Fewer guns just a first step to stop the killings

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(CNN) — Moviegoers in Lafayette, Louisiana. Two young journalists doing a live television report. A sheriff’s deputy with a wife and two children.

The list of senseless shootings goes on and on, making one fact crystal clear: Guns are too easy to obtain in this country. There are too many of them, and we don’t have nearly enough regulation to control who can get them.

That has to change. We need tougher gun laws — and we need them ASAP.

But to stop the violence, we must do more. We must also take action on mental health.

Easy access to guns is not the only connecting thread in all of the incidents I mentioned. Each one of the individuals who perpetrated these acts of violence had a diagnosed — or strongly suspected — mental health condition that went unaddressed.

In fact, when we attempt to untangle many of the “inexplicable” acts that shudder through our collective lives with tragic regularity, at least one part of the explanation is all too often untreated mental illness.

Let me emphasize that most people with mental illness never commit a violent act. People with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. But, there is a small fraction of those with untreated mental illness who raise a concern for violence.

It is long overdue to acknowledge that our inattention to mental illness is a public health crisis that requires a public health solution. Far too many of our loved ones and neighbors will not even ask for help because they fear the stigma of being labeled. Many people who desire treatment live in communities where they can’t get it.

If we truly want less suffering and bloodshed, our country must invest in prevention and interventions to address mental illness. For example, New York City recently launched NYC Safe, a program that connects law enforcement and health care professionals to reach and monitor the small population of New Yorkers who are both mentally ill and at high risk for violence to themselves or to others.

The program establishes a central oversight body that coordinates public safety and public health to ensure that high-risk New Yorkers get sustained mental health care. I hope other cities will follow suit.

We must also do more to limit access to guns.

Many acts of violence happen far from the public eye. Domestic violence, suicide, self-harm and many other life-size tragedies are deeply connected to both guns and a lack of access to mental health care. The fact that we don’t hear as much about these acts makes them no less common or less searingly painful for their families and communities.

We will never know for sure what drives someone to violence. But we can’t let our uncertainty be an excuse for inaction.

Again, we need tougher gun laws. But we also need more programs designed to help get people care before they hurt themselves and others. Strict gun laws would not have stopped Vincente David Montano from going after moviegoers in Nashville with a hatchet and pepper spray. Access to quality mental health treatment might have.

We need to commit the time and resources necessary to build an effective mental health system — one that makes getting treatment for mental illness as easy as going to your family doctor.

Stigma, a lack of resources and the marginalization of mental health for decades have left us a fragmented and broken system that must be fixed. Too many people’s lives are at stake, in New York City and beyond.

Let’s get serious about building a healthier country.