The other issue

December 28, 2012 

For more than five years, as part of being a lawyer in Bibb County, I served as an indigent criminal defense attorney. All new lawyers had to do it at the time.

I never once represented an innocent person. They were all guilty. I never had a criminal trial. They were all willing to take deals. Most of them were black men between the ages of 18 and 35 and their crimes most often involved drugs.

The day after Christmas marked the anniversary of the death of my last criminal client. A white female in her thirties, my only goal as her lawyer was to get her out of jail and into her home so she could die with her family.

Her story was a typical one. She developed a prescription drug addiction, which morphed into other drugs and alcohol. She had no kids but did have a husband. He divorced her but still cared for her.

On top of addiction, she had mental health issues that took far too long to diagnose only to have the patient refuse much treatment. The drugs they wanted her to take didn’t do for her, in her mind, what the other drugs did. The mental disorder had more to do with her problems than anything else, but it was treated as the ancillary issue.

Her drug habit caused her to descend to crime to pay for the habit. Arrested and in jail, her body -- in her mid-thirties -- gave out. Her liver was gone. Her whole body slowly shut down.

Once the diagnosis was confirmed and she had little time left, the prosecutor didn’t even get her to take a plea. He just let her go. Her ex-husband took her in. Her family, whom she had pushed out of her life, came back into her life at the end.

She died several years ago the day after Christmas in her husband’s home surrounded by a family who loved her.

Many reporters have made news over the past few weeks related to guns and gun control. A great many journalists have chosen sides on this issue and some are not even willing to give the other side a fair hearing.

There are 300 million Americans in this country and 300 million guns. We’re reaching the point that guns will outnumber people. But I’m willing to guess that nine out of 10 journalists covering this issue have little contact with guns. They lead a sheltered life where the solution to the gun issue is easy and they can take a moral high ground.

Of course it is not that easy.

As Kyle Wingfield of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted, the Columbine school shooting happened in 1999 well after Congress had enacted the assault weapons ban. The largest magazine held no more than 10 rounds.

Still, we talk about guns.

The issue we are not talking about is mental health. The number of people who descend into drugs, crime and violent episodes because of mental health issues is significant. Each of the monsters who perpetrated mass shootings in the past several years had often untreated mental health issues. Too often, treatment comes after entering the justice system, not before.

To raise this issue is to be accused of changing the subject. But it should be the subject. The only people engaged in mass shootings have had serious mental health issues. If we must consider what has largely been a nonsensical conversation on guns, can we at least multitask and talk about mental health as well?

Erick Erickson is a CNN contributor and radio talk show host in Atlanta.

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