NAMI Montana serves Montanans who live with serious mental health conditions and their families. 99.99% of the cases that we work with do not involve violence. But it is enough of a recurring issue for our organization that we have a specific procedure we recommend for families who have a loved one threatening violence, and the legal system will not force the person into hospitalization against their will.
We tell the families to call and write letters to their local county attorney and sheriff laying out the facts and begging them to act to prevent a tragedy. We counsel the families that it may take weeks or months and may even require an act of violence to occur, before the authorities decide that the legal criteria of “imminent threat” has been met in order to force the person into hospitalization.
It’s an excruciating process that leaves so much room for uncertainty and tragedy. But it’s the only one that we know that helps a family whose loved one is on the edge of violence, but deemed not quite close enough to it for the local authorities to legally take action.
The primary goal is usually to prevent interfamily violence, but the process has been credited for preventing one potential tragedy in Montana that threatened far more casualties. As our nation struggles for answers after more horrific mass shootings, I hope that our leaders understand that there two interacting policy factors that make it more likely for mass shootings to happen in America.
The first is that our laws have made it hard to force the hospitalization of someone with a serious mental health condition who threatens violence. This is a policy choice that our county has made over the past fifty years. The second is that our laws and technology have made it easy for a person to buy guns and ammunition systems capable of killing a lot of people in a short amount of time. Both of those factors are relatively unique to the United States. The combined burden of those two factors is almost uniquely ours. While those factors are not at the root of all mass shootings, they leave our nation highly susceptible to tragedies like those in Uvalde and Buffalo.
NAMI Montana has taken on a multi-year legislative effort to make it easier for judges to require hospitalization of people with serious mental health conditions in the criminal justice system who threaten violence, but we are only now beginning to build legislative momentum for even that limited effort. The broader issues of civil liberties and public safety in mass violence are beyond the scope and expertise of our handful of staff and group of volunteers.
NAMI Montana is grateful to the leaders, organizations, and citizens that are working on the federal, state, and local levels to find ways to prevent future tragedies. We ask that they consider the combination of factors that makes the United States so prone to these horrific events, instead of focusing purely on one factor or the other.