Mental Illness and Guns, or What Are You Really Saying?

8 10 2015

Yet another mass shooting. Yet another round of the exact same discussions, never seeming to move beyond the same canned responses. It’s so predictable that the president’s response has become a frustrated, angry rundown of exactly what is about to happen instead of a reasonable attempt to prevent more bloodshed. Very much to his credit, President Obama raised a question I’d very much like to hear answered. Why does this only happen here? What makes us so different from every other developed nation? Are we just dumber? Crazier? More violent? What’s the deciding factor? If you insist that it can’t be our gun laws, aren’t you implicitly saying that it must be one of the above?

Then there’s that other frequent response from opponents of gun control – it’s not about guns, it’s about mental illness. This one is pretty reasonable on the surface. After all, it’s really easy (and comforting) for us to look at the people who commit gun violence and say “They must be insane.” It makes sense, right? Even if we grant that that’s correct (which is a problem in and of itself – what qualifies as “insane” for these purposes? What about studies that seem to show that mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it? [I have seen such studies mentioned, but I haven’t looked into them myself, so that could be an inaccurate reading]), that just brings up other questions. What does “dealing with mental illness” mean in this context? When Wayne LaPierre calls for a Federal database of the mentally ill, isn’t that a greater violation of liberties than a database of gun owners? Isn’t the fact that such a database would have to be accessible to anyone selling guns an open door to violations of privacy? Again, what constitutes mental illness here? I’ve been on an antidepressant for years – would I be barred from getting a firearm? If a person voluntarily commits themselves, is that evidence of sufficient presence of mind to negate whatever caused them to seek commitment? If a person has ever been institutionalized, or even just underwent therapy, how do they prove that they’re now sane? Can they? How would any of this have stopped Adam Lanza or Chris Harper Mercer from getting their guns? What about Dylann Roof? Was Roof mentally ill, or just full of hate? Is hate a mental illness? It seems like Elliot Rodger and Jared Lee Loughner and James Holmes are poster children for the idea that mentally ill people shouldn’t have access to guns, but where would legislation have stopped them? What about people who are in their right minds when they obtain guns but suffer some kind of acute psychological trauma down the road, like the loss of a job or the dissolution of a marriage? We’ve seen plenty of cases where such people have reacted with gun violence – can legislation somehow intercede there?

In short, what does “dealing with mental health” mean? If we think through it, doesn’t it require massive invasions of things we understand to be private, like medical records? Doesn’t it implicitly create huge new governmental powers? Does Wayne LaPierre really think that’s a good idea? Do you?

EDIT 10/8/2015, 4:56PM – Cleaned up some wording in the first paragraph.
EDIT 10/9/2015, 10:24AM – Corrected spelling of Elliot Rodger’s name.



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