Guns and Mental Illness

As I stated in yesterday’s post, after a mass shooting, there are always people who say that guns aren’t the problem, mental illness is the problem.  This bothers me because it is just a smokescreen used to prevent any real discussion of the real issues.  But it also bothers me for deeper reasons.
Very generally, it bothers me that we distinguish between health, mental health, dentistry and optometry.  I can’t see any good reason why a broken leg and cancer are medical problems, but a toothache, blindness and schizophrenia are different and handled by separate fields and might or might not be covered by insurance.  They are all health problems and should be treated as such.
Mental health in particular is not only treated differently by doctors and insurance companies, it is perceived differently by the general public.  As a result, when people talk about mental illness as a cause of gun violence, they are really talking about a caricature of a person with a mental health issue rather than the reality of people with mental health issues.
Most of us, at some point in our lives, suffer from a mental illness.  This is just like the fact that most of us, at some point in our lives, suffer from a physical illness.  All it really means is that, just like from time to time our bodies don’t function quite like they should, from time to time our minds don’t function quite like they should.  In both cases, it is usually not serious, there is no need to see a doctor.  With a bit of down time, we make a full recovery.  And, in both cases, there are times when it is serious and requires medical intervention.  And, again in both cases, there are in between cases.  These are cases where we would recover without a doctor’s help, but it would take longer with more suffering.  So, hopefully we have access to a doctor in the in between cases so we don’t suffer needlessly.
This really does matter when talking about mass shootings.  Blaming them on mental illness does several things.  First, it helps stigmatize mental illness.  That, in turn, can make people who need help avoid talking to their doctors.  Second, it vilifies something that is quite common, if not ubiquitous.  Mental illness is a huge blanket category.  It’s so big that it isn’t helpful as a descriptive cause of anything.  Third, it makes us both paranoid and amateur psychiatrists.  We’ve probably all known someone who has openly speculated about an acquaintance being a murderer just because that acquaintance is a little odd.  Even in jest, that kind of speculation isn’t good for anyone.
The worst thing, though, about this talk of mental illness in relation to guns is that it tries to create a separate class of people, a class who is not equal under the law.  In the US, we are famously innocent until proven guilty.  This is one of the things that Americans are most proud of.  We talk about it all the time.  It’s part of what we think makes America great.  It pretty obviously follows from this idea that we are innocent before any crime has been committed.  But, people would have us make sure that guns are kept out of the hands of the mentally ill.  Aside from the practical problem that almost all of us are mentally ill at some point, this viewpoint is saying that peaceful, non-threatening, law abiding citizens should be kept from exercising a Constitutional right* because they have an illness.  What’s next?  People with glaucoma can be forced to incriminate themselves?  Paraplegics aren’t allowed to peaceably assemble?  This is scapegoating at its worst and decidedly un-American.
Please keep this in mind the next time someone tries to confuse the debate about guns with a debate over mental health.  There are myriad problems with our healthcare system, including the way we treat mental illness.  I would love to see them fixed.  But, they have nothing to do with guns or mass shootings.

*I really wish that gun ownership was not a Constitutional right, but it is.  Unfortunately, that’s what the Supreme Court has done to us with their idiotic interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.  If we lived in a sane country, one where gun ownership wasn’t a protected right, then we could easily prevent people with certain mental illnesses from owning guns.  It would be just like preventing the blind from driving cars.  If we ever get to that world, I’d be happy to discuss which mental illnesses would disqualify a person for gun ownership (it wouldn’t be many).  Until then, the only thing that can prevent a person from exercising a Constitutional right is being convicted of a fairly serious crime.

6 thoughts on “Guns and Mental Illness

  1. Just curious – which specific mental illnesses would/should disqualify someone from gun ownership?
    Additionally, since almost 7% of the U.S. suffers from dysthymia and many more have experienced some level of depression, do you think that a logical argument against supporters of the Second Amendment could be formed from the ubiquity of mental illness? Or does that go into an even muddier area of morality in this already messy controversy?

    1. Sorry to take so long to reply. I’m not sure I can give a specific mental illness that would disqualify everyone who has it. I think things like pedophilia are obvious candidates, but how would a gun dealer know about it if the person had never acted on it or been caught? PTSD would be another candidate because it is so unpredictable, but the vast majority of sufferers aren’t violent, so it seems wrong to punish them because of the few violent cases. Maybe we could insist on a full psychological work up for every perspective gun purchaser, but that seems like another whole can of worms.
      I do think that a logical argument against the supporters of the current interpretation of the second amendment is possible, although I haven’t worked all the way through it. I would say it is easy with the original intent of the second amendment. Anyone who is not fit to serve in the militia would also not be fit for gun ownership.

        1. I suppose the chief counterargument would be that the law should be universal, so it doesn’t matter if it is inappropriate for certain individuals. I don’t buy that, but I know some people who hold that view.
          I hadn’t seen the John Oliver clip. It was really good.

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