Reflections on Newtown: My Stepbrother and Gun Violence

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In the wake of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I’ve been thinking more and more about my stepbrother, who has been homeless for more than twenty years and now lives under a bridge in a large Western city.

My stepbrother’s diagnosis seems to vary with the doctor and the latest edition of the DSM: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, Asperger’s. What I know is that anti-psychotic drugs don’t work well with him, and that he cannot stay indoors.

At times his rage against the world is so huge and pure it frightens me. Under the wrong circumstances, he is fully capable of taking a large chunk of wood and hitting you across the face with it, and he has a long arrest record for assault. But he has never been involved in gun violence--we are not a gun family, and I don't think that he would ever take part in an event as devastating as what happened in Newtown. The question is, “How can you know ahead of time?”

The NRA believes it knows the answer, and is calling for a national list of the mentally ill. I like the idea about as much as I like school principals with pistols. We are a country with a long, inglorious history of list-making. Lists of Communists, labor union organizers, social activists, war dissenters, homosexuals, Muslims and terrorists, and the so-called criminally inclined.

Ironically, the shooter of 26 children and adults in Newtown most likely would not have made the NRA’s list, while my stepbrother would. But Adam Lanza did not need to buy his weapons legally, he found them easily available in his home.

My stepbrother himself hates guns and told me recently he wouldn’t carry one, even though, living as he does, he is much more vulnerable to assault than the average citizen.

If any lesson can be taken from the Newtown catastrophe, besides the need for gun control, I hope it will be an increased national concern about how we treat, diagnose and understand the mentally ill.

As for my stepbrother, I believe that he and others would come in from the cold if a suitable environment could be fashioned for them. But for a country desperately seeking relief from gun violence, making lists of the mentally ill is not the answer.

Peter von Ziegesar is a Brooklyn-based writer and filmmaker. His memoir of dealing with a schizophrenic family member, "The Looking Glass Brother," is due out in June, 2013.

He is one of five writers commissioned by WNYC to write essays on the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.