« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

On the front line of mental illness and violence


Moments after I entered the room where the patients locked in the secure area tend to hang out, a young man asked me for enough meds to “put him to sleep” until the day of his commitment hearing.

“If I’m asleep, I won’t say anything that they can use against me,” he said calmly, indicating that he wasn’t completely out of his mind and that the methamphetamines he’d taken had worn off.

Someone in the community had found him incoherent and uncooperative and notified the authorities that he needed help. Then his car was found on the interstate with loaded guns inside. On a previous occasion, when he was brought to the emergency room, jacked up on meth, he wore a pistol strapped to his ankle.

Still convinced that people were after him, he told me there that he had a “right to carry a sidearm into any public place except a school.” Many things about his delusions and violent statements were downright scary, but even more terrifying was this: Here was someone who thought he had a constitutional right to come to a hospital armed.

I work as a psychiatric nurse on a unit where we routinely treat patients who have guns at home, including assault weapons. Many of those patients have been previously committed, which means they have a documented record of mental illness. Yet it is not uncommon to hear these patients brag about the ease with which they can purchase guns without “hassle” (background checks). How is it possible for mentally ill people, especially those with a history of violence, to obtain guns?

One chronically mentally ill patient in his 50s, who lives with his mother, told me he walked into Walmart and bought a rifle because it was “cheap.” His frequent stays in the state hospital were no obstacle to the purchase. During a casual conversation shortly before he was discharged, he told me he bought the gun for just over a hundred dollars, a purchase he made with his disability check.

When medicated, this man is easygoing and docile. He doesn’t believe he has a mental illness, or that he needs medication. When he stops taking the pills, however, the demons inside him resurface. His mother, his sole source of support, reported that she knows he’s in trouble when he aims the gun at her.

After release from whatever institution will hold them long enough for them to be stabilized, patients frequently refuse to comply with further prescribed treatment. Who wants to wash down pills that make you feel hungry all the time, or feel sluggish, or make it impossible to maintain an erection and even make you drool? Their judgment goes down the toilet along with their prescriptions.

Without the drugs that silence the voices or suppress the rage, they again begin to lose touch with reality. It’s only a matter of time before crisis workers or the police pick them up and bring them in to an emergency room. It is the ones who come in armed that give me pause.

When I read about the mass murder in Aurora, Colo., it amplified my conviction that something must be done to enact gun control -- STAT.

Whatever diagnosis this young man gets, he should never have been able to buy assault weapons powerful enough to blast through concrete walls, nor should he have been able to buy an unregulated arsenal of bullets.

One of my co-workers defended the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Another reminded me that guns are not about to disappear from a country where people distrust the government; people feel the need to be armed in case of internal attack, she said.

I don’t win these kinds of arguments at work, and my opinion falls on deaf ears in Washington, D.C. The system is clearly broken. The National Rifle Association calls the shots, and too many elected officials have become afraid to stand up to them. Gun advocates have direct access to media and online outlets to induce fear, generate paranoia and encourage citizens to arm themselves in order to fight for their “constitutional right to bear arms.”


The result? A single, powerful organization promotes violence through distortion, hate-mongering and paranoia. It leaves many of us in fear for our lives, robbing us of the freedom to do something as simple as go to the movies without fear of attack from a fellow American.  If this isn’t terrorism, I don’t know what is.

Eliza Murphy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].