Commentator Robert Reich
Commentator Robert Reich - 
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TESS VIGELAND: The awfulness at Virginia Tech continued today as authorities revealed the gunman had a history of violent and bizarre behavior.Monday's mass shootings have prompted many politicians, citizens and commentators to discuss anew the debate over gun control in this country.Robert Reich is one of them.

ROBERT REICH: In the United States, if you're seriously depressed, you can buy anti-depressive drugs — but only if you have a prescription from a doctor.

Anti-depressants are enormously beneficial to millions of people, but they're also potentially dangerous if used improperly. So, you have to see a doctor and get an assessment before you can go to a drug store and purchase one.

But in the United States, in places like Virginia, a seriously depressed or deranged person can walk into a store and buy a semi-automatic handgun and a box of ammunition.

All you need is two forms of identification. You don't need permission from a doctor or counselor or anyone in the business of screening people to make sure they're fit to have a gun.

We can debate the relative benefits and dangers of anti-depressants and semi-automatic handguns, but if 30,000 Americans were killed each year by anti-depressants — as they are by handguns — it seems likely that anti-depressants would be even more strictly regulated.

So why aren't handguns?

Well, the politics. Years ago, it was illegal to advertise prescription drugs. Now, due in part to Big Pharma's clout, our airwaves and magazines are filled with images of happy people — who weren't, until their physician prescribed a pill.

But Big Pharma still hasn't been able to cut out the physician altogether, because the process for screening people before they can buy an anti-depressant is just too important.

By contrast, the National Rifle Association, with more organization and money than even Big Pharma, has eliminated almost all screening measures for buying guns. In recent years, the NRA has even shielded gun dealers from liability. Not even Big Pharma and the powerful American Medical Association have managed to shield doctors from liability.

Look abroad and you have another useful point of contrast. In the United States, many people who are seriously depressed can't afford to see a doctor, let alone get a prescription. Unlike every other advanced nation, we do not provide universal health care, or ready access to mental health services.

But unlike every other advanced nation, we do allow just about anyone to buy a handgun.

VIGELAND: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He was labor secretary under President Clinton.