A New Jersey proposal to declare violence a public health crisis is a sensible response to a senseless act.
In the days following the massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults at an elementary school in Connecticut, there has been a lot of talk about the need to take some action to prevent such tragedies in the future. There's also been a lot of doubt that a nation that has so far failed to seriously engage this issue will find the political will to do so now.
So the proposal by Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak, D-Union, to identify violence as a public health threat and create a commission to study the causes of violence is welcome.
Often, politicians propose study commissions as a way to postpone action, to appear to be addressing a problem while actually kicking it down the road. But in this case, a commission makes sense, because violence is a complicated problem with many contributing factors. The most effective approach will likely be a balanced one.
The Senate bill Lesniak introduced last week already identifies two important factors that must be addressed in order to curb violence.
It urges the federal government to adopt gun-control measures, including a ban on the kind of semiautomatic weapons used in recent mass shootings. New Jersey has among the strictest gun-control laws in the nation, but their effectiveness is limited by the ease with which high-powered weapons and ammunition can be purchased in other states and brought here.
The bill would also expand mental health programs in New Jersey. It would allocate funding to increase beds for involuntary committals, and it would try to build on the success of a Union County program that diverts some people charged with crimes from the criminal justice system to mental health facilities. That program's effectiveness is credited, in part, to the fact that it integrates the efforts of mental health and law enforcement professionals.
A University of Alabama study suggests a link between the rise in mass shootings and the decline in institutionalization for mental illness. One finding showed there were 19 shootings in which five or more people were killed in the 2000s, compared with just six in the 1980s.
In a 2011 University of California, Berkeley, study, the difference in state homicide rates was partially attributed to the strength of commitment laws and other factors in how states treat the mentally ill. The harder it was to involuntarily commit someone, the higher the murder rate.
These aren't simple issues. New rules on involuntary commitments will run up against the civil rights of the mentally ill. And where will new funding for treatment come from in a state that faces a budget crisis every year?
Still, the commission offers a reasonable, balanced approach to this problem, and one that could keep the issue of violence alive politically, long after the memory of the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary School has faded.