By MELINDA WILLIAMS
When it comes to school shootings, 12th District Del. Joseph Yost, R-Blacksburg, urged his fellow legislators Friday to turn their focus on improving mental health services instead of using “political theatrics” to promote gun control.
Yost addressed Virginia House of Delegates in response to 74th District Del. Joe Morrissey’s (D-Richmond) bringing of an unloaded assault rifle into the House chamber Thursday to push support for a ban on assault rifles. Morrissey represents Henrico and Charles City counties and the city of Richmond.
Yost represents a portion of Pulaski and Montgomery counties, all of Giles County and the City of Radford.
“When I left the chamber, I was filled with emotions of disbelief, of anger, but deep sadness,” Yost said in response to Morrissey’s actions on Thursday.
Referring to the April 16, 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, Yost added, “For me, Newtown (the school shooting in Connecticut) was but a somber reminder of events that took place and left a lasting reminder on myself and the district that I represent.”
In the weeks following the Newtown shooting, Yost said he has “watched silently” as Virginia and federal legislators have debated gun control.
“But I ask, Mr. Speaker, where is the drive to seek solutions to our mental health system? To me, the conversation on gun control is nothing more than a political sideshow that, as it has done in the past, will get us sidetracked from the real issue at hand.”
He pointed out that a quarter of all American adults are estimated to be living with a “diagnosable mental health condition” that, if treated, would return them to “full and productive lives.”
He added that he has been “blessed” to taken part in helping many along the road to recovery. “One of the most consequential gifts I’ve ever received came from one such individual,” he said, noting that the gift was a certificate of appreciation for having helped save the female’s life.
“Mr. Speaker, mental illness is not something to be ashamed of and it is not something someone asks for,” Yost told his colleagues. “It is important more people have access to treatment and services.”
He also called for more education on mental health diagnoses, symptoms and side effects, calling education “the single most important tool we can provide.”
Yost continued, “We also need to understand that recovery isn’t simply staying on one’s medication; self esteem and social support are essential.”
He said events such as Newtown present “complex challenges” to society that require “complex solutions.” As a member of the governor’s Task Force on School and Campus Safety, he said he is looking forward to providing insight into mental health issues as they pertain to school violence.
The task force was appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell to review school safety policies and procedures, crisis and emergency management plans, threat assessment protocols and identify resource challenges. It also will develop legislative and budget proposals that address critical gaps or needs associated with safety and security in schools and on campuses.
While debating the issue of school violence, Yost asked legislators to “Remember to do something for the one in four suffering from a mental health issue, because that one could be your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, or even you.”
He closed with a quote mental health activist Dorothea Dix made to the Massachusetts legislature in 1843 urging them to address the conditions under which the “insane poor” were being kept in that state: “Gentlemen, I commit to you this sacred cause. Your action upon this subject will affect the present and future condition of hundreds and of thousands.”
Yost, 26, is the youngest member of the Virginia General Assembly.
According to a report in The Washington Examiner, Morrissey pulled out an AK-47 on the floor of the House of Delegates shortly after last Thursday’s session got underway. The delegate reportedly told legislators the firearm wasn’t loaded and kept it pointed at the ceiling.
The Examiner reported the “wild stunt” was aimed at encouraging support for legislation Morrissey filed that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. Morrissey told the publication that he borrowed the gun and that Capitol Police were made aware of his plans in advance.
A House subcommittee killed Morrissey’s bill that same day.