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Therapists to Trade Treatment for Guns : Violence: Putting a new spin on weapon-exchange idea, psychologists in Contra Costa County say they can teach firearms owners to cope peacefully.

October 04, 1994|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — In a novel attempt to slow the epidemic of violence in California, psychologists in Contra Costa County today will begin offering three hours of free therapy to anyone who turns in a gun.

Following on the heels of successful gun exchange programs for cash, food, shoes, toys and concert and sports tickets, this is the first in the nation to trade psychotherapy for firearms. Call it guns for shrinks.

Initiated by psychologist David O'Grady, president of the 110-member Contra Costa Psychological Assn., the program is designed to aid gun owners who may be angry, depressed or suicidal. Grady said all of the association's therapists will participate.

"There are people out there who know they have a problem with anger and sincerely want to learn new skills for dealing with it," O'Grady said. "There are people who own guns because they are afraid and want to find other means of coping with their fears."

O'Grady, who specializes in counseling teen-agers, said he started the program after an 18-year-old patient took a loaded Uzi to school and, in a separate incident, a 13-year-old client went to school with his father's loaded pistol.

The psychologist noted that the death rate from firearms in Contra Costa, a suburban county east of San Francisco, has risen 247% in the past decade. The county's population has grown by 22% in the same period.

Police officials said they welcome the program and will participate by collecting weapons and issuing vouchers, which will be worth $300 in treatment at the office of any participating psychologist.

"There are a lot of people who are looking at this as some kind of joke," said Concord Police Chief Michael Maehler. "That's not my feeling at all. If there is an opportunity to save some lives by having psychological services available, that seems like it's worth doing to me."

Unlike some exchange programs that have been restricted to handguns, the psychologists will accept any type of firearm. But clients will be limited to one voucher per person.

"You couldn't finance an entire course of psychoanalysis with an arsenal," O'Grady said.

In the last three years, exchange programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and other major cities have netted thousands of firearms. Most recently, the Army began its own guns-for-cash program in Haiti as part of its effort to end violence there.

Some critics have suggested that gun exchange programs are akin to emptying the ocean with a thimble. But advocates say the potential for saving even one life makes the programs worthwhile.

The Contra Costa effort differs from other programs by offering to teach gun owners peaceful methods of reducing stress, avoiding conflict and solving personal problems.

"Psychologists have developed effective methods to teach people real skills in dealing with anger nonviolently and these skills really should be made more accessible to the public," O'Grady said. "I have seen angry, destructive teen-agers change their behavior and learn to use words instead of fists and ideas instead of guns."

O'Grady said he hopes the offer will entice hundreds of people to turn in firearms. But he will consider it worthwhile if his group of psychologists gets just a handful of guns off the streets.

"We believe this program can make a difference," he said. "Even if it is only as few as a dozen, we feel we will have made a contribution and we will avoid some heartbreaking tragedy."

Among the program's supporters are Contra Costa residents Stephen Sposato and Marilyn Merrill, who each lost a spouse last year when a gunman stormed a law office in downtown San Francisco and killed nine people. The effort also has the backing of 14 police chiefs in Contra Costa County and a variety of elected officials.

The psychological association cited research showing that 52% of gun deaths are suicides, 42% are homicides and 6% are unintentional. One recent study concluded that a gun in the home is 43 times as likely to kill a family member as to be used in self-defense.

People with a history of mental disorders are legally barred from purchasing weapons. The Contra Costa program attempts to reach gun owners who have never been diagnosed with psychological illness but may suffer from such problems as anxiety, fear or depression.

"We know in law enforcement that there are a lot of people who are in need of psychological services who seem to fall through the cracks," Chief Maehler said.

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