot himself, or anyone else, if he does not have access to a gun.

The NRA is correct; if we are sensible about cutting down gun deaths, we will ask it to help us cut down the ratio of guns to people.

Laurence T. Beahan, M.D., is a retired psychiatrist living in Amherst.