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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Mental institutions won't solve America's problem with gun violence 

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters as he

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters as he walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 23, 2019 in Washington. Photo Credit: AP/Alex Brandon

Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has been unwilling to push federal gun-control measures — like a red flag law and universal background checks — that could keep weapons out of the hands of people whose mental states may make them dangerous.

Trump sometimes signals a willingness to support such measures right after chilling mass murders. But then time passes, the National Rifle Association calls for a cozy chat, Trump's attention is diverted toward verbally attacking swaths of the population, buying nations against their will, or nuking hurricanes, and his resolve melts away.

Trump will not fight to keep people known to struggle with mental illness from acquiring weapons legally from any source, as a universal background-check law would do. Polls say 90 percent of Americans support such a law. And he will not fight for a red flag law that would permit police or family members to petition courts to order the temporary removal of firearms from people who might present a danger to others or themselves. Polls say 70 percent of Americans support such a law.

But Trump wants such people put away in mental institutions like the ones that confined tens of thousands of New Yorkers decades ago. That's his latest attention-shifting tangent on gun violence, arguing that people whose right to possess guns he will not challenge ought to be institutionalized.

"I remember, growing up, we had mental institutions," Trump told reporters on Aug. 18 after he was asked whether he'd support background-check legislation. "A lot of them were closed. And all those people were put out on the streets. And I said — even as a young guy — I said, 'How does that work? That's not a good thing.' And that's not a good thing. So I think the concept of mental institutions has to be looked at."

Trump grew up about three miles from the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, an imposing institution in Queens Village that in 1959 housed 7,000 patients but now holds just a few hundred. In 1968, New York State housed about 78,000 people in mental institutions, a number that is now about 2,300.

If Trump wanted to point to some legitimate and troubling effects of the deinstitutionalization movement spurred by revelations of horrors and abuses in mental institutions, he could. Emptying the asylums undoubtedly increased the homeless problem and filled the state's jails with people who needed treatment more than incarceration.

But while a significant percentage of recent mass murderers exhibited troubling red flag behaviors before their sprees or had histories of mental health issues, practically none have had records of recent mental illness severe enough to justify institutionalization, experts say. And the massive reduction in the population of mental institutions in New York has not led to an increase in homicides. In 1972, the year journalist Geraldo Rivera broadcast an expose on the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island that kick-started the movement away from institutionalizing mentally ill people, there were 2,026 homicides in New York State. In 2017, there were 546.

But all these facts and figures, true as they are, pale beside the surreal juxtaposition of Trump's views on gun violence and mental illness. The president believes mentally ill people are so dangerous that they need to be locked away as they were in his fondly remembered good-old days. But he won't push to keep guns out of their hands. And he won't stop pushing for $1.5 trillion in Medicaid spending cuts that would thoroughly decimate the treatment of mental illness.

To me, that seems crazy.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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