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The wrong mental-health mentality

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Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

We could jail every autistic person in the United States, and it wouldn't make a dent in the nation's murder rate.

Rushing to judgment in reaction to the Sandy Hook massacre, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, waiving a constitutionally required three-day waiting period between the introduction of a bill and a vote on the legislation, signed into law a sweeping package of gun-control measures that include provisions targeting the mentally ill.

Concocted behind closed doors, rushed through New York's legislature without the required public hearings and voted on by politicians who hadn't read it, New York's new gun-control statute requires doctors, therapists and other mental health professionals to report clients to the government who are “likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.”

Unfortunately, the outcome of therapy isn't as straightforward as chemistry. Mixing chlorine bleach with vinegar will produce a toxic vapor. But it's trickier to foretell whether someone is “likely to engage” in dressing up as the Joker and shooting up a Batman movie theater audience.

Nevertheless, police in New York under the new law are authorized to confiscate any weapons of a person designated as “likely” to cause harm.

In addition to violating the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship, the new law undoubtedly will discourage a certain portion of troubled people from seeking mental health treatment or speaking truthfully to mental health professionals about irrational thoughts, homicidal rages or violent impulses.

Consequently, the unintended consequence of this government database of allegedly menacing people is likely to be less treatment for those who need it the most.

News reports repeatedly stated that the Sandy Hook killer had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, forming in the public mind a connection between autism and mass murder.

Weighing in on autism and violence, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, an advisory agency to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, issued the following statement:

“There is no scientific evidence linking autism spectrum disorder with homicides or other violent crimes. In fact, court records suggest that people with autism are less likely to engage in criminal behavior of any kind compared to the general population, and people with Asperger's syndrome, specifically, are not convicted of crimes at higher rates than the general population.”

What put the Connecticut killings in the headlines is that the murdered children at the elementary school were all killed at one time by one person. What doesn't focus the public's attention in the same way is that we've had the equivalent of thousands of Sandy Hooks in the United States by way of an unrelenting day-by-day carnage.

“The number of children and teens killed by guns in 2006 would fill more than 127 public school classrooms of 25 each,” reported the Children's Defense Fund in a 2009 report. “The number of children and teens killed by guns since 1979 would fill 4,304 public school classrooms of 25 students each.”

Stating this 1979-2006 toll in another way, “Since 1979, gun violence has ended the lives of 107,600 children and teens in America. Sixty percent of them were white; 37 percent were black.”

This slaughter wasn't committed by roving gangs of autistic people.

Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University and a local restaurateur. His email:

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