Still Looking for Answers: Forum Examines Way Forward Following Sandy Hook
Kate Rohdenburg, of Enfield, asks how mental illness is defined during a question-and-answer session following a panel discussion last night about how to move forward after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Panel members Elaine Frank, left, and Ben Nordstrom listen as Lebanon High School Principal Nan Parsons talks about how her school handled a student's suicide. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Lebanon — For Jim Sargent, of Norwich, the gun industry is akin to the tobacco industry.
Like guns, cigarettes can kill people. So to improve public health, states passed laws that banned smoking in most public places and added a cigarette tax to try to deter people away from the habit.
Just like the tobacco industry, it’s important to regulate the gun industry, Sargent said.
“Cigarette manufacturers made it fun to smoke in restaurants and acted as if that is a right,” Sargent said. “The NRA is finding new ways to market their guns. My question is how we focus on this industry that’s creating these guns and killing people.”
Sargent spoke during the public comment period following a panel discussion at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center last night that included mental health professions, a principal, a state representative and a pastor. The topic was how to create a safer community in light of the massacre that took place Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Hanover Police Chief Nick Giaccone also sat on the panel and looked on as Sargent criticized a charity gun raffle sponsored by the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police to raise money for a children’s program. He was surprised by a police-sponsored gun raffle, but he was shocked that the first gun that would be raffled off would be a military-style assault weapon.
“If we can think of ways to come together with law enforcement, we should stop that raffle because it sends a really bad message to the community,” said Sargent, who was one of about 130 people in attendance.
Giaccone, who sat at the front of the room, reiterated his opposition to the raffle.
“We’ve got your back, man,” yelled a woman from the audience.
In the back of the room, Enfield Police Chief Richard Crate stood up. New Hampshire is a relatively safe state, Crate said, and when the association was making plans for the raffle, the chiefs never imagined that the tragedies in Newtown, Conn., would happen.
He pointed attention to an even larger problem in the state: mental health care. In the last two weeks, Crate responded to two suicide threats involving a hand gun. After the two people received treatment, Crate had to give the guns back to them even though he knew they were at risk of committing suicide.
“There’s nothing in our laws that prohibits someone from having a gun,” Crate said. “Technically, I had to give that gun back to him because he hasn’t broken any laws.”
Crate also told a story of his first year as Enfield’s police chief. In New Hampshire, a resident can carry an unconcealed firearm while they’re walking down the street.
During that first year, Crate went to Concord with a few other officers to ask them to make a minor change to a handgun law. But when they walked into the state house, they found hundreds of people at the same hearing who were terrified that the state would take away their gun rights. So the bill was dropped.
“That’s what you’re up against,” Crate said. “That’s why I’ve been focusing on what we can do right away.”
He said the simplest thing people can do is listen. Often times people who are planning to commit a crime or hurt themselves tell people.
Earlier during the two hour gathering, most of the panelists focused their remarks on mental health. Lebanon High School Principal Nan Parsons said she’s an educator, not a mental health professional, but she thinks teachers should be given additional mental health training to help care for all aspects of students’ well being.
Dr. Pano Rodis, a psychologist in independent practice, supported Parsons’ comments and made a pitch for integrating schools and mental health services.
“Mental illness is not something for the few or special. It’s all of us,” said Rodis, adding that 46 percent of American adults will experience a mental illness during their lifetimes.
And while it might be difficult to imagine a small, happy child having a mental illness, it happens quite often. Children are quite vulnerable, Rodis said, and they need coaching and support to help manage the burdensome task of being a human being. “If you want to think about safety, invest deeply, directly, personally in your own schools in terms of inviting in more mental health services,” Rodis said.
Suellen Griffin, president of West Central Behavioral Health, said that she envisions a day when mental health services are available when needed. State budget cuts have gradually eroded mental health services in New Hampshire, and she often finds herself out of acute beds to keep patients for short periods of time. Just this past Monday, there were 26 adults and 18 children waiting for acute beds in hospital emergency rooms.
“We must get rid of the stigma,” Griffin said. “If we don’t start treating mental health like we do every other illness, then we won’t get people to access care in a timely way.”
Just as the conversation was coming to an end, Daniel Bergamini, of Grafton, stood up in the back of the room and began reading off a piece of paper.
He spoke softly and slowly and said he appreciated the panelists’ conversations, but he pleaded with them not to take away his guns.
“I don’t think there’s any one of us that wasn’t deeply moved by events at Sandy Hook. But I hope you all truly recognize that self defense and your access to self defense is a human right,” said Bergamini, who attended the gathering with a handful of members from the Enfield Outing Club.
He said there’s a reason that police officers keep assault weapons in their cars: Because it’s an effective tool for defending themselves. He looked at state Rep. Laurie Harding, D-Lebanon, and asked her to think carefully about how proposed laws on gun control would affect law abiding citizens who own guns.
“We all deserve the tools for effective self defense,” Bergamini said. “We cannot outsource self defense to law enforcement.”
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3223.
The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School happened on Dec. 14. An earlier version of this article had the wrong month.