Restrict guns, not the mentally ill

It’s as predictable as the sun coming up in the east.  Mass shooting.  Tragic loss of life.  Thoughts and prayers.  Our hearts go out.  Calls for stricter gun control.  Politicians (of both major parties) telling us “now is not the time to politicize people’s grief.”  And if the shooter wasn’t Muslim, blame “mental illness.”  Round ’n round we go… till next time, and there almost certainly will be a next time.

Now, President Trump thinks he has a solution.  Last Thursday, he said:

We're looking at the whole gun situation. These people are mentally ill, and nobody talks about that. I think we have to start building institutions again, because you know, if you look at the '60s and the '70s, so many of these institutions were closed, and the people were just allowed to go onto the streets.

First, the deinstitutionalization to which Trump is referring — a process of systematic closing of state mental facilities begun in the 1960’s — was an attempt to do away with the inhumane asylums of the past.  However well intentioned, this created many new problems, mainly due to the lack of alternative support resources.  Gaps in our mental health safety net have led to both an epidemic of homelessness and the use of prisons to incarcerate people with mental illness, especially those of color.

But just locking people back up in asylums instead of prisons isn’t the answer.  The only real difference is the guards wear white smocks instead of uniforms.  What’s more, the idea that mental illness is a principal cause of gun violence has been thoroughly debunked as has the idea that institutionalization would lessen the epidemic of mass shootings in the US.  Blaming deinstitutionalization is as ridiculous as blaming violent video games; one only has to look at the statistics:  just as other countries with access to the same video games do not have a corresponding high number of mass shootings, so to has a move away from institutionalization the world over not produced an uptick in gun violence, except in the US (cf:  Mass Shootings and Psychiatric Deinstitutionalization, Here and Abroad.  Perera and Sisti, Univ. of Pennsylvania, 2019).

But the more pertinent questions are:  (1) what constitutes mental illness?, and (2) who decides?  There are more than 200 diagnoses listed in the most recent version of Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5), which is released by the American Psychiatric Association.  This includes conditions such as fear of spiders (Arachnophobia), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), pathological gambling, and many different forms of depression.

mental illness

So, when one suggests that gun access should be restricted for people with mental illness, do they mean all of these conditions?  Or just the really bad ones?  For example, should we deny guns to veterans with PTSD, or members of Gamblers Anonymous?  And who will decide whether a patient with mental illness should not have access to guns — a psychiatrist/psychologist, any psychiatrist/psychologist that comes-up on a Google search for ’shrink,’ a committee of psychiatrists/psychologists (selected by whom?), or a judge?  How about those who do not seek mental health evaluation and treatment?  I guess you could get them at the point of sale (of a gun), but we can’t even pass meaningful background checks at point of sale!  Will examinations be compulsory?  Mental illness can start at any point in life, so will gun owners need periodic assessments (like a vision exam for renewing your driver’s license)?

In the wake of mass shootings in California, Texas, and Ohio, we want action.  Just like after Parkland, or Orlando, or Aurora, or Sandy Hook.  We cannot arm our way out of this, nor will scapegoating those with mental illnesses and locking them up solve the problem, even if we use nice-sounding words like “institutions.”  Our own government, at the Department of Health and Human Services’ mentalhealth.gov, even acknowledges that mentally ill people are much more likely to experience violence than to perpetrate it, even as we stigmatize them as potential mass shooters.

There is a solution:  restrict guns, not the mentally ill.

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