Over the last few years and in particular the last month, a lot of close friends and co-workers have asked me my opinion on gun control.
I am not a gun advocate; I am not a hunter, or an avid collector of firearms. I have never owned a gun or, like a certain ex-boyfriend, slept with a gun tucked snuggly between my mattresses. Currently, I work in an IT department in an office building in Philadelphia. So why would anyone ask me my opinion on gun control?
Because I was in law enforcement for five years, and I have panic and anxiety disorder.
A quick Google search on “gun control and mental illness” as of 2:45 pm EST produced a whopping 4,710,000 articles; when I scanned the first page of results, all of the articles were written within the last month. It seems like every American has an opinion on gun control and mental illness. The spectrum of these opinions range from: increases in mental health care will not stop gun violence so let’s not bring the subject up to "now is absolutely the time to bring the subject of mental illness up."
So what do I say when people ask me my opinion? I say that I believe in gun regulation, but I am quick to add that we should be careful about generalizing groups of Americans in tandem with gun violence. Individuals with mental health issues can be responsible gun owners, too.
At 18, I failed out of the University of New Mexico, not because I wasn’t smart or a dedicated student but because I had developed an overwhelming fear of going to class and being in public. At night I would lie awake, and feel an invisible weight crushing my chest like an elephant and consequently in the morning I failed to get out of bed.
When I did go to class, I often left early (fled is more like it) because I would start to have trouble breathing, or my whole body would start to tremble and lock up.
I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I lost 15 pounds, and I couldn’t think of anything else but the feelings of overwhelming terror I was experiencing and the thought that I was going crazy. I withdrew from friends; I didn’t want them to know that something was wrong with me. My family would try to talk to me and I would feel like I was having an out-of-body experience. I was totally engulfed in waves of panic. I was expelled from school because of my poor attendance and I moved back in with my Mom and Dad.
I finally sought treatment for my disorder after my hands locked up on me while I was driving home from Albuquerque to Santa Fe on I-25. I pulled over just in time to roll out of the car. I was paralyzed in the fetus position on the side of the road, my legs and arms frozen in place. A passerby stopped and called an ambulance. When the EMTs arrived, they checked me out and then had me call my sister to come get me.
I went to a therapist and a psychiatrist; I learned that I had panic and anxiety disorder and I started taking medicine.
A little over a year later, I applied (and was hired) for a job as a security police officer for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. It was March 2002, and new national security requirements as a result of 9/11 brought an increase in armed security officers required for 24 hours protection of the nation’s premier nuclear research facility. By that time, my panic and anxiety were under control.
There were several screening methods that each new recruit had to go through to be hired as a full time security police officer. I had to submit a questionnaire that delved into my medical history, employment history, and credit history from the previous 10 years to the FBI.
I had to pass physical tests, drug tests, computerized psychological tests and finally a lie detector test.
My questionnaire investigator noted that I had a history of mental illness, so I had to submit to interviews with various on-staff psychologists. In the end, I passed all the required screening and I became an armed security police officer.
As an armed security police officer, I carried a side arm and a semi-automatic rifle everyday while I was on shift. I routinely had to qualify on my duty-issued firearms as well; so not only did I always have them with me while at work, there were also numerous times where I fired those weapons in a controlled environment to ensure I met the qualification standards.
I did this job for five years; I was even promoted to an armed supervisor position. Every year I had to resubmit to physical and psychological tests in order to continue to carry my issued firearms. Every year I talked to an on-staff psychologist about my panic and anxiety disorder to ensure that it was still under control and that I was not a threat to national security.
Around the middle of my fifth year on the job, my panic and anxiety “flared up” again. I went on a couple of different medicines and during that time my ability to carry firearms on duty were suspended until the psychologists re-evaluated me.
In the end, I was cleared to carry again, even with my increase in symptoms and new medication.
When I left the security force to move to Philadelphia, I left without incident and with glowing recommendations.
I wanted to write about my experience because I fear that people like me are drowned out in the sea of voices talking about gun control, especially in the regards to the “dangers” of the mentally ill.
People with mental illness can be responsible with a firearm, and like me, they can even be kick-ass first responders that are ready to serve their communities.
What grinds my gears about our current state of gun control is the relatively lax background checks and waiting periods on gun sales, which involve almost no medical evaluation. In order for me to carry a firearm for a government job, my psychological heath was evaluated and then re-evaluated, and then guess what? It was evaluated again and again, year after year.
It is possible that enhanced measures like annual psychological evaluations for gun owners could not only prevent weapons being accessible to unstable individuals, but it can be a way to generate revenue by the states requiring gun owners to pay for their own testing. On the other hand, like drug screening for welfare recipients in Florida, it may cost the states more money to employ full time psychologists for these proposes.
And yes, it is scary to think just how restrictive our government can get in regards to the mentally ill; I am just as wary as the next gal. But I am proof there is already a system in place that can benefit everybody -- even those of us with mental illness.
I was not denied my job as an armed government employee. My mental health was evaluated but ultimately I was deemed cable of being responsible with a firearm. Our government already has this type of gun regulation in place for our police officers, military and other armed first responders so I question how hard it can be to enact some variation of this on the general public.
I can say this though: if denying me the right to be employed in a field that requires the use of a firearm or denying me the right to purchase a firearm because of my mental illness history would guarantee no more incidents like Sandy Hook, then I would gladly hand those rights over.
But like I said, I am not a gun advocate, I just happen to know how to properly use one.