The Holes in our Safety Net

By Marcy Zwelling-Aamot, MD FACEP

I don’t know Congresswoman Giffords or Judge Roll.  Nor am I familiar with any of the other Arizonians who had their lives seized from them when a crazy person shot up the Safeway in Arizona.  That said, I am sickened by the shooting and like others I can’t help but wonder how this can happen.  How did this man get a gun when he was already known to the police in the area? If his gun was purchased legally, shouldn’t that information have been made available to the police when he was arrested?

The media has already started the spin.  Depending on the bias, this tragedy is the result of the argumentative nature of politics today or it is the result of liberal gun laws.

But, as a doctor, I want to know how someone with obvious mental illness escaped the system.  I want to know how it is that society can’t separate the mentally ill from a gun. Where were this man’s parents? His friends? Where were the counselors at the community college where he was dismissed? He was known to the police, albeit for “misdemeanors,” but the police knew he was a problem, and there should have been a means of getting that information into a data base so that 1) he could not get a gun and 2) he was able to get the help he needed.

The purpose of government is to provide a safety net to provide for the welfare and security of the public.  Where was the safety net?  Have we become so politically correct and so insulated from the world, that we let those in need escape the help they need?

The nation is arguing about Obamacare.  Admittedly, I have also been vocal about repealing the legislation because I don’t think it does a thing to help the health of this nation.  It surely doesn’t do a thing for the mentally ill. And I don’t think that Obamacare helps us become more responsible about helping our fellow man or more accountable about our own health.

The stimulus package was responsible for putting billions of dollars into the economy by mandating the electronic health record.  Doctors are mandated to spend tens of thousands of dollars in hardware and thousands in software in order to provide the government with our patient’s most private medical information.  But, the government can’t seem to share information about felons to keep the mentally ill from owning guns.  Shouldn’t this be a part of homeland security?  Perhaps we could divert some of those funds allotted to the additional agents needed for pat-downs at airports to a system where we could improve communication with our law enforcement facilities, our doctors, and our social service systems.

Does it make sense that the government would know this killer’s cholesterol but they can’t protect the public from the ravages of his mental illness? Does it make sense that a doctor is mandated to report the results of his colonoscopy but there is no means to communicate with law enforcement about the risks of gun ownership?

I, like most of America, am frustrated by the argumentative behavior of Congress and the president.  And I have yet to see a productive debate about how we really might utilize our “security net” to protect Americans and that includes an erudite discussion about the health care delivery system’s flaws and proven solutions that might really work.

I would suggest that the lesson we learn from this tragedy is the lesson that the government would do well to concentrate on the business of protecting the public rather than devising a means to invade the sanctum of the patient-doctor relationship.  When Congress gets down to repealing (or not) Obamacare and legislating workable solutions, they should remember that their job is to protect the public pure and simple and they should start with devising systems that secure our safety rather than systems that invade our privacy.

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One Response

  1. My son had classes in the same building at Virginia Tech the day before the massacre and knew several of those killed. In both that tragedy and Tucson multiple people heard the shooter say in public they want to kill people. There needs to be an 800 number run by the FBI where tips can be phoned in anonymously about people who say in public they intend to kill others. Dare I add that it should be a federal offense to publicly threaten to kill anybody, not just the President. I have never heard anybody make such a proposal: it relies too much on social conscience and too little on government solutions.

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