COLUMBIA — South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Thursday that the shooting rampage at a Connecticut elementary school should prompt discussions about mental health treatment, not anti-gun laws.
The mother of two said the deaths of 20 students and six adults in Newtown, Conn., last week were heartbreaking but should not lead to emotion-based decision-making.
She said she hopes “those lives aren’t taken in vain but that this country realizes that we have got to have a conversation about mental health.”
“It is something that if we do it right, we could detect it in schools,” she said. “If you manage it right, you can give people treatment. These people don’t want to be like this. They don’t know how to process what they’re doing.”
In Washington on Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden said the Obama administration will push to tighten gun laws in response to the schoolhouse massacre. Biden, a longtime gun-control advocate, is leading an informal task force on gun violence, which is considering changes such as reinstating a ban on military-style assault weapons and restricting high-capacity ammunition clips.
But Haley said decision-makers need to concentrate on mental health treatment.
“Anybody can get a gun, and when bad people get guns, they’re going to do what they want to do. No amount of gun control can stop someone from getting a gun when they want to get it,” she said. “What we can do is control mental health in a way we treat people who don’t know how to treat themselves.”
The Republican governor’s $6.3 billion budget proposal for 2013-14, released Thursday, includes an additional $11 million for the Department of Mental Health. That’s on top of the $17.7 million additional legislators gave the agency this fiscal year, compared with 2011-12.
Recession-era budget cuts had decimated the agency, as people with mental illness ended up in jail or emergency rooms before returning to the street, Haley said.
“When I came in, it was bare bones,” she said. “This is a time to say, `You know what? We’ve put mental health off long enough.’ It doesn’t take a Connecticut for me to know there are people out there who need treatment.”
According to the governor’s office, the additional money in her proposal continues a statewide tele-psychiatry network for hospital emergency departments, which allows around-the-clock access to consultations – particularly important for rural hospitals. Money from The Duke Endowment helped launch the program in 2007. The increase also funds the agency’s growing Sexually Violent Predator Program, which indefinitely commits sexual offenders deemed violent and likely to recommit after their prison sentences.
Haley declined to address proposed legislation that would allow public school employees in South Carolina with concealed weapons permits to carry guns on school grounds. Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence, said his bill, pre-filed for the session that starts Jan. 8, offers a way for employees to protect children if a school comes under attack.
Haley said she wouldn’t comment on any proposed bills until they at least get a hearing on the committee level.
Later Thursday, Haley asked South Carolina residents to observe a moment of silence at 9:30 a.m. Friday in memory of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy asked his gubernatorial colleagues in a letter Tuesday to join his state in remembering the victims.