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Family members of victims of recent mass shootings and their supporters are advocating for gun control on Capitol Hill today.
Their visit was previously scheduled to mark congressional inaction on gun control, nine months after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. But their visit is attracting more attention after the deadly Navy Yard shooting this week.
President Obama is calling on lawmakers to toughen gun purchase background checks.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says there aren’t enough votes in the Senate to pass that, and he’s leaving the door open to a narrower bill focused on improving mental health services.
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) says there is a general awareness and agreement in Congress that mental health services are lacking.
“For us in policymaking roles, this is a call to action,” Senator Debbie Stabenow said of the Washington Navy Yard shooting.
Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter, reportedly suffered from paranoia, sleeplessness and hallucinations. He had called Rhode Island police about a month ago, saying he was being followed and that he was hearing voices.
Stabenow has introduced the Excellence in Mental Health Act, which would provide the mechanisms for emergency 24-hour psychiatric services, among other provisions to improve access to mental health care.
“What we need is a willingness to act,” Stabenow said. “This is an unfortunate crisis that is occurring over and over and over again.”
Stabenow says providing for emergency psychiatric care at community health programs would cost “less than $2.8 billion” over ten years.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
President Obama will attend a memorial service this Sunday for victims of the Washington Navy Yard shooting in which 12 people were killed. The alleged shooter, Aaron Alexis, was a former Navy reservist. He had security clearance to the yard, but he also had a history of run-ins with the law and possible mental health problems.
This morning, General Martin Dempsey chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned that current and former members of the military should not be stigmatized by having to answer questions about their mental health status when applying for security clearances.
Meanwhile, victims of other recent mass shootings are rallying for gun control on Capitol Hill today. However, there are not enough votes in the U.S. Senate to pass legislation that would toughen background checks on gun buyers. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid isn't ruling out a narrower bill that would focus on mental health issues.
Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow joins us. Her measure to improve mental health services might be the one that's able to pass in Congress. But it says nothing about guns. Senator Stabenow, welcome.
SENATOR DEBBIE STABENOW: It's good to be with you.
CHAKRABARTI: First of all, let me ask you, we're two days out now from the tragic shootings at the Washington Navy Yard. First of all, just your thoughts on what happened on Monday.
STABENOW: Well, obviously this is horrible, and my thoughts and prayers go out to everybody who lost a loved one or is in some way affected by this. I think that for all of us in policymaking roles, this really is a call to action to do whatever we can to investigate what happened in terms of his being able to get on the grounds and so on but to also look more broadly at what happened here, the holes in the mental health services system and why he didn't get some kind of care and help long before this happened.
CHAKRABARTI: So you're speaking of Aaron Alexis, the shooter who it seems we're discovering over time may have had some mental health issues and possibly even sought some help and maybe didn't get it. So tell me a little bit more about what may be possible legislatively regarding mental health and guns in America.
STABENOW: Well, first of all, let me say I am in full support of the common sense gun safety legislation before Congress. We also know that we have serious issues around lack of mental health services. As of right now, what we know is about a month ago that Aaron, the shooter, called Rhode Island police to report he was hearing voices and being followed by people that were keeping him awake with microwave machines.
Alarm bells should have gone off in the police department in Rhode Island. There are a lack of 24-hour psychiatric emergency services available. Our bill, the Excellence in Mental Health Act, among other things, would require that community mental health programs that get the increased funding provide 24-hour emergency services.
What we need is a willingness to act. This is an unfortunate crisis that is occurring over and over and over again.
CHAKRABARTI: The need to act, I think you'll find a lot of agreement there, and you've got bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. But as you just said, this has happened, this being mass shootings, have happened in America over and over and over again. What really gives you confidence that even the Excellence in Mental Health Act could make it, you know, anywhere in Congress since so much other reform measures haven't gone anywhere?
STABENOW: Well, in listening to colleagues on both sides of the aisle, while there's differences on the gun safety bills, everyone has said we need to do something about mental health care. We should not have another situation where someone is calling the police about voices and microwave chips and all of the hallucinations he was having without knowing that they will act and that they have someplace to refer that person.
CHAKRABARTI: Senator, you have personal experience in your family's life with mental illness.
STABENOW: I do. In fact, when I was growing up, my father went 10 years being undiagnosed for a mood disorder, what we now call bipolar. And even today over half of the individuals with serious mental disorders in our country get no treatment of any kind during a year. And I would argue that Aaron Alexis was in that category of a severe mental disorder, and all kinds of concerns and alarm bells should be going off for us to act.
CHAKRABARTI: I'm just wondering, you know, how would we pay for it? Where's the money going to come from? And how confident are you that even these community-based treatments, as you were talking about earlier, might actually have a positive impact in stemming the tide or meeting the need?
STABENOW: In order to provide these kinds of services over the next 10 years, we are talking less than $2.8 billion, which is a very small part of the health care system, and we will have that fully paid for. You know, the majority of time someone with a mental illness is not a perpetrator of crime, they're actually the victims of crime. But there is enough connection of this that we know that for some people it's like a ticking time bomb if they don't get the care and the attention that they need.
CHAKRABARTI: Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, thank you so much for joining us.
STABENOW: My pleasure.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we're wondering if you like what you hear in Debbie Stabenow's bill. Is more mental health services one way to curb violence in America? Let us know at hereandnow.org. We'll be back in a moment, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.